Chaco Culture National Park

Sunday, April 9We’d learned earlier in the week when Mary called to inquire about the road to Chaco that we could now make reservations for the campground. This was news to us since the last time we were here 8 years ago. When we went to the website though, we found we could only book a hodgepodge of sites to span the 5 days we wanted to be there. We were happy to get them though. Easter? I later learned from our enforcement Ranger that it’s usually like this now.

We’d also learned from the park service that the road had recently been graded because so many folks had gotten stuck or slid off. RV friends Galye and Jim, of Life’s Little Adventures, also emailed to tell us friends of theirs had just come back from Chaco and reported the last 5 miles had been graded and was in great shape. We were feeling like it was going to work out well.And it did. After an easy 100 mile drive to the turnoff, we disconnected the vehicles to avoid spraying the Raw with gravel as we towed. The first 5 miles were paved and in good shape. The road turns to hard-pack gravel for the next 8 miles and is county maintained so it was also in great shape. The road becomes dirt with some gravel after this and includes some hills that would be wicked in a rain, but bone dry today. All pretty smooth due to the grading. I sometimes drove 30-35 mph, but most often it was more like 25 and sometimes slower at particularly rough washboard. I could have gone faster sometimes, but occasionally a small group of potholes would appear requiring a quick slowdown. We also had to cross a wash at one point. That section is paved but large signs warn to not cross when water is flowing. Once across the wash and up through the hills, we hit the paved road at the park boundary.  Easy.Getting our campsite should only have been so easy. Our reservations were waiting when we got to the visitor center, and we were soon set-up in site 15 for our first night. Tomorrow we jump across the camp road for 3 nights, then down the row for another night. When the ranger came around, we discovered a no nonsense enforcement division guy in – bulletproof vest and sidearm – who was directing where people should go. Mary began explaining our situation in a way that I simply could not follow. By his look, I thought he might tell us to take a hike, but whatever she said to him, he thought a minute and said, “Look, site 17 is first-come-first-serve site and is open all week. Why don’t you take that one and I’ll re-open your other sites. Gee thanks!

Their reservation system is pretty messed up here. It was never clear which sites were first-come sites (which are not reservable). When we asked about extending another day through Friday, they said not until Friday because it is non-reservable. We tested this online and could not reserve the site. But in the office they said there was a chance someone could reserve the site (the 48 hr rule) and they wouldn’t know it, so couldn’t let us extend until Friday. But it isn’t a reservable site. As a friend of mine says, “And so it goes…”

It was late afternoon now and the increasing wind was blowing dust around. We were happy to hang in camp for the rest of the day.

Monday, April, 10
Pueblo Alto TrailIt looks like we are in for an extended period of good weather. It will be cold the first few mornings, but is supposed to warm to mid to upper 70’s each day. This morning was really cold. 36˚ inside the rig, probably high 20’s outside. We planned to rise at dawn for our hike today, but the cold kept us under the covers until we could wrap our minds around it.

We were on the trail by 10 am. It had warmed up considerably in that time. So much so, I wish we’d gotten started earlier. Aside from warming, the light was hash already. High clouds help soften things somewhat, but now it is more of just a hike, not a photo walk.

The trail starts with a nice walk around the back of the Kin Kletso ruins. We will return here another day to explore. It quickly turns up into a cleft in the towering mesa behind us. This is a steep, rocky path barely wide enough in some places to squeeze through. It is also the way the ancients got up and down the mesa. It is odd walking the same primitive path people used over 1,200 years ago. The elevation gain for the entire loop is around 350’. Half of it is going up this cleft to the mesa top. Once on top, we followed the well cairned trail along the slickrock rim to views overlooking Pueblos Una Vida, Chetro Ketl and Pueblo Bonito. Also along the way, trail signs point out interesting features such as fossilized shrimp burrows, seashells, pecked basins, Chacoan steps and more. We came to a view of Pueblo Bonito, at which point the trail veered away from the rim and began a gradual rise up to the highest part of the mesa, and it is here we found the Pueblo Alto Complex of ruins. Just as we arrived at New Alto, I noticed a few other folks on the trail behind us. It soon became maybe 30 German students on an outing. They soon overwhelmed us in the ruin we were in, so we moved to Pueblo Alto maybe 100 yards away They were right behind us again. Since it was near lunch, we walked back to New Alto, and spent time exploring the ruins more thoroughly, finding pottery shards, interesting walls, and finally a shady spot for for lunch. Only they didn’t move very far. They stopped at the other ruin for a lesson which lasted just longer than our lunch and I could see them getting ready to move on just after we passed them. They were on our heels again so we had to stop again and let them pass. We saw almost no other people on the trail all day till the end. The big draw for us on this trail is how easy it is to find pottery shards around the ruins. It is all catch and release of course. One does not take ancient artifacts from archeological sites. We looked in the washes around the sites and before long before we’d each found some nice examples. After we looked touched and photographed them, they went back on the ground.The trail continues on to views of mortarless stone terraces and stairways laid down by the ancients. We soon reached the William Henry Jackson stairs – named for the USGS photographer who discovered them in 1877. Looking from across the canyon, it is nearly inconceivable that people would use these “steps” for access to the mesa top. But there are other areas just as impressive. The Chacoans created straight wide “roads” across the landscape – nearly invisible now – leading to Chaco. When the road came to a drop off along an edge of the mesa, instead of going around and picking it up on the other rim, they built huge extensive stairs and ramps so the straight path would continue. So curious. We continued around the edge of the mesa to a different stone crack, just as narrow as the first, in order to get down off this higher section of mesa. It was much warmer now as we marched our way back around the last part of the loop. Then it was down the original crack in the wall and back to camp. Another fun hike – and a few decent pictures.

Pueblos Una Vida and Chetro Ketl
Tuesday, April 11
We were both pretty worn out from yesterdays hike, so today became a mostly hang out kind of day. A good opportunity to catch up on blogs and try to get an internet connection. So far, when the wind is right, we can sometime download mail on the phones, but getting anything out is nearly impossible.Later in the afternoon, we walked the short Una Vida Pueblo hike. This one starts just behind the visitor center and finishes about 3/4 mile down along the mesa base. Una Vida is a small mostly un-excavated ruin where I found a few nice pictographs on a panel above the ruin. Just a short leg stretcher. Later tonight, a ranger led moonlight walk through the largest ruin, Bonito, should prove interesting since afternoon clouds have covered the sky. We showed up early for the walk, so we walked out to Pueblo Chetro Ketl to look around. This is another very large set of ruins. It was apparently continuously under construction for 300 years – the span of time the pueblo people lived here. The light was flat so I just experimented with compositions until it was time to meet up for the walk. At least 50 people showed up. Actually Mary and I made 52. We missed the signup cutoff by seconds, but after chatting a while with the ranger, he stopped us on the way out and said to just show up and he’d let us come along. Nice guy.We were all soon escorted to the central plaza of the pueblo where the ranger talked about sun and moon influences on the earth. Once it was good and dark, we moved into the pueblo itself. By now the full moon had begun to break through the clouds and stars were appearing in great numbers. It was cool to have stars as our ceiling while our ranger related stories of architecture in one room, while in another he told old of how the sun, moon and stars came into being.

While I brought my camera, it was too difficult trying to photograph in the dark amongst 50 people without a tripod. It would just detract from the ranger stories, so I just listened and enjoyed the experience.

Pueblo Bonito at Dawn
Wednesday, April 12It is a bit of a challenge getting into the park for early light. The gates to the loop road to all the pueblos is unlocked at dawn and locked at sunset. One still must in and walk to the ruins, so first light is not really possible. But we got in as early as we could and headed for Pueblo Bonito straight away.I couldn’t decide which version I liked best.I usually like to use the early warm light to highlight aspects of the walls of the ruins, but this morning I walked directly to the plaza. Each time we come here, more of the ruin is roped off and not accessible. This time, my favorite window/wall combination was beyond the ropes and I couldn’t get to the spot I wanted.I made due by looking for other compositions. So much of what I shoot here are images I’ve shot before, so this forced me to look elsewhere. I moved around the plaza, then backtracked to the beginning and entered the ruins looking for window/wall images. Probably nothing new, but it is fun looking and composing. Back outside again, I moved through the plaza to the long back wall of the ruin. I met up with Mary near “Threatening Rock”, the huge chunk of rock that fell over onto a corner of the ruin in 1941. Previously, Navajo who moved into the area felt so threatened by this rock, the tried propping it up with timbers on one side and wedged in a medicine stick on the other.We walked a petroglyph trail over to Chetro Ketl again to see how it looked in morning light. Photographically, our day was done. We’d planned an afternoon walk near the mesa in the campground, but it got so windy that neither one of us wanted to face the blowing sand. We just hung in camp.

Pueblo Penasco Blanco
Thursday, April 13We had hoped Chaco would be somewhat exempt from crowds for Easter week. It has been busier than we expected, but overall, not too bad. Of course, we did have a group of at least 40 kids show up late yesterday at the group campground. I figured that they would probably be on every trail in the park, so in a effort to avoid them as best I could, I chose to hike the longest trail – a 7.2 hike out and back to Pueblo Penasco Blanco and some pretty special pictographs of a super nova (maybe) and a sunburst.

Mary didn’t want to walk on that long a hike, so she chose the South Mesa trail that is about half as long. She drove me to the trailhead out past Pueblo Bonito and agreed to meet me back here later in the afternoon. I’ve hiked this trail before. It is quite flat most of the way and only rises where it leads up onto the mesa top to reach the ruins. It is maybe a 200 ft rise and pretty easy walking.Early on, the trail passes another ruin and several areas of pictographs. The pictographs here are a mixed bag. Some ancient designs, overlaid sometimes with Navajo versions, and still later with even more modern scratchings. It is usually easy to tell what group did which pictograph. The most accomplished are the oldest. Sometimes, subject matter tells you who did it. A horse pecked into the rock tell us it was probably Navajo – Pueblo people didn’t have horses or any beasts of burden. An even more detailed horse nearby speaks of a more modern hand. Eventually the trail crosses the canyon and then a wash. Very little water in it just now so there was no worry of crossing. Where the trail meets the mesa is the location of the pictographs. As i said earlier, these are quite unique and officials don’t really know what exactly they represent. High up on an underside of sandstone block, there is a large handprint, a sun and moon. Just below these is what might be a supernova. Nowhere else do these images exist. A pretty cool sight and well worth it to me to come here.I wanted to see the ruin as well. The last hike out here, we turned back after the pictographs, but I had plenty of energy to hike the last .8 mile to the ruin. As I was walking up the mesa trail, I looked off back over the canyon to see a group of maybe 20 kids hiking toward the paintings. Oh, great. I hurried the rest of the way to Pueblo Penasco Blanco and worked quickly for a while hoping to finish before they overran me. Eventually I slowed down enough to realize they weren’t coming up here. They stayed at the pictographs. I stopped then for lunch and just enjoyed the quiet for a good long while. I found several interesting doorways and windows, and even some bleached elk antlers. On the way back down the trail, I stopped again to see the rock paintings in different light. Earlier, the sun washed out the super nova pictograph on the bottom, so I photographed it again and caught it a bit better. I was running a little late so after that I just put my head down and zoomed back with just a few stops to rephotograph some spots. I met Mary at the trailhead and we finished our day reviewing work we had done on our separate hikes. We have one final day in Chaco before we begin our way back to San Francisco. I should have one final post before putting the blog to bed for a spell.

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