Monday, March 15, 2010

Penasco Blanco Trail to Chaco Wash

The Chaco Wash Trail is the segment of the Penasco Blanco Trail past the extensive petroglyph panels and before the Chaco Wash when it is flowing and uncrossable. The Penasco Blanco Trail is one of the four back country trails at Chaco Canyon National Monument in northwest New Mexico.

The hike past the Kin Kletso and Casa Chiquita Great House ruins sites and the six or more petroglyph panels is 1.7 miles one way. It is about 1.0 miles more to the Chaco Wash crossing. In mid March after a heavy snow season, the narrow wash was flowing with dark silt laden water. I probed the swirling stream with a Tamarisk stick and found the bottom was very soft and the banks very slippery.

Besides getting wet at least up to your waist, there would be a danger of getting your feet stuck and falling down in a quicksand like mire. The Chaco Wash flows a short distance past the trail crossing to meet with Escavada Wash to form the Chaco River.

Among the questions about Chaco Canyon is why this seemingly dry canyon was chosen for such extensive building, and where was water supply. There is some evidence of a masonry dam near the confluence of the two washes and perhaps there were some water management efforts.

At Mesa Verde, near along the Far View Trail, there is a constructed reservoir and channel structures, signs of water management. Check dams across small washes are also evidence that water was managed in the region.

One of the highlights of the distant end of the Penasco Blanco Trail is the Supernova Pictograph site. Even if the Chaco Wash is uncrossable, it looks like the site can be spotted from across the wash. Viewing the sandstone cliffs from high on the banks, the side trail can be sighted and it appears to end at a shallow alcove several hundred yards to the right.

On the stone wall face below the overhang some faint petroglyphs can be seen with binoculars. The alcove overhand is very narrow, and the Supernova is on the ceiling, represented as a crescent moon, a star, and a handprint.

This seemed like the right area but I couldn’t make out the images. In 1054 AD astronomers around the world recorded a supernova or an exploding star that we now call the Crab Nebula. The geography of rock art sites is often as interesting as the images themselves. This site is along a wash with a great house on the mesa top above, but otherwise is isolated.

I didn’t make it to the mesa top to see the Penasco Blanco site but there are some distant glimpses of it from the trail leading to Chaco Wash. Besides overlooking the confluence of the two washes, it sits along an 8 mile line of sight with the Pueblo Bonito and Una Vida sites. I spent 3:30 hours on the 6 miles I hiked on a 55 F degree day in mid March. I carried 2 liters of water and drank only one.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Chaco Canyon Overlook Trail

The Canyon Overlook Trail is a 1.5 mile round trip to a lookout point overlooking the east end of Chaco Canyon National Monument in northwest New Mexico. The trail head is near the entrance to the Gallo Campground and isn't mentioned on the park map.

There is a sign at the trail head near the camp host and some parking in the tents only part of the campground.

The trail climbs immediately to the mesa top and follows along the rocky edge. The main point of interest in the east end of Chaco Canyon is Fajada Butte. Fajada means “banded” in Spanish. The Cliff House Sandstone forms the upper layers and the softer Menefee formation the lower. A narrow layer of lignite coal is between the two.

These same layers can also be viewed along the main park road at Mesa Verde National Park. Fajada Butte is a sacred place for Pueblo, Hopi, and Navajo People today. On top of Fajada Butte is a Sun Dagger site. Three boulders allow beams of light to fall on a spiral petroglyph that seems to mark the suns position on the summer and winter solstice and the equinoxes.

This short trail took me 0:45 minutes. The Gallo Campground also has two small alcove ruins to view and several petroglyph panels. Most visitors skip these sites that are along the road on the way to the Visitor Center and the huge ruins structures in the main part of the park.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Puerco Ruin Trail at Petrified Forest

The Puerco Ruin Trail is a 0.3 mile loop trail to a large ruins site and extensive petroglyph panel. This site is in the middle of Petrified Forest National Park close to the banks of the Puerco River in northern Arizona.

The site is partially excavated and has about 100 rooms built around a large plaza. This site is thought to have been occupied twice, from 1100 to 1200 and again 1250 to 1380 AD. The Puerco Pueblo sits on the cultural border of the Ancestral Pueblo to the north and the Mogollon to the south. The artifacts found here indicate that both groups made contact here.

The terrain here is a short grass prairie and the residents farmed the slopes, growing cotton, corn, squash and beans. This area lacks the Pinon Pines, Junipers, and Gambel Oaks that provided wood and nuts for the sites further north. It is a slightly warmer but dryer climate here.

In early March, the well known sites at Mesa Verde are still surrounded by two of more feet of snow while here it is snow free. The interpretive signs here say the walls are 10 inches sthick and suggest that strong southwest winds were a factor in how the sight was planned.

One of the excavated areas is marked as a kiva. This one is rectangular and doesn’t show many of the design features that the circular Mesa Verde style usually include. Mesa Verde style kivas usually show the ventilation shaft, fire pit and the bench like structure around the edge.

This site is described as being constructed later, perhaps even after the Mesa Verde sites had been abandoned. The Petrified Forest area has enough archaeology interest that it could be a National Park even without the petrified wood.

There is a small cliff face at the far end of the loop where several petroglyph panels are visible. The angle of view is a little awkward and binoculars would be handy to see the many images. The most eye catching image shows a curve billed shore bird holding what looks like a frog.

Nearby the Puerco Ruin Trail is the Newspaper Rock petroglyph overlook. There isn’t any hiking at Newspaper Rock, but there are 650 images arrayed on several rock surfaces. This is also a site where binoculars will be handy. The Newspaper Rock site doesn’t appear to be associated with a ruins site and the location doesn’t appear to be at a canyon junction or any obviously significant location.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Crystal Forest Trail at Petrified Forest

The Crystal Forest Trail is a 0.75 mile paved loop trail in Petrified Forest National Park in northern Arizona.

This area of the park was named for the many brilliantly colored pieces of petrified wood, though most have been removed by early souvenir hunters.

One of the interpretive signs along the trail explains the formation of petrified wood. Approximately 225 million years ago this area was a flood plain littered with fallen trees. Buried under layers of silt, the silica laden waters petrified the wood by encasing the organic material with minerals.

Iron oxides provide red, yellow, and orange colors, while manganese oxides produce blues, purples and blacks. Erosion in recent centuries is exposing these remnants of ancient forests. An interesting point is made that the Mt. Saint Helens volcanic explosion could be an event that starts the process for future petrified wood.
I walked the Crystal Forest Trail on a mild 55 F degree day in early March. This short trail is similar to the nearby Long Logs Trail but has fewer examples of long tree trunks. Another nearby overlook site is the Jasper Forest. From the rim area, tons of petrified wood is visible in the valley below.

The Jasper Forest was heavily mined of petrified wood following the 1882 completion of the Sante Fe railway line. The outrage at the uncontrolled devastation led to the 1906 establishment of the Petrified Forest National Monument.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Blue Mesa Trail at Petrified Forest

The Blue Mesa Trail is a 1 mile paved interpretive loop into a Painted Desert Badlands environment at Petrified Forest National Park in north Arizona.

The badlands are areas of mudstones and siltstones that are easily eroded and sculpted by wind and water. The first part of the trail descends steeply through the sandstone caprock layer that is described as a conglomerate, containing gravels that were deposited by a moving stream.

Small cracks form in the steep slopes that catch water and eventually form pipes that lead below the surface of the ground. The water caught flows out at the base of the hills. At the base of the eroded hills, pieces of petrified wood start to appear. Bentonite clay in the formation swells with water then shrinks and cracks as it dries, creating an elephant skin looking surface.

The badlands areas are rich with fossils and clues to the past. Teeth and bones of long extinct reptiles have been found. The fossils aren’t very apparent from the trail but there are many pieces of petrified wood visible. In some spots the hard petrified wood sits on a pedestal.

The Blue Mesa Trail takes about 0:45 minutes to walk. The climb back up to the parking area at the end of the hike will get your heart pumping. I walked on a pleasant 55 F early March day. This area can get very hot in the summers. The Tawa Point and Rim Trail also gives good views of the Painted Desert and Badlands areas.