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.
I started up. The trail really was very easy. I just had to pay attention to the numerous trail markers to make sure I took the correct route. I reached the cleft in the cliff. A huge sandstone boulder had separated from the cliff face at some point in the distant past, providing a nice walkway up to the very top of the plateau. I crept into the slot. The sun disappeared. The air was cool and dry. I walked up, touching the cool, gritty walls for support. I popped out on the vast, flat plateau.
As I looked around, I saw trail markers everywhere. A big brown sign marked the slot back down to the canyon floor. A bunch of rock cairns (piles of rock to mark the trail) perched all around the trail. The park rangers evidently wanted to make it really obvious which way to go.
I started along the trail back towards Pueblo Bonito. It was quiet up on the mesa. The wind rushed through my hair, but I heard only the wind. I didn’t hear any birds, or the sounds of human voices. The trail is very well marked and worn down from years of use. I quickly got to a small sign that said “Pecked Holes.” I didn’t see any holes. I whipped out my handy backcountry trail guide and flipped to the Pueblo Alto hike description. I looked behind me and found several odd circular depressions right in the middle of the trail. I stooped down to look at the holes carved out by someone’s hands 1,000 years ago. I ran my fingers around the rim, wondering why in the world did someone need a hole in the middle of the sandstone mesa?
Not far past the holes, I noted a sign that mentioned balconies. Far up, tucked inside the cliff face, I could see neat masonry structures. I wish I had binoculars. In a few hundred feet, I passed another sign pointing out a stone circle. Sure enough, a small circle make of stone sat on a flat part of the trail. The view from the circle was quite nice. Did ancient people have small ceremonies in this circle?
I soon reached the first amazing highlight of the hike. I turned a corner and emerged onto an expansive, flat sandstone bench right above Pueblo Bonito. I looked down. The valley floor wasn’t really very far away, maybe80 feet below where I stood. I could see the tiny rooms far below, tourists popping in and out of the buildings and rooms, children playing on the plaza. The view of the canyon at this point is amazing. Looking straight ahead I could see the gap in the far mesa. The gap was one of the ancient roads from distant pueblos right to Pueblo Bonito. I imagined ancient people climbing up to this exact same stop to watch the ceremonials moving in and out of Pueblo Bonito. This would have been the perfect place to get the very best view of all the festivities. I imagined huge processions of people moving along the ancient roadways, decked out in elaborate feathered costumes. I sat down and ate an apple.
After soaking in the beauty of the overlook and contemplating the others who probably sat in this same spot long ago, I got back on the trail. I found a trail junction pointing the way to Pueblo Alto. That’s where I wanted to go. The trail headed gently uphill through sparse and scrubby desert plants. There were no trees, no shade, no shelter. Soon, I saw stone walls poking up out of the top of the hill. The closer I got the more impressive the ruins.
The first ruin I reached was New Alto. Unlike most of the giant great houses in the park, this one is laid out in a square with 58 rooms on the first floor. This great house is much newer than Pueblo Bonito and some of the other ruins in the park. Archaeologists estimate that this was built around 1,100 AD.
I could see Pueblo Alto from New Alto perched on another hill not too far away. I could see the book club members milling around going in and out of the ruined walls. I headed over there and found a much larger building. This one, though, had never been fully excavated. Most of the walls still remained hidden under years and years of desert sand. The great house was one of the first ones built between 1020 and 1060 AD. The location is perfect. High on the mesa, you have a wonderful view of many mountains and geologic features that were likely very important to the people who lived here. In one direction, you can see the Jemez Mountains. Across the mesa, you can also see the ruin of Tsin Kletzin on the South Mesa. You can also see the San Juan and La Plata Mountains and other significant mesas. This was a place to see the world. Archaeologists also think that the residents of Chaco used fire signals or reflective sheets of gypsum to communicate between long distances. This would have been a perfect signal station.
Not far from the ruins of the building I found a giant hill of sand and stone that was fenced off with rope. Why would a hill be fenced off? Turns out that the hill isn’t really a hill. It’s a midden, the trash heap from the pueblo.In the photo below, you can see New Alto to the left, Pueblo Alto in the center, and the midden the hump off to the right.
But why would a trash heap be off-limits? I started looking around and noticed that littering the ground all around the hill lay tiny pieces of pottery. I found white pottery with beautiful black paint, gray pots with shapes made by ancient fingers, pieces of red pots that shattered long ago.
I picked up one of the pottery sherds sitting next to the trail. It was the rim of a bowl or a vase. I imagined who had crafted this pot, had picked the yucca plants and tied them up to make a paint brush, who had picked the herbs and materials needed to make jet black paint, who had so carefully painted the precise and beautiful geometric patterns on this pot. I wondered who had carried the pot here and had then smashed it inside a great kiva as part of a ceremony. Breaking pottery is still a way that modern Pueblo people make offerings to their ancestors. Is that what these people were doing?
This midden is one of the biggest ones in the Chaco area. Usually, giant middens mean that the site was the home to many, many people over a very long period of time. This midden, and the ruins themselves, however, don’t follow that pattern. Instead, it shows only sporadic habitations. The clue have led archaeologists to believe that this site was mostly huge for huge ceremonial feats and rituals that involved breaking pots.
The people who lived here considered middens sacred, the place where sacred pots connected with ancient ancestors. I carefully put the sherd back where I’d found it and continued down the trail.
I made my way slowly back downhill towards the rim of the mesa overlooking the canyon. As I turned yet another corner, I found what is now one of my most favorite parts of the entire park, one of the most curious and tantalizing ancient mysteries I’d ever seen. I saw a staircase cut into the solid sandstone. I wished again that I had binoculars! The stairs were impressive, and they were crazy. How in the world did anyone carve such stair into a sandstone cliff, and why?
I made my way around the edge of the mesa and eventually got a different view of the stairs. The cliff was very steep. Not sheer, but almost. This was the point where one of the ancient roads leading from the northeast reached Chetro Ketl. Instead of weaving around the mesa, the road builders just built the road in a continual straight line. That straight line went right down the side of the cliff; That’s why the stairs are there. Chacoans really, really liked straight lines.
I finally found a few tiny trees past the staircase. I’d forgotten to bring sunscreen and was startingd to feel like I was slowly roasting in the sun so I crept under a craggy juniper tree to hide for a few minutes. After drinking some water I headed farther down the trail, which led directly to an overlook high above Chetro Ketl. Again, I could see people milling around far below. The view of the great house was, quite simply, great. A small canyon led towards the mesa back behind the great house.
I followed the canyon along the mesa rim and soon saw a sign about a ramp down inside the canyon. I peered down. I saw it, a huge pile of dirt leading up to the level where I stood. When I looked every farther up the canyon, I could tell that the ramp, and the road, led directly to the crazy staircase and then the road far up at the top of the mesa. Since I didn’t have binoculars I couldn’t see yet another series of steps cut into the solid stone at the top of the ramp.
Eventually the trail wound back to the Pueblo Bonito overlook and back to the slot in the rock back to the mesa floor. As I headed down, I continued to wonder about the people who had also walked the mesa top so long ago. I bet they were also filled with wonder when they saw the massive structures gracing this remote canyon.
I walked back to my car, full of more questions than answers. When I got back to camp, I pulled out a book about Chaco and started to read.