Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Pueblo Alto Loop Trail at Chaco Canyon

The Pueblo Alto Loop Trail is a 5.1 mile round trip that visits the north canyon rim in Chaco Canyon National Monument in northwest New Mexico.

In addition to providing overhead views of several of the Great House ruins structures on the canyon floor, it visits the Pueblo Alto Ruins Complex and several other Chaco culture features.

The Trailhead is in the parking lot of the Pueblo del Arroyo ruins site on the west end of the paved loop road. The first 0.3 miles runs concurrent with the Penasco Blanco Trail to the Kin Kletso Ruins site.

The Pueblo Alto Trail splits off and climbs the to the canyon rim through a narrow split in the Cliff House sandstone and continues to the Pueblo Bonito Overlook point after a total of 1.0 miles. Here, the loop to the Pueblo Alto Complex starts. I followed the loop clockwise arriving after another 0.6 mile at the New Alto site.
New Alto is a two story structure that has 58 rooms arranged with good symmetry around an interior circular kiva. The elevation up above the Chaco Canyon rim is 6440 feet and there are broad views in all directions.

The ruins site on the south side of Chaco Canyon, Tsin Kletzin, is visible as are the La Plata Mountains to the north in southwest Colorado. It is possible that outlying sites of the Chaco civilization, as far away as Mesa Verde could receive signals from this center of Chaco culture.

A short distance from New Alto is the main Pueblo Alto site. This is a bigger site but the walls don’t stand up as high as most of the other Chaco Canyon structures. The first phase of construction here is thought to have been at the same time as the canyon floor work at the huge Chetro Ketl, during 1020 and 1060 AD. In later phases, east and west wings were added to the central northern section.

The plan and stone work are similar to the other Chaco Great Houses, but it stood only one story high and the ceilings were higher than average. Not many of the rooms here showed signs of permanent habitation. This suggests that the site may have been used mainly for seasonal ceremonies. Perhaps it was like a hotel for visitors, rather than permanent residents.

A highlight 1.0 miles further along the loop is the Jackson Staircase. The set of stairs to the left look like they could have been usable, but the short set to the right lead right over the cliff. Some other features around the loop are segments of the extensive Chaco road system and the remains of a ramp used to climb from the canyon floor to the rim.

The Chacoans had the engineering challenge of bringing materials, such as large logs, to this otherwise desert location. There are sources of Ponderosa Pine logs in the Chuska Mountains to the west and to the north near Chimney Rock, but transporting them here to use for roofing and floor supports would have been very difficult.

The roads are thought to have been wide and mostly straight and perhaps the logs could have been rolled, but what a chore that would have been.

The loop continues back toward the Chaco Canyon Rim where Chetro Ketl comes into view. The trail passes above Chetro Ketl for better views and continues on to complete the loop at the Pueblo Bonito Overlook.

This is probably the best of the four Chaco Canyon back country trails, with many spectacular views and numerous cultural features pointed out. I spent 3:00 hours on this hike on a mid 50s F degree day in early April.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Chaco Canyon Great House Overlook Trail

The Great House Overlook Trail is a 3.0 mile round trip segment of the Pueblo Alto Trail in Chaco Canyon National Monument in the remote canyon country in northwest New Mexico. This route allows an overhead view of several of the large ruins structures that rest on the canyon floor.
  The Trail Head for the Pueblo Alto trail and the Penasco Blanco Trail are both in the parking lot for the Pueblo del Arroyo site at the west end of the paved loop road. The two trails run together to the Kin Kletso ruins site.

The Pueblo Alto trail then climbs up the sandstone cliffs through an unlikely narrow crevice, and proceeds to the loop portion of the trail. At the loop, there is a view point of the spectacular Pueblo Bonito site, the largest of the Great Houses in Chaco Canyon.

It is 0.3 miles to arrive at the Kin Kletso site. The climb up offers a good view of this more rectangular structure. This site was built later than Pueblo Bonito, beginning around 1100 AD.

Along the cliff top trail to the Pueblo Bonito overlook, several features of Chaco life are pointed out. These include Pecked Basins, Terraces, and Stone Circles. The Stone Circle is perched on the canyon rim and looks like a good spot to gaze at the evening sky and get away from the probably busy activity on the canyon floor.

As the trail works back east, the Pueblo del Arroyo comes into view. This is the area where you would have parked and started the hike. The Pueblo del Arroyo is different from the other large structures in that it is positioned near Chaco Wash rather than against the canyon wall.

Hiking counter clock wise around the loop portion of the Pueblo Alto Trail for about another 0.5 miles, there is an overhead view of the large Chetro Ketl site, the neighbor of Pueblo Bonito. The large size of the Great Kiva in the central plaza stood out for me.

The elevated tower kiva also really stands out more from the cliff view than it does on ground level, especially the thickness of the walls. I noticed the figure 8 kiva more when at ground level. From above, the figure 8 seems trivial.

My theory on the kivas is that their most important use was as an earth contact shelter from the cold winters in this region. Most visitors arrive during the mild portions of the year and don’t think about dealing with cold.
Ceremonial use is emphasized in the interpretive information, but the kivas are the insulated rooms that have big fire places and ventilation features to allow smoke to escape and fresh air in.
Near the trail head area for these two back country trails is a short walk to the Richard Wetherill Cemetery. Wetherill is a major figure in the discovery of the sites at Mesa Verde National Park in southwest Colorado and was something of a surprise to find that he also was active here in Chaco Canyon.

The legend is that while rounding up stray cattle in 1888, he discovered the Cliff Palace site at Mesa Verde. Wetherill is controversial as his emphasis may have been to recover and sell artifacts from these ancient sites. The interpretive information here indicates that he came to Chaco in 1896.

He assisted project leader George Pepper with the first excavations of Pueblo Bonito for the Natural History Museum in New York. They recorded roads, stairways, dams, ditches and other structures and Wetherill did good work here. Protection for Mesa Verde came with the establishment of the National Park in 1906 and the 1906 Antiquities Act.

He established a ranching and trading operation in Chaco Canyon, but was killed on June 22, 1910 following a local dispute. A short distance past the Wetherill Cemetery there is a small petroglyph panel, adding more interest to this short side trip.

528614_Cool Camo Russell Outdoors

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Wijiji Trail in Chaco Canyon

The Wijiji Trail is a 3.0 mile round trip to a Great House ruins structure in Chaco Canyon National Monument in northwest New Mexico, inside the boundaries of the Navajo Nation.

The trail head for the Wijiji Trail is about 1.25 miles east of the Visitor Center. It is passed as you are entering the park before reaching the Visitor Center and is probably overlooked with all of the other attractions in Chaco Canyon that lie beyond the Visitor Center . The trail is a flat dirt road that is also an easy bike trail.
The trail passes along the steep canyon wall on the north side of Chaco Canyon. In addition to the Ancestral Pueblo structures from the period of 850 to 1150 AD, this area has many signs of use by Navajos who moved into the area about 500 years ago.

The Cliff House sandstone layer here is the same layer that supports the cliff dweller sites of Mesa Verde and has many similar alcove formations. The terrain here is much dryer than Mesa Verde, with sage brush, grease wood and grasses and virtually no trees growing.

The Wijiji site is the most symmetrical of the structures in Chaco Canyon. There are 225 uniformly sized rooms arranged in compact formation around two circular kivas, This site is a little different than some of the other Great Houses as there is not a Great Kiva in the central plaza.

The interpretive information indicates that this site didn’t use a rock foundation and as the sand and clay that was used settled, structural problems with the walls developed. The Chaco builders also often didn’t tie corner together well and the separation that occurred led to collapse.

Besides the missing Great Kiva, Wijiji also lacks a midden, or waste pile, and doesn’t have an arc of rooms enclosing the plaza. It appears to have been built in one burst of activity between 1110 and 1115, and some think that it may be incomplete.

About 600 feet further past the Great House site there is a pictograph panel that features several handprints and some animal figures. The Chaco Canyon area is very rich is rock art and it is always fun to find these. It took me about 1:30 hours to walk this trail on a 55 F degree blue sky day in early April.

528614_Cool Camo Russell Outdoors