Chaco is not only difficult to get to, it’s also takes some effort to see some of it’s most important sites. The nine-mile Chaco Canyon Loop Road (which is also paved) provides easy access to the superstar great house Pueblo Bonito, plus Chetro Ketl, Pueblo del Arroyo, Casa Rinconada, and Hungo Pavi. Other sites include a bit of hiking.
I wanted to see the Pueblo Alto Complex, which sits atop the mesa adjoining Pueblo Bonito. This 3.2-mile jaunt starts out with a steep ascent up a crack in the canyon behind Pueblo Bonito, and then continues around the canyon rim and up to Pueblo Alto and it’s little brother New Alto. There is a longer version of this hike (5.1 miles) that provides a view, but not use, of an ancient stairway, but I elected to skip that portion to I could meet with park officials and do a bit more hiking in the afternoon.
It gets pretty chilly on late-March mornings in northern New Mexico. I wore my black leather blazer to keep me warm, and carried a bottle of water in my little knapsack. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any hiking shoes, only a pair of ultralight sneakers, that provided insufficient support during this hike. After my rapid ascent to the top of the mesa I was provided with a spectacular view of Chaco Canyon and Pueblo Bonito. Despite temperatures a few degrees above freezing, I was burning up in the torrid sun.
The marvelous view of Pueblo Bonito also gave me a sense of how difficult it is to monitor visitors there…let alone at any of Chaco’s other sites, some of which, I discovered are pretty remote. I got to play Don Whyte for a minute and observe a single visitor wandering through Pueblo Bonito. Unlike Paquime, the pathways are not particularly well marked and no elevated station staffed with minders. There was little to prevent this visitor from removing a souvenir, or vandalizing the site. Pottery shards, arrowheads, and other artifacts frequently appear after rain storms or merely from the pitter patter of feet on pathways. They disappear.
So, I followed the pathway, past the fossilized burrows of Cretaceous shrimp, past the pecked basins along the cliff sides, past the stone circles, past the ancient steps, and up to the Pueblo Alto Complex. According to the trail guide, portions of the plaza and 14 rooms were excavated between 1976 and 1979. Most of the site remains undisturbed.
A handful of steps beyond Pueblo Alto, one gets an extraordinary view that helps to put the Chaco sites into context. Ahead are the San Juan and La Plata Peaks in Colorado, the Navajos’ sacred mesa Dzil Na’oodilii, and some parts of the 400 miles of Chacoan road segments, including the Great North Road, which follows a route 40 miles in that direction.
Following my excursion, I dropped by the Visitors Center and offices and had a brief meeting with Jim Von Haden. I shared some of my observations, particularly regarding the problem of maintaining the feeling of the place and the sense of freedom, while simultaneously dealing with a nearly impossible task of controlling visitors in such an expansive park — and one which is loaded with objects to loot.
Changes which may infringe on visitors’ freedom are implemented slowly. Rangers are disinclined toward hassling people. Apprehended scofflaws are typically invited to do the right thing rather than being fined. Couple this atmosphere with the nature of the sites, which are relatively undisturbed. For the most part they are either preserved, marginally restored, or left as found. Consequently, the experience feels real.
The cost of course is vandalism and theft. In some cases, this can be particularly difficult. The park’s campground is located next to a small ruin. The ruin is roped off, but this proximity invites problems. Buried ancient buried corn cobs have been bubbling to the surface like tires in a landfill, a function of their lower density than the surrounding earth. These relics (the corn cobs; not the tires) have been disappearing.
The afternoon plan called for visiting the Peñasco Blanco ruin, a 3.6-mile hike west up the canyon. According to the trail guide, this hike takes from four to six hours.My feet had already been brutalized by sloshing around in my lightweight sneakers, so I switched to my only other alternative, a pair of Johnston & Murphys. The trip follows the north wall of Chaco Canyon, passing Casa Chiquita and the Petroglyph Trail. I plowed ahead , reserving time to explore those two sites for the return trip, provided I had enough time before dark.
The trail eventually crosses to the south side of Chaco Canyon, below Peñasco Blanco. It was there, after an hour of walking and jogging, that I was able to find a shady place to rest and drink some water. This also is the site of the Supernova pictograph. There is evidence dating this image to 1054, when Asian astronomers recorded a supernova, which resulted in the Crab Nebula. In the image below, one can see the faint spiral image of the Supernova pictograph. One can also see the more distinct images above of a star, the moon, and a hand.
Ten minutes later I was back on the trail. The remaining segment up the cliff was advertised as only 0.8 miles, but it was a rough and steep trail, with lots of switchbacks. This last chunk required 45 minutes to drag myself up to the ruins.
With its oval layout, Peñasco Blanco is atypical of other Chaco sites. While the site may have been disturbed by early white explorers, such as Richard Wetherill, Peñasco Blanco remains relatively undisturbed.
The route home was a bit quicker. When I arrived at the Petroglyph Trail, about halfway to the trail head, I encountered something I hadn’t seen for hours: people.
The Petroglyph Trail is a four-mile round trip that follows the first two miles of the Peñasco Blanco Trail. Six panels of ancient rock art are highlighted. In addition there are more contemporary carvings from early white explorers, the Navajo, and later visitors who wanted to leave their marks. As with other situations, the preservationists and managers at Chaco are forced to make decisions about which graffiti is welcome and which needs to be eliminated. During the previous night’s dinner I asked the rock art experts about where the cutoff is. There wasn’t an answer, but it’s certain no further additions are welcome to the art already on hand.
After lingering a bit around the ancient and not-so-ancient art, I continued toward the trail head, and picked up speed. The end, and a tall, cold glass of Coca-Cola was near. As the end came into view, I spotted someone off the trail among the bushes, steps from the trail head and near a covered picnic table. I could see that this fellow was bent over. As I became closer, he saw me and then quickly inserted something into a clear plastic bag, which he subsequently and quickly zipped into his knapsack. Obviously, he had been searching for rocks or Indian artifacts. I found it interesting that this law breaker didn’t look any different from most of the visitors, equipped with sturdy hiking boots and articles of expensive outdoor apparel.