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.

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