Sunday, April 9
We checked to see if the dirt road into Chaco was okay for the Lazy Daze. It’s 17 miles of gravel and washboard with a pretty good-sized hill to traverse. The Chaco park person I spoke with said that we were lucky, the road had just been graded and was in great shape. Feeling optimistic, we took off from Ghost Ranch, heading as directly west as we were able. The road went over the Santa Fe Forest and we saw a lot of full-size trees for the first time in weeks. When we reached the end of the paved road, we separated the Rav4 and proceeded separately. The road was as good as a gravel road gets.
We sailed into camp and found our reserved space for the night. I had put together 3 separate reservations to give us 5 nights at Chaco. We were going to have to move 2 more times because I couldn’t get 5 nights in one RV campsite. I was trying to figure out which campsites were first-come-first-served and which could be reserved. If we could find a non-reservable site, then once we were in we wouldn’t have to move. There was a park ranger consulting with various campers who had or wished for sites. He had the master list of who had reserved sites. When I explained we didn’t want to have to move, he put us in Site 017 which was open Sunday-Thursday. That was weird because my online investigation hadn’t found any RV site available for that long. Bottom line: there is no consistency whatsoever among the online reservation system, the Chaco reservation check-in desk and the park ranger. I later found out he had put us in a first-come first-served site.
Monday, April 10 The Pueblo Alto Trail
We would have started the Pueblo Alto hike earlier, but the temperature in the rig when wewoke was 36 degrees. That meant it was even colder outside. We put on the heater and let things warm up. It was around 10 a.m. when we started up the trail behind Kin Kletso. And when I say “up” I mean UP! The initial rise to first level of the mesa rises about 150 feet or so. There’s a pile of boulders that lead up to a crack between the main part of the cliff and the part that’s separated from the cliff.
The mesa is full of odd things, one of which are marks left from ancient shrimp burrows. I doubt whether the Chacoan people (present here from about 850 to 1150 AD) knew what shrimp were.
A short while later, we reached the Pueblo Bonito Overlook. Bonito is the one of the largest excavated great houses in Chaco. It is amazing.
We continued onto the trail to Pueblo Alto. The trail has several stops to show evidence of the extensive number of trails that lead to Chaco. A ranger told us that even if a road to Chaco could easily go around a mesa, they built the trail to be totally straight, so it would go up and over the mesa.
As we got closer to the Pueblo, I began searching around in one of the washes. On a previous trip, I had been told that broken pottery shards would be found in washes because the water exposes and transports them. Sure enough, I found a few and Dave found a big, patterned piece. After photographing them, we put them back where we found them.
There are several ruins up on the mesa. Only Pueblo Alto has been excavated. The policy in the Park is to not excavate anything that hasn’t already been dug up. Leave something so future archeologists can have their fun. We went over to New Alto first. The walls that were already exposed have been stabilized, but nothing underground has been exposed.
Suddenly, Dave saw a long line of people heading for New Alto. It turned out to be about 30 German students on a class tour. Lucky them! Dave and I walked over to Pueblo Alto, only to have them follow us about 5 minutes later. So we walked back to New Alto for a quieter lunch.
We continued the hike, twice letting the Germans pass us. (I later was sorry we had dawdled so much; there was a lot of trail in front of us.) We quickly reached the Jackson Stairway, named after William Henry Jackson, a photographer with the U.S. Geological Survey of 1877, He did not build the staircase, the Chacoan people did. I’m pretty sure he didn’t use the stairway. So why the heck does it get named after him? I guess because he’s the first white person to photograph it. If that’s the case, I should have quite a few rocks named after me.
We had to descend several times on the mesa. One descent involved a very narrow crack. There wasn’t even room for one foot on the ground. I had to take off my pack and drag it through behind me.
We continued around the mesa until we came to the welcome view of Pueblo Bonito. Not too far to trail’s end. “Wrong” Dave said. “That’s not Pueblo Bonito.” And so it wasn’t. I now flagged because I knew we weren’t going to get back in time for coffee. If I drink coffee after 4 p.m., I don’t sleep that night. It took us another hour to reach the final descent off the mesa.
I was dog tired but cheered up when we saw a herd of about 18 elk lazing away by the Chaco Wash running down the center of the canyon. Apparently they hang around, knowing that hunters can’t get them here.
Tuesday was a down day, hanging around and catching up on the blogs. It was very pleasant. We did do a 1-mile afternoon hike to another ruin, Una Vida. I don’t believe we have ever seen it on previous trips. We have our favorite places to go and skip the rest. Being here for 5 full days lets us experience some unfamiliar areas.
There was nothing outstandingly different about Una Vida, but it did have some nice petroglyphs. A good way to get a little walking in.
We had an early dinner and went on a moonlight walk at Pueblo Bonito. We were a little early so we walked around Chetro Ketl, a nearby pueblo.
I sat down on a boulder by Pueblo Bonito, the busiest of all the Chacoan pueblos and darned if I didn’t find a couple of pottery shards just by looking down. The ranger showed up and gave an elaborate demonstration of how the sun and moon interact together. When he took us into Bonito, it was getting dark but the moon was rising behind clouds. It certainly wasn’t going to be a star-viewing night. But we crowded into a large dark room where we could look up at the sky and he told us stories about how the stars were created, including the Milky Way. We were standing still for quite a while, but he did a good job. Heading back to the car, I tried a few handheld shots.
Wednesday, April 12
We rose around 7:30 and drove out to catch the early light at Pueblo Bonito. There were a lot of high clouds so the light was softened. This is our fifth visit to Chaco and it seems like each time, there is less access to the sites. There are now ropes and signs all over to keep out the riffraff. It limits the photography unless you’re willing to use Photoshop to erase the signage. But there were still lots of wonderful walls, glowing in the golden light.
A portion of the Pueblo has been destroyed. Titled “Threatening Boulder”, a huge portion of the wall above Bonito had been splitting away for ages. Early Navajos tried to prop it up and placed a prayer stick in the crack. That did the trick for a few hundred years. A park ranger said that the youngest ranger had to jump on the boulder every day to test its ability to hang on. In 1941, the Threatening Boulder dropped 4 inches in one day and later fell, crushing a portion of the Pueblo. Nobody was injured.
Wandering through the labyrinth of inner rooms, warm light bounces off the golden sandstone bricks.
Afterwards, we walked over to Chetro Ketl to view the walls in morning light.
That afternoon, a huge entourage from Colorado set up in the group camp. It looked like 40 kids who were 10 or 11 years old. The adults mostly migrated to individual campsites which was why I wasn’t able to make reservations after Thursday night. We debated going to the Chaco astronomy presentation that night but figured it wouldn’t be that great with clouds, the moon and lots of kids.
Thursday, April 13 The South Mesa Trail
Dave wanted to do a 7.2-mile trail. I did not. So we hiked solo. I chose the South Mesa Trail, one that was new to us. I kissed him goodbye at the Penasco Blanco trailhead and wandered around the Great House there: Pueblo del Arroyo.
Soon I drove over to my trailhead. The trail takes off behind Casa Rinconada, so I checked it out before beginning the 350-foot ascent.
Almost the first thing I squeezed through was a very narrow cleft between two boulders. After that it was a gradual, easy ascent. I soon reached the mesa top and trekked along a sandy path through typical desert brush. Saw a couple of cottontails and that was about it for critters.
Since most of the Chaco complexes were built according to a master plan, Tsin Kletzin doesn’t look very different from the rest. But the detail work and smoothness of the walls continues to amaze me.
Back on the loop, I headed across a different part of the mesa, eventually reaching the western edge and the South Gap. Chacoans entered Chaco from the south this way.
Things got interesting at the edge. There were incredible shrimp burrows where a couple of them looked like they were launching into space.
Then I began the descent into the South Gap. Like the pilgrims to Chaco, I was going to walk into it.
I began trudging up the unshaded center of 3 canyons before I turned into the one leading back to Casa Rinconada. I finished off the hike with a few shots of the Casa Riconada kiva,
Friday, April 14 Wijiji Trail
One more trail – Wijiji. Do it for the name if not the trail. Taking off from the camp, it’s a 3-mile trip down an old Jeep road. Far enough from the bottom of the mesa to be boring, but it’s exercise. Wijiji is another unexcavated pueblo but there are some neat petroglyphs nearby.
It looked like an gargantuan portion of the cliff had fallen at some point. There were huge boulders, some precariously leaning against each other.
The petroglyphs were faint, but neat. The negative handprints (created by putting your hand on the wall and blowing colored powder over it) were made by the ancient Chacoans. The red paint figures were added much later by Navajos.