Penasco Blanco and the Supernova Pictograph

I’d finally reached my last day at Chaco. I’d explored all of the great houses on the driving loop and had hiked a backcountry trail to Pueblo Alto and the Jackson Stairs, but I knew I needed to wrap up my visit to the park if I wanted to make it to some other areas in New Mexico before I started the boring driving back to Tennessee. For my last day, I decided to check out the longest hike in the park to Penasco Blanco. This hike not only leads to one of the more distant great houses perched high up on a mesa overlooking the valley of Pueblo Bonito, but I’d also hike right by the pictograph that might represent the ginormous supernova of 1054, a pictograph that evidently Carl Sagan made famous. I’d attended an archaeoastronomy lecture the previous evening at the park’s planetarium and I really, really wanted to see this famous pictograph for myself.

I again parked at Pueblo del Arroyo and started down the dusty brown trail. I soon reached Kin Kletso, noted some people scrambling up the cliff wall to see Pueblo Alto, and continued straight down the canyon into the bleak landscape ahead. The canyon floor was flat, brown, and rather uninteresting. No trees, no animals, and few birds. Just rock, spindly shrubs, blue sky, and wind.

Hike to Penasco Blanco

Not too far down the trail I ran into another trail marker showing the distance ahead. I could see one more great house on the hill to the right, Casa Chiquita (seriously, who named these ruins?). This great house is rather small compared to many of the others scattered throughout the area. Casa Chiquita was built around 1060 AD, and is built in a square shape. The rooms are tiny, only about 2×4.5 feet. As I looked straight ahead, high on the mesa directly in front of me, I could see a teeny, tiny bump on the hill. That’s the great house of Penasco Blanco.

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Hiking to Puelbo Alto

I crept up the path, weaving in and out of large boulders lining the winding way up the side of the cliff.  I’d parked a half-mile away at Pueblo del Arroyo, right around the corner from Pueblo Bonito, and headed down the trail into the empty desert. The anemic Chaco Wash, with barely a trickle of water, lazily wound its way through the khaki-colored floor off to my left. Soon, another ruin poked its head up out of the canyon, Kin Kletso. As I approached the square-shaped ruin, I saw a navigation sign. Straight ahead to Penasco Blanco. Turn right to Pueblo Alto. I turned right. Tomorrow I’d go straight.

Behind Kin Kletso, appearing to head straight up a cliff through a jumble of loose boulders, was the trail. I shaded my eyes and peered upwards. I could see tiny trail markers and tiny people sticking up out of the rocks high above. As I watched, the tiny people moved around in the boulder field, making their way higher and higher up the cliff. Then they disappeared into a crack in the wall.

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Exploring Chetro Ketl

After I spent several hours drooling over the fabulous masonry in the pueblo at Chaco I really wanted to see, I decided to explore some of the many others easily accessible from the main road winding its way through the canyon. But I decided to do it right. Instead of just jumping in the car and zipping around, I drove back to the visitor’s center to collect the information I’d need to get the most out of my trip.

The Chaco visitor’s center is really nice considering it’s in the middle of nowhere. The only thing missing is a museum to really educate visitors about the park, the people who built Chaco, and the beautiful items found in the ruins. I was looking forward to actually seeing some of the pots and art excavated in the early 1900s, but the visitor’s center doesn’t have anything like that. What the center does have is a nice introductory video about the park and the Chacoan culture as well as many different print resources. I watched the video with a couple other visitors then browsed around the bookstore. Of course, I have a weakness for books (argh) so I got one about the people who once lived there. The visitor’s center also sells guides for each ruin that you can visit from the main road. They’re cheap, between $0.50 and $0.75. A few are free. I also picked up a guide to backcuntry trails for $2.00. It was SO worth it.I went back to camp and started to read.

The morning of my second day at Chaco, I drove out to Pueblo Bonito and wandered around by myself for several hours. Then, I headed over to the giant complex to the southeast of Pueblo Bonito, called Chetro Ketl. It was almost as impressive as Pueblo Bonito, but you can’t wander as freely there.It’s the second largest complex in the park.

Kivas at Chetro Ketl [Read more…]

Visiting Pueblo Bonito

One of the main reasons I wanted to visit Chaco Canyon was to see and explore Pueblo Bonito. I’d read stories about people wandering around in the ruins, admiring the beautiful masonry and contemplating the people who built such a gigantic structure so long ago. When I got to Chaco, Pueblo Bonito was even better than I thought it would be. In addition, the other pueblos in the park were even better than expected. Here are some descriptions and photos of visiting Pueblo. The next posts will describes some of the hikes to more remote ruins.

After I finally arrived at Chaco, I threw up my tent then made a beeline for Pueblo Bonito. As I drove down the main road through the canyon, I passed one other parking area to a smaller ruin, then passed the ruins of Chetro Ketl, then finally saw the sign I was looking for. Pueblo Bonito straight ahead. I parked the car, grabbed my camera, and headed down the trail.

The ruins doesn’t look very impressive from the parking area. Some walls jut out of the ground, jagged segments of ancient walls silhouetted against the blue sky. As you walk closer, you can see how truly massive the structure actually was. This pueblo is estimated to have had up to 800 rooms, making it the largest pueblo in Chaco Canyon.

Pueblo Bonito from the trail

You start to see details of the ruin. Doors exposed to the sun that used to be hidden deep in the interior of the pueblo. You can tell the walls used to support a structure at least three stories tall. When you’re close enough to the ruins to start seeing real detail in the ancient stone walls, you encounter a plaque describing the seven excavation projects the National Geographic Society and the Smithsonian Institution conducted between 1920 and 1927.

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Driving to Chaco Canyon

The car shook violently as I drove across yet another patch of washboard hard-packed dirt on the road to Chaco Canyon. I’d been driving for about three hours when I turned off the main highway onto a small road marked with a cryptic number 7900. A huge brown sign on the highway pointed the way.

The road wound around widely spaced small local homes, rusted out trailers, round plastered Navajo hogans. At one point, I passed a pretty little spotted brown horse wandering down the road. It stopped at a puddle of water and took a long drink.

I’d first heard about Chaco Canyon (really called Chaco Culture National Historic Park) a few years ago and decided I had to visit. It features the remains of massive structures the ancient Anasazi Indians built way back around the year 1,000. I’d seen photos and maps of the area and I could tell it’s a place well worth visiting.

The pavement ended. Ahead, a wide lane of hard packed dirt continued on. I slammed on the brakes and slowed down as my car inched its way onto this new surface. At first, I could keep my speed up to 30, but soon, I hit patch after patch of ribbed washboard bumps. I slowed down even more. Sometimes, I crept along at no more than 10 miles an hour. Pickup trucks whizzed past me as I crept along like a dark desert snail.Road to Chaco Canyon

After what seemed like hours, but was really only about 45 minutes, I finally made it to an official looking National Park Service sign and a beautiful black paved road. As I followed the black ribbon around the corner, I saw my first view of Chaco Canyon. It didn’t seem all that impressive, actually, just a short canyon with a nice butte plopped down right in the middle of an open area.

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