2016 Chaco Culture Nat'l Monument
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Friday morning we dropped our dog off at the doggie hotel, then hooked up the camper. We left our house at 10am, a little later than we had planned but had to run a few errands. Anyhow, we took off up highway 550 with a rain/snow storm blowing through the northern half of the state. We could see snow falling off to the Jemez side of the highway as we headed NW to Chaco Canyon. At Cuba we ran into snow for a few minutes, but then out the other side was nothing but sunshine. We turned off of 550 onto a state road, that was paved, for awhile. Then the dirt road nightmare began for about 15 miles. This road to Chaco is a nightmare, bone jarring, and dust cloud hell. We arrived at the gateway to Chaco, and paved roads, at 1:30pm.
There is not "Gate" at Chaco where you pay to enter, you have to go to the Visitor's Center located down the road over a mile. Inside, there is a Ranger's desk, where you check in, pay or show your National Park's Pass, and get a green tag to hang from your mirror. You can also get information about hikes, ruins, and the schedule of Ranger-led hikes and events.
The campground, Gallo campground, is near the entry area and tucked into a snall canyon. Dozens of campsites are there and only one tree. Yes, don't expect any shade, this is a true desert campground. There are a few restrooms with flushing toilets, and some dumpsters with recyle bins, nothing else. Each campsite has a picnic table and fire ring. Some sites are reservable and most are first-come, first-serve. We had been told that the campground fills up on weekends and it was true this time. We had reservations for a site that would fit our camper (25' long) but many campsites are shorter or tent-only. We set up the camper and then headed out to see the ruins.
Our first stop, after the Ranger desk, was along the Loop drive at the first ruin, Hungo Pavi.
Next, we continued along the Loop road to the parking lot for Chetro Keti and Pueblo Bonito. Taking the walk to the right, we first visited Chetro Keti, a very impressive group of structures. New Mexico and all of the Southwest had been experiencing Spring winds - meaning dust and tumbleweed tornadoes almost every day for several weeks. As we approached all of the ruins at Chaco this weekend, we were amazed at the huge number of tumbleweeds filling all of the structures, especially the large round kivas. Literally thousands of tumbleweeds were everywhere, some places stacked 15-20' deep.
From Chetro Keti we were albe to walk along the canyon wall on the path which led to dozens of petroglyphs. I had picked up one of the brochures at the trailhead which showed were each petroglyph was located and a bit of description for each. Wow, just wow.
There were also markings on rocks that showed where they had sharped tools, most likely hunting tools and possibly the tools used for timber, cutting stones and blocks for the buildings.
After the Petroglyph trail, we arrived at the back side of Pueblo Bonito, the largest and most famous structure in Chaco Canyon. It is GIGANTIC! The viewing trail actually takes you down inside of some of the structures, which stood 4-stories tall. It is amazing that such "primative" cultures could construct these buildings. Timbers used in the structures were brought here from 70+ miles away, all by hand since they had no horses, cattle, or the wheel. How did they get them here? Another big mystery. The buildings in each of the sites is also oriented to the astrological interests of the peoples, some structures face the summer or winter solstice sunrise.
Along the backside of the tallest standing wall, support beams have been placed to keep the walls from further collapse.
At this point, the Loop road deadends at a group of buildings call the Pueblo del Arroyo. These structures were not as old or impressive as the previous two clusters, but still very interesting and picturesque.
The round holes visible in all the walls of structures in Chaco were where huge timbers helped support the building roofs and floors. The stuctures in this group at Arroyo still had many large timbers sticking out at points.
As we drove around the loop, we noticed two large elk in the field eating. We had noticed elk poo all over the campground so we hoped to see some of these huge animals, but this was as close as we got all weekend.
The parking lot at Pueblo del Arroyo also services the hiking trails beyond this point, which we planned to visit tomorrow. For now we drove on around the loop, back towards the campground for dinner. A trail in the campground loops around the canyon walls there, to several small cliff dwellings and petroglyphs, so we decided to do that hike before starting our dinner for the night.
Chaco Canyon is also famous for its night sky - being so far out in the middle of nowhere, the stars are brighter than almost anywhere in the US. Ron set up his camera gear and after sunset, 7:45pm, we went outside to see of he could get some shots. It took until almost 9pm to get completely dark but WOW. It was amazing!
Up at 6am, just like at home, we started breakfast, then packed up the hiking gear for the day. The gates to the Loop road close at dark, then open again at 7am every morning. We stopped at the Visitor's Center to fill up water bottles, then headed down the road to the ruins again. We parked at the Pueblo del Arroyo parking lot and took our Hiking Permit with us. At Chaco, if you do any hikes beyond the main ruins, you must fill out a Permit. These are at each of the parking lots, and have 3 layers. The top layer, the white one, you fill out with your name, your vehicle information and license tag which is left in the parking lot, and your intended hike with your start time. This white copy is put in the box at the trailhead. The yellow copy is left on your dashboard of your car. The bottom, pink copy, is on your person during the hike. This so, when they close the gates at dark each night, they can send out a search party if your car is still there. Good system!
At 7:30am we put our Permit in the box at the trailhead for Pueblo Alto Complex. This hike led down the path into the canyon to Kin Kletso ruins, and then against the canyon wall behind it, the trail began... going straight up the canyon wall. Holy cow! No kidding, the trail signs every now and then kept pointing up, bouldering all the way up to the top of the Mesa, about 200' above the canyon floor. It was freaking crazy and scary. Wow.
The trail heads up the crack in the wall shown by the red line.
Once on top of the Mesa, we began the hike, following the cairns. When we started the hike it was around 20 degrees outside but the sun was up so it warmed up quickly. The views were amazing. It was important to watch your step as you walked though, as the surface was solid rock and not level, some areas on a 45 degree slant. After a little over a mile, we reached the first overlook of Pueblo Bonito ruins. Incredible how BIG that cluster of structures was and from above we were able to see the whole area. Wow.
We returned the way we came on the trail, and back down the rocks and slot canyon to the bottom. We stopped to check out the fossils on top of the Mesa.
The sun was finally in the canyon on this side so we stopped at the Kin Letso ruins to take photos this time. This was a much later era for the inhabitants, and the building structure and quality of workmanship were definitely different, and not in a good way. Stones got bigger, and technique for the walls got less technical. Interesting to see this so easily in a place like Chaco, hundreds of years of buildings all so close together.
It was still early, so we drove over around the Loop to the Casa Rinconada clusters of buildings. These were the latest of the structures and very small and once again, less intricate than the Pueblo Bonito or Chetro Keti structures we saw on Friday. A hiking trail led up this side of the canyon, so we filled out another Permit, put it in the box, and headed up the hill. This trail was not as steep or terrifying. We did have one point where we had to climb up a slot for maybe 30' where it was necessary to take off our packs and slide in sideways, stepping carefully up various rocks and finding handholds along the way, as we pulled our bags and poles behind us. Luckily, once at the top of this slot, we were once again on a trail which was easily hiked along the top of the Mesa. We hiked only about a mile, then returned the way we came.
The largest Kiva in the Chaco Canyon complexes
Just down the road from Casa Rinconada group, was the view of one of the Chacoan stairs. These are where the inhabitants of Chaco Canyon had cut stair steps into the canyon walls leading up to the top of the mesas. There are several groups of these stairs all over the canyon area.
It was time to head back to our camper to eat lunch, then pack up for the drive back home. We had paid for both nights but had decided to leave early on Saturday instead of Sunday morning due to work obligations that had come up.
By noon we were packed and bumping our way back down that crazy dirt road. We really loved Chaco and will definitely go back. We were able to visit all but a few of the ruins, but barely scratched the surface with all the hiking trails and petroglyph hikes.