Chaco Canyon 2019

We arrived at Navajo National Monument and went into the visitor center to see if there was a tour the next day down to the Betatakin cliff dwelling ruins. There was not one planned, but the Ranger called the guide and he agreed to do one the next day for us – awesome. More folks joined in after us too.

We found a campsite with Clark and Jill and shortly after Kirk and Kathy arrived from their backpacking adventure in Paria Canyon. It was Cinco de Mayo so we had a huge Mexican food night complete with margaritas – ole’. The next morning, our guide left early on the hike, but the Ranger took us down to the trailhead where he and the others doing the hike were waiting for us to arrive.

There are two ways down to Betatakin, the shorter route down a few hundred stairs carved out of the rock wall, or the longer 6-mile route that descends into the river canyon confluence and makes its way back up a canyon to the alcove site. Pam and I like the longer route because its more picturesque and not quite the stair-master on the way back up.

Our guide was a 70ish-year old Navajo gentleman that gave a great tour during the 5-hour trek down and back. Betatakin was inhabited by ancient Pueblos in the 1250 to 1300 AD timeframe. They now know this from dating the trees used in the construction. Hopi clan pictographs can be seen on the walls and Hopis still visit the site for ceremonies and to visit with their ancestors. I think an overnight trek out to Keet Seel, another ancient Pueblo cliff dwelling ruin about 8 miles up through the canyon below, will be on our late summer or fall list of hikes this year.

After the hike the six of us drove to Aztec, NM and camped at Ruins Road RV Park and Campground, another new campsite for Pam and me. The campground had a large RV lot, but we got the entire Animas River campsite area to ourselves for the night. The river was flowing pretty good and the air was still chilly enough that mosquitoes were not an issue.

The next morning, we made our way to Aztec Ruins National Monument, a place we’ve driven by before but never stopped. The ruins there are ancestral Pueblo that were misnamed Aztec by early explorers to the region and the name stuck. Similar to what we were going to see at Chaco Canyon, the 900-year old ruins were multi-roomed, multi-storied quarters constructed from wood and stone. Nearly all the wood used in the 400 room ruins is gone, having been repurposed over the ages, causing some of the stone walls to collapse.

The visitor center was once the home of one of the original archeologists, who repurposed many of the ruin’s roof beams for his home.

The Great Kiva was reconstructed to provide a glimpse of how it looked when the folks lived here. Stone pillars supported the wooden roof and the stone walls and supports were covered in plaster and painted.

After touring Aztec Ruins, we headed just over an hour south to the Chaco Culture National Historic Park. The last 6 miles of dirt road leading into the park from the east is in much need of grading. You are always glad to arrive in the park just so you don’t have to drive on that road any further – lol.

We set up camp and at the Gallo Campground in the park. The campground is being refurbished. While it is under construction, they do not take reservations, only first come first served. Being mid-week there were plenty of sites available.

We then hit the visitor center, talked with the Rangers and explored the five Great Houses along the north side of the canyon drive: Una Vida, Hungo Pavi, Chetro Ketl, Pueblo Bonito and Pueblo del Arroyo. These Great Houses were constructed and used between 850 and 1150 AD before being left by the ancestral Pueblo. This place was the center of the ancestral Pueblos with roads running in the four cardinal directions away from the valley. Trade goods from the Pacific Northwest to southern Mexico have been excavated from the ruins.

The Ranger said we should hike up to Pueblo Alto on top of the canyon wall but given the light rain we saved that for the next day. The climb up (and back down) through the rock was a lot of fun. Here is Pam leading the way back down the trail.

The view looking down over Pueblo Bonito was pretty spectacular from along the Pueblo Alto Trail.

These Great Houses contained hundreds of rooms and Pueblo Bonito was 4 stories high in some places. The stone was brought in from quarries located miles away. The huge wooden beams were cut and carried from the mountain ranges 40 to 60 miles away. It was estimated that only 50 to 100 people lived in Pueblo Bonito year around, and given its flawless construction and care for the materials used, it appears that this place was a pilgrimage site where the ancestral Puebloans learned their rituals and honed their construction skills. These Great Houses must have appeared to be majestic cathedrals in their day when most folks at the time were living in simple pit houses.

Like most pueblos the access to the rooms was from the ceiling above by ladder down to the room below, but some of the lower rooms were connected by doorways. The rooms would have also been plaster covered. They uncovered beautiful designs similar to those found on southwestern pottery on some of the walls during excavation.

Once excavated many of the lower rooms were then filled with earth to provide structural stability and proper water drainage. The Kivas would have looked similar to the one reconstructed at Aztec Ruins. There are 30 visible kivas present in Pueblo Bonito alone. Some were probably used for ceremonies or training, while some were closed and buried for the ancestors to use.

The stone work for these buildings is incredible. While the Great Houses differ in construction techniques, all reflect an incredible amount of skill and patience to fit stones within the gaps of larger stones, producing flush surfaces and square corners prior to being covered in plaster.

The 30-foot wide roads lead to Pueblo Alto as an entry point to the Canyon. The archeologists think this is true because the amount of potsherds are 25 times what would be expected for a pueblo that size. The thought is that once folks arrived, they broke their pots containing the gifts or food they brought as part of the arrival ritual.

We also hiked out to Wijiji, another back-country pueblo that is on the trail in the opposite direction from the other Great Houses to the campsite. This Great House was 225 rooms and 3 stories tall.

It was overcast with light rain the first two days there and that night we set up the alcove as a wind break for our dinner as the temperatures dropped to near freezing. Chaco is located at 6200 feet in altitude so it can get cold most of the year. It is so far from everything that it was designated an “International Dark Sky Park”, a place where the Milky Way is visible and vibrant at night.

Clark and Jill took off for home the next day, and then off to LA to see their daughter for Mother’s Day weekend. Kirk, Kathy, Pam and I headed out along the Penasco Blanco Trail, but Kirk ran into the Ranger who gave a great talk about Pueblo Bonito in the visitor center during an afternoon rain shower. With the sun out now and crystal blue skies above, Kirk followed the Ranger to Pueblo Bonito for some serious photography.

Kathy, Pam and I headed up the trail to see the Casa Chiquita and the petroglyphs along the canyon walls. A beautiful 6-foot bull snake was sunning itself across the trail on our way back. We didn’t make it all the way to Penasco Pueblo this time so there will have to be a future trip back to this magical place.

The four of use left Chaco going the southern route in hopes that the dirt road heading towards Grants, NM would be better, and it was. We then stopped and camped at El Morro National Monument, one of our favorite places. There are only 9 campsites there and its first come first served for these free campsites. Shortly after we arrived and got settled in the place was filled.

The next day we broke camp in a light rain and even hiked the 2-mile loop on and around the sandstone monolith that is El Moro. It was a totally new place for Kirk and Kathy and even new to Pam and me in the rain. Waterfalls and small pools were visible where typically it is just dry rock, which made it a nice stop before home – again.

After the hike we headed back home to end our trip. The Roamer passed through 90,000 miles and maybe we’ll break 100,000 miles sometime this summer. We’ll see.

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