Chaco Culture National Historical Park
Pueblo Alto Complex Trail
Text and Photos by Curtis Von Fange
On this particular trip to the Chaco Culture National Historical Park the heartland of the Chacoan Anasazi Puebloan tradition, in northwestern New Mexico I felt like stretching my limited hiking ability. I decided to attempt the Pueblo Alto Complex Trail, which heads eastward along the north rim of Chaco Canyon then loops back west, past the Pueblo Alto ruin, a round trip of nearly five miles, for me, a long walk. The lonely and remote Pueblo Alto “high village” is situated about three quarters of a mile north of the canyon with its 11 major Chaco Anasazi ruins.
I parked my vehicle at the end of the access road, near the ruins of Pueblo Arroyo, which beckoned me to come and explore. But, no, that wasn’t my goal for today. I had to stay focused. The trailhead, located immediately behind the ruins of Kin Kletso, lay about a quarter mile down a level, graveled roadway that is used only by park officials. I slung my backpack, loaded with water, snacks and a lunch, over my shoulder and headed for the trailhead. Chaco Canyon is only a half mile or so wide at this point. As I walked, I looked up at sandstone cliffs. They suggested a sense of secrecy and isolation.
As I approached the ruins of Kin Kletso and the trailhead, I scanned the fractured cliff face looking for an ascending pathway that would validate the National Park Service map dashed line that indicated the way up. Behind the ruins, I found a sign that specifically pointed the trail’s direction. Again, I scanned the cliff, shook my head in disbelief. I could see no way to climb to the top of the cliff face. It looked like a solid vertical wall. I put one foot in front of the other and pressed on in faith, believing that the Park Service surely wouldn’t waste money on a misleading sign. The pathway climbed upwards over house-sized rubble towards the imposing rock face. Then, at just the right angle, I discovered a cleft in the rock. In fact, the huge cliff face was actually a building-sized boulder that leaned out from the parent rock just enough to open a narrow corridor through which a stout guy like me could just squeeze through. So upwards I went, making good use of the well-worn handholds in the rock on either side. Near the top, the rift suddenly widened and I emerged onto the broad and bleached bedrock, overlooking Chaco Canyon.
I moved with some trepidation towards the edge for a look over the precipitous canyon wall. And what a look it was! From my perch almost 200 feet above the valley floor, I could see for miles, no, tens of miles. I discovered that I had a bird’s eye view of the ruins of Kin Kletso. All I could do was gaze down and try not to lose track of time. I had to stay focused.
I headed eastward, following the trail. The National Park Service had spent many moons building rock cairn trail markers every few hundred feet. They were very handy as there was no point of reference on the cliff top to indicate whether a pathway would circumnavigate the many mini-canyons and crevices.
As I walked, I noticed a specific rock layer embedded with a number of odd-looking formations. At first, they looked like antediluvian artifacts sculpted by man. But upon closer examination, I discovered that they were actually fossils of ancient sea creatures, but with a leaching of iron that give them an unusual appearance.
At the top of a small rise I ran across a sign that said only, “Stone Circle.” Sure enough, some ancient Chacoan Anasazi had constructed a mysterious circle out of stones. Strangely, it was in perfect alignment with Pueblo Alto, still a ways to the north, up the ridge, Casa Rinconada to the south, across the canyon, and Tsin Kletsin, another set of ruins farther to the south, high on the canyon ridge. A wary approach to the edge, and I could see three more ruins at various locations at the cliff base below me. I wondered about the purpose of the stone circle as I continued my hike.
At one particular overlook, I gazed on the ruins of Chetro Ketl and wondered how the Chaco Anasazi, a millennium ago, could construct such well-planned and architecturally beautiful structures with such fine masonry and perfectly straight walls. Around the bend and, from my elevated view, I could see, faintly, ancient irrigation ditches they had built and used to water their crops of corn, squash and beans. Their determination to scratch out not just a living, but a center of culture, in this hostile environment that drained my energy and my water bottle boggled my mind.
The trail paralleled the cliff edge for another mile or so, then veered away from the canyon. It climbed another strata layer, then another. A branch canyon came into view. As I neared its head, I came across another sign. All it said was, “Jackson Staircase.” I looked across the canyon. Sure enough, the Chaco Anasazi had chiseled not one, but two sets of steps into the near-vertical cliff face. I could just make out small drilled holes in the rock. I wondered whether some kind of railing had been built into the cliff face to steady those who ascended or descended the dizzyingly steep steps. The mystery of why someone would build such staircases was beyond my comprehension. But there they stand.
Beginning the loop back, now heading westward, I found that the trail ascended a series of rock shelves and then leveled out onto a gently rolling land of desert bush. In the distance, I finally saw the standing walls and rubble mound of the Pueblo Alto ruin. Thirty minutes later, I was standing at the base of its masonry walls, gazing hundreds of miles in every directionat the mighty San Juan Mountains to the north, Mount Taylor to the south, Shiprock to the northwest, and eternity everywhere else.
I leaned against one of the walls of the ruin and pulled out my lunch. As I munched on a cracker, I wondered at the extent of the Chaco Anasazi culture. In the canyon below were nearly a dozen partially excavated ruins of Chacoan communities. Others appeared as unexcavated mounds scattered here and there. On the ridges, miles from any reliable supply of water, were still more town sites. In between were examples of stone circles, staircases where none should be, and, astonishingly, a prehistoric road system.
It was in the early 1980’s that aerial photography revealed the extensive network of ancient roadways that connected the Chaco Canyon pueblos. Subsequent investigation revealed miles of roads up to 30 feet wide in places and often as straight as arrows in an ancient’s quiver. Instead of going around bluffs or hills, the roads went over them. Instead of switch backing up the canyons in logical elevation rises, they went up cliff faces. Nearly straight up. As in staircases. Jackson’s staircase was just one of a number scattered along the canyon.
I could only imagine the complex culture represented by the ancient wall that I now leaned against. The buildings, the irrigation canals, the roads, the stairs, were only clues an often mysterious past. In the canyon, there are also numerous pictographs laboriously incised on the rock faces. In the museum at the visitors’ center are examples of Chaco Anasazi crafts, for instance, pottery, baskets and clothing. In the distance was Fajada Butte, rising from the floor of the canyon. It was in the 1970’s when it was discovered that the sun, shining through openings between the boulders along the face of the butte created a dagger of sunlight on the solid rock behind. The sun dagger, tracing the seasons, struck Chacoan Anasazi inscriptions on the solid rock, marking the summer and winter solstices as well as cycles of the moon.
Clearly, the Chaco Anasazi were not a people just scraping out a bare living in the desert. They represented a highly developed culture, an advanced way of life. I wondered why they had abandoned Chaco Canyon after such an investment in construction labor. Where had they gone?
From Pueblo Alto, I followed a segment of one of the ancient Chacoan roads, a rough steep trail less than a mile in length, southward back towards the stone circle. The views were still spectacular as I returned to the cleft that would take me back down to the trailhead behind Kin Kletso. The descent seemed steeper and trickier than going up, perhaps because I had hiked for nearly five miles.
After five hours, I made it back to my vehicle and, before getting in, I took one last, long draught of water. I scanned the cliffs one last time, then the canyon, the nearby ruins of Pueblo Arroyo, and the lowering sun. All I could do was wonder about what I had seen and marvel that such a place existed so long ago.
More on Chaco Canyon
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Chaco Culture National Historical Park has no accommodations or services. Overnight accommodations are available in Farmington, To make the most of your visit, plan ahead and come prepared. For more information on lodging Click Here for rates, availability and reservation online.
From the north, turn off Hwy 44 (HWY 550)at County Road 7900--three miles southeast of Nageezi and approximately 50 miles west of Cuba (at mile 112.5). This route is clearly signed from Hwy 44/550 to the park boundary (21 miles). The route includes five miles of paved road (CR 7900) and 16 miles of dirt (CR 7950/7985).
From the south (I-40, at Thoreau), turn north on New Mexico 371 and proceed to Crownpoint. Four miles north of Crownpoint, turn right on Navajo 9. Continue east on Navajo 9 for 36 miles to the marked turnoff in the community of Pueblo Pintado. Turn north on Navajo 46 for 10 miles (dirt). Turn left on County Road 7900 for 15 miles (dirt). Turn left on County Road 7950 and follow the signs 16 miles (dirt) to the park entrance.
From the Grants area (I-40, at Milan) turn north on Hwy 605 for 13 miles, then north on Hwy 509 for 36 miles to Whitehorse. Turn east on Navajo 9 for 12 miles to the town of Pueblo Pintado, then Navajo 46, and CR 7900 to CR 7950/7985.
Both the northern and southern routes include 16 and 33 miles of dirt roads. Although these sections of road are generally maintained, they can become impassable during inclement weather. Call the park 505-786-7014 for current road conditions.
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