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.

Hike to Penasco Blanco

This trail features some of the most interesting petroglyphs and pictographs in the park. I would never have found most of them without the park’s handy little backcountry trail guide. The little book tells you exactly where to look on various cliffs to find the artwork, and also includes little cheat sheets for the drawings. The one below is a closeup of my favorite. I learned later that the square petroglyph may represent today’s Hopi butterfly clan. The Anasazi didn’t disappear, they just moved on.

Butterfly clan pictograph

Here’s a view of the same petroglyph panel from the trail. Do you see them?

Petroglyphs on the hike to Penasco Blanco

It took me a long time to traverse this part of the trail because I was constantly stopping to gawk at and photograph rock art. When I finally passed the towering sandstone cliffs and got to the boring, flat plain, my pace picked back up. The trail wound around across the plain and I finally reached Chaco Wash. I visited during the dry season, but I was still surprised at how anemic this stream is. How in the world did anyone live in this valley with such a poor water supply (well, the answer is irrigation and inventive engineering, but that’s a topic for another post).

Chaco Wash

I crossed the wash, which was so low I didn’t even get my boots wet. I did have to battle my way through some large branches of the horribly invasive tamarisk, or salt cedar, shrub. This shrub, which is actually sort of pretty, was first introduced to the west back in the 19th century as an ornamental shrub and to help control erosion. Unfortunately, it got out of hand and has taken over many streams throughout the west, and has choked out many native species. I got a good look at how much it had taken over Chaco Wash. After battling my way through the tamarisk, I crept up on another towering tan sandstone cliff on the other side of the valley.I headed down the trail and stopped when I saw a small sign that said “Supernova Pictograph” with an arrow pointing straight up. I looked up. There it was. Without the sign, I would have totally missed it.

Supernova pictograph

The images are gorgeous, but in a really strange place, on a flat panel about 20 feet directly overhead. I craned my head up and gawked. The previous evening at the archaeoastromony lecture, the very knowledgeable park ranger GB Cornucopia talked about this intriguing panel. Many now assume the image at the top represents the supernova of 1054 that created the Crab Nebula. The timing is right. 1054 was during the height of Chaco. In addition, the moon image is in the same phase as when the supernova lit up the sky, and the middle finger of the hand image points to the place in the sky where the supernova would have first appeared. Pretty cool. However, GB also pointed out that similar star and moon images are also common motifs in current Pueblo cultures to represent Venus. Who knows what it is? I like to think it does represent the supernova. The image below the star, moon, and hand is one image I had never heard about. The round drawing is often used to represent the sun. However, if you look closely at the drawing, you can see a very, very faint red “tail.” GB said that some people believe the drawing represents Halley’s Comet, which also would have made an appearance in 1066 AD, again, while people in Chaco were busy studying the heavens and building their structures around the movement of the heavens. Was this panel intended to record bizarre heavenly events? Really cool to contemplate what the images mean.

I ran into another hiker on my way back to my car; here’s a photo of him directly below the pictographs so you can get a better idea of where they are. They’re tucked under the first ledge above the guy’s head. I figure that whoever drew the images must have used a ladder.

After finishing up taking a ridiculous number of pictures of the pictographs, I continued on. The trail wound up the side of the mesa, finally emerging on the top. I could almost immediately see the ruined walls of Penasco Blanco sticking up out of the desert. This great house is unique in that it is oval-shaped. Chacoans built this one fairly early, starting around 850 AD and archaeologists have not yet excavated this giant ruin.

From the top of the mesa, I had a great view of the valley (and found another giant midden full of pottery). I kicked myself for not bringing binoculars, because far below, the great houses of Pueblo Bonito and Una Vida are both laid out in the straight line extending out from this location. Pueblo Bonito is the center, the convergence of roads far below. It amazes me how accurately the people of Chaco designed their ceremonial lives.

This really is one of the best trails I explored while in Chaco. The rock art alone is well worth the hike, but the view from the mesa really conveys the huge scale of the Chaco world. If you visit Chaco, go on this hike. And be sure to take your backcountry guide with you!


  1. says

    Was thinking I must visit this place after watching an old episode of Cosmos. Thanks for writing the guide, it was very good and helpful!

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