Some shade in the desert
Built only with stone tools, with the supportive vigas (large beams) carried by hand from mountains over fifty miles away, these complex, sophisticated pueblos were not only elegant and complicated communities, they were astronomically aligned with the solstices, along sightlines over nine miles apart. The largest Chacoan pueblo had four stories, over 600 rooms and 40 kivas, so these places were not inconsequential, but because the people had no written language (and because researchers have found no midden heaps or burial sites), almost nothing is known about them.
Hungo Pavi wall
These remarkable structures were built in stages between the mid 800s and the early 1100s, with roads connecting Chaco with around 200 other great houses in the area. And then, just barely after these pueblos would have been completed, the people left, dispersing throughout the Four Corners area.
Pueblo Bonito - look how straight the walls are still
We got up Sunday morning for a 6:45 a.m. departure, heading back southeast on 550 after fueling up with gas, water and caffeinated beverages. We turned off the highway in Nageezi, then headed in towards the park: 7.8 miles (ten minutes) on a chip-and-seal/paved road, then 8.2 miles (sixteen minutes) on a "good" gravel road, and then an excruciating 4.3 miles (26 minutes!) on a rutted, washboarded dirt road.
Series of doorways in Pueblo Bonito
While at the visitors' center, we learned about needing permits for any hikes (free, located at trailheads) and a complimentary guided tour of Pueblo Bonito at 10 a.m. That gave us just enough time to walk through the first two sites on the park's (blessedly paved) loop road: Hungo Pavi and Chetro Ketl.
Looking at an upper story window
We met the tour group at the Pueblo Bonito and while there were initially eight of us with an estimated tour time of 1.5 hours, more and more people piled on until there were nearly 30. That was too many people for us - and clearly they wouldn't finish the tour in an hour and a half at that pace - so we slipped away, following the self-guided tour through the interior of Pueblo Bonito. This massive complex was mindblowingly engineered, with the 1,000 year old vigas still evident in the sleek stone masonry.
Latillas (small) and vigas (large)
After filling out our permit, we did the Pueblo Alto hike, parking at the Pueblo del Arroyo trail head and checking out the Kin Kletzo ruins near the trail. The loop was 5.4 miles (2 hrs. 45 min.), climbing up to the mesa and meandering through the desert and around the arroyo rim. There were several overlooks along the rim - of Kin Kletzo, Pueblo Bonito and, later, Chetro Ketl - as well as interesting natural features like pecked basins, fossilized shrimp burrows and fossilized clam shells.
Pueblo Bonito from hike overlook
Both Pueblo Alto and New Alto were located up on the mesa, with 360-degree views; the newer pueblo still has walls standing but the older one is just foundation outlines and mounds. We continued around the arroyo rim, stopping to be duly impressed at the Jackson Stairway that the Chacoans had hacked out of the cliff face, before climbing through a narrow crack to make our way down a level for the return.
Jackson Stairway, right up the cliff face
At this point, we were starting to get pretty hot - there is absolutely no shade out there in Chaco Canyon - so we hightailed it back to the car, passing several other hikers on their way up to the overlooks. (There were more people at CCNHP than we expected but certainly far, far fewer than more accessible national parks and monuments.) As we enjoyed our post-hike beers back at the car, we chatted with some folks - including one kid from Falmouth, Maine, who had recently moved to Santa Fe. It truly is a small world, even in the most desolate corners.
On the way down
After so many hours in the New Mexican sun, we didn't have much excitement for what was left of the day. We drove back to the motel, managing to not jar loose any fillings on that terrible dirt road out of the park, got cleaned up, found some dinner and went to bed early.
Kin Kletzo from above
Chetro Ketl from above