Thursday, February 23, 2017

South Mesa

Great Kiva of Casa Rinconada
4 miles loop, 500 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate, a short segment of rock scrambling necessary
Access: Poor dirt road to Chaco Culture NHP; Chaco Culture NHP entrance fee required, self-issue backcountry permit required

South Mesa is perhaps the least frequented of all the backcountry trails in New Mexico's Chaco Culture National Historical Park, which preserves the landscape at the heart of the Ancestral Pueblo civilization in the American Southwest. As Chaco Canyon is already a park that's a bit off the beaten path, South Mesa sees very few hikers. This hike has fewer archaeologically important sites than the nearby hikes to Penasco Blanco, Pueblo Alto, and Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl, but it has the best views of the San Juan Basin of any hike in the park and offers close up looks at an unexcavated Chaco great house and the largest kiva in Chaco Canyon. Besides visiting the great house of Tsin Kletsin and the villages and great kiva of Casa Rinconada, the hike also passes through the more traditional Southwestern scenery in the box canyons along the trail.

There's a short stretch of scrambling on this hike in which you must climb through a crevice between two rocks. Most hikers in reasonable shape and have some rock scrambling experience will find this segment of the hike to be doable.

If you plan to hike this trail, I advise that you pick up the Backcountry Trail Guide at the Chaco Culture NHP visitor center, which gives detailed descriptions of the sites of archaeological interest along this hike as well as on the Pueblo Alto, Penasco Blanco, and Wijiji Trails; it's well worth its $2 price.

I hiked to South Mesa during the second day of my two day stay at Chaco Canyon. The park is a three hour drive from Albuquerque; the easiest way to reach it is to take US 550 northwest from Bernalillo, turning left at Road 7900 just past the Red Mesa gas stop a few miles before reaching Nageezi. Signs directed me to the park from US 550, taking me first down a nice paved road (Road 7900) and then down a decent gravel road (Road 7950) that then turned into a bumpy, washboarded dirt road that required driving through a wash. During dry weather, the road is probably doable for most vehicles, though it is not an easy drive; if water in the wash is high, the park may be inaccessible. The road became paved again at the park entrance; I turned right for the Park Loop Road just past the visitor center and followed the one-way road past the turnoffs for Pueblo Bonito and Penasco Blanco to the parking lot for Casa Rinconada. I parked here, filled out a self-issue backcountry permit, and started my hike.

Two trails branch out from the parking lot, different branches of a short loop hike through Casa Rinconada. I started by taking the trail to the left, which led to a number of former villages inhabited by the Ancestral Pueblo people. Unlike the other famous archaeological sites in Chaco Canyon, Casa Rinconada is not a great house: this site consists of a few villages and a massive great kiva. The great kiva lies along the return trip; on my way out, I checked out the villages. One of the most easily apparent features of these villages was that their walls were constructed to the same degree of sturdiness as the walls of the great houses: comparatively, these walls were quite thin. While contemporary scholarship on Chaco Canyon holds that the great houses of the canyon had relatively small populations and did not serve as cities, the canyon population of the Ancestral Pueblo is still estimated to have been between three and ten thousand, mostly in villages such as the ones at Casa Rinconada.

One of the villages at Casa Rinconada
Casa Rinconada
Each of the three villages contained a number of rectangular rooms; each also contained kivas. At one of the sites, it appeared that perhaps three layers of kivas had been built atop each other over time.

The third village lay at the foot of the south wall of the canyon. At this village, the South Mesa Trail branched off from the Casa Rinconada Trail; I left the wide path through Casa Rinconada and followed the South Mesa Trail as it immediately began an uphill climb. After making an initial switchback, the trail arrived at the foot of a rock wall; the trail followed a narrow crevice between two rocks to surmount this obstacle. This section required some rock scrambling; the space in the crevice is quite small so I'm not sure that everyone can make it through easily.

Scramble through rock crevice
After climbing through the crevice, the trail made another switchbacks and came to the top of a layer of sandstone. From this vantage point, I could see much of Chaco Canyon and many of the great houses in the canyon. The villages and the great kiva of Casa Rinconada were visible close by and I could see the sprawling complexes at Pueblo Bonito, Chetro Ketl, and Pueblo del Arroyo on the north side of the canyon. The walls of New Alto were visible atop the north rim of the canyon and even Kin Kletso and Casa Chiquita were faintly distinguishable from the canyon's sandstone walls.

Casa Rinconada great kiva, Pueblo Bonito, and New Alto from South Mesa
From here on, the remainder of the ascent was fairly gentle. The trail headed south, gradually climbing in elevation through the saltbrush desert covering the mesa. Views of the canyon to the north constantly improved, with views that at one point stretched as far as Penasco Blanco on West Mesa, meaning that every Chaco great house save Hungo Pavi, Una Vida, and Wijiji were in the viewshed of this hike. As I climbed higher up the mesa, I entered a landscape dotted with junipers, one of the few places in the park with any trees. At one point, I had a particularly nice view down a small box canyon cut into South Mesa down into the main trunk of Chaco Canyon.

Box canyon on the north side of South Mesa
Soon, the trail entered a flat desert landscape of saltbrush, cacti, and Mormon tea. Gazing out in all directions, I could see the Chuskas, Jemez, and snowy La Plata Mountains on three horizons. Tsin Kletsin came into view, resting atop what seemed to be the highest point on the mesa.

Tsin Kletsin
A mile and a half from the trailhead, I came to Tsin Kletsin. Tsin Kletsin is one of the smaller great houses, with only 70 rooms and three kivas. Like many of the other great houses, Tsin Kletsin is built on an elevated mound. The site remains largely buried by the desert, with just a few McElmo style walls of large sandstone brick masonry marking its presence on South Mesa.

Tsin Kletsin
The view of the Sacred Landscape of the Ancestral Puebloans from Tsin Kletsin is as impressive, if not more so, than the great house itself. Much of the San Juan Basin is visible from here: the La Plata Mountains, part of Colorado's San Juan Mountains, make up the snowy ramparts of the northern horizon. These mountains lie even further north than Mesa Verde and likely formed the northern reaches of Chaco influence. The great house of New Alto was visible in the same direction as the La Plata Mountains. To the west were the Chuska and Carrizo Mountains, which lay on Navajo land in the state of Arizona; these mountains would have separated Chaco's influence from that of the Ancestral Pueblo culture at Canyon de Chelly. To the northwest, the very tip of the spire of Shiprock poked above the horizon: Shiprock is a massive monadnock, a volcanic remnant that soars out of the flat desert of the Four Corners. The Continental Divide, and thus the eastern bound of the San Juan Basin, lay between Chaco and the Jemez Mountains, which were visible on the eastern skyline.

La Plata Mountains in the distance, New Alto faintly visible in the foreground
The Ancestral Puebloans likely took advantage of the extraordinary viewshed from Tsin Kletsin, using the great house as a signaling post. Archaeologists have suggested that a multistory kiva at Tsin Kletsin may have been used for sending fire or smoke signals to great houses many miles away; it's possible that messages could have been relayed through this method from great house to great house, allowing nearly instanteous communication between Chaco and Ancestral Puebloan settlements as far away as Chimney Rock in Colorado. Tsin Kletsin's location was chosen in part to fall on a perfect meridian with Pueblo Bonito and Pueblo Alto, part of the obsession with north-south alignments in the Ancestral Pueblo culture.

Leaving Tsin Kletsin, I chose to follow the long route, 2.5 mile route back to make a loop, heading left at the trail intersection with the South Mesa Trail. The trail began to descend gradually through the saltbrush top of the mesa and came to some beautiful views of the vast expanse of the San Juan Basin to the south as the angle of descent on the mesa steepened. I also enjoyed views of the colorful sandstone cliffs along the south side of West Mesa.

San Juan Basin
Soon, the trail came to the top of a wide box canyon. Here, the trail followed a Navajo sheepherder path as it descended from the top of the mesa to the gap separating the main body of South Mesa from the rocky fin that bound the box canyon to the west. The trail was not always well defined here, following cairns rather than an established path. Views of the San Juan Basin and both South and West Mesa were excellent throughout this segment of trail.

Box canyon on the west side of South Mesa
From the gap, the trail made a sharp switchback and dropped down to the canyon floor, exiting the box canyon from its mouth to the north. The box canyon portion of the hike was particularly scenic: sandstone cliffs hemmed in the canyon, with pretty alcoves formed by overhanging sandstone on the sides of South Mesa.

Once out of the box canyon, the single track trail from Tsin Kletsin joined a wide dirt road leading through South Gap back into Chaco Canyon. This dirt road parallels the roads that the Ancestral Puebloans built through South Gap from Pueblo Bonito. Current archaeological interpretations of Chaco Canyon's role as a regional ceremonial center might have meant that pilgrims to Chaco Canyon would have walked this same route through South Gap en route to the grandest great houses at Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl.

South Gap
As I passed through South Gap, I saw Pueblo del Arroyo in the canyon itself. The dirt road made a wide right turn around the northwest edge of South Mesa after I passed through South Gap. After making the turn, Pueblo Bonito came into sight across the Chaco Wash and the great kiva of Casa Rinconada, built on an elevated mound, rose directly in front of the trail, still a few hundred yards away. I continued on this wide dirt trail until it reached the base of the Casa Rinconada kiva and rejoined the Casa Rinconada Trail. I turned left at this junction and followed the Casa Rinconada Trail up to the edge of the kiva.

The great kiva of Casa Rinconada is the largest kiva in Chaco Canyon at about 20 meters in diameter. It's unique in that it stands alone from any great house: the canyon's other great kivas are part of larger complexes at Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl. Kivas, which are still used as ceremonial structures today by the modern Pueblo peoples, likely filled a ceremonial role for the Ancestral Puebloans as well. This kiva could have fit as many as 400 people, all under a massive roof made of wood and earth. Huge T-shaped doors bookend the kiva, with stairs leading up from the subterranean kiva's ground floor up to the elevation of the mound outside. The kiva's excellent condition is due more to reconstruction efforts than to some miracle of preservation.

Great kiva of Casa Rinconada
After circling this huge structure and appreciating the engineering knowledge and manpower necessary to construct it, I finished the last section of the Casa Rinconada Trail to return to the parking lot.

No comments:

Post a Comment