Sunday, December 31, 2017


A complete hiking and climbing guide to the La Plata Mountains of Southwest Colorado. You will also find San Juan Mountain favorites as well as selections from around the Southwest. The entries are sorted by region and alphabetically by title below.

Feature Hike: Climb the La Plata Mountains' observation deck.

La Plata Mountains, Colorado

Baker Peak, 11,949'
Bald Knob, 11,637'
Baldy Peak, 10,866'
Burro Mountain, 11,575' 
Burwell Peak, 12,664'
Centennial Peak, 13,062'
Cumberland Mountain, 12,388'
Deadwood Mountain, 12,285'
Diorite Peak, 12,761'
East Babcock Peak, 13,149'
Gibbs Peak, 12,286'
Helmet Peak, 11,969' to Rush Basin
Hesperus Mountain, 13,232', Northern Approaches 
Hesperus Mountain, 13,232', Southern Approach
Indian Trail Ridge
Kennebec Pass Trailhead to Sharkstooth Pass 
Knife: West Babcock, 13,160', to Spiller Peak, 13,132'
Lavender Peak, 13,200'
Lewis Mountain, 12,681'
Madden Peak, 11,972'
Madden Peak, 11,972', and Parrott Peak, 11,857', Western Approach 
Middle Babcock Peak, 13,180'
Mount Moss, 13,192'
Olga Little Mountain, 11,426'
Parrott Peak, 11,857'
Point 12,101' (Kennebec Peak)
Sharkstooth Peak, 12,462'
Silver Mountain, 12,496'
Snowstorm Peak, 12,511'
Spiller Peak, 13,123', via Burwell
Star Peak, 11,761'
West Babcock Peak, 13,160': Couloir Route

San Juan Mountains, Rocky Mountains, Colorado

American Peak, 13,806', from Burns Gulch
Animas Forks Mountain, 13,722'
Bear Mountain, 12,987'
Beattie Peak, 13,342', from Bandora Mine 
Catwalk: Above Animas Forks
Aztec Mountain, 13,310'
C.T. Peak, 13,312'
Canby Mountain, 13,478' 
Columbine Lake, 12,685', Via Slidepath Route
Columbine Lake, 12,685', Via Standard Trail 
Cooper Creek Peak, 13,688'
Crown Mountain, 13,569', and North Crown, 13,699' 
Dolores Peak, 13,290', San Miguel Mountains
Dragon's Back, 12,968'
Dunn Peak, 12,595', San Miguel Mountains
Engineer Mountain, 12,968'
Engineer Mountain Circumnavigation
Every Mountain, 13,691'
Fuller Peak,13,761' 
Galena Mountain, 13,278'
Golden Horn, 13,780'
Grand Turk, 13,180'
Grayrock Peak, 12,504', and Graysill Mountain's Southern Points 
Grizzly Peak, 13,738'
Gudy Peak, 13,566'
Half Peak, 13,841'
Handies Peak, 14,048', Via Grouse Gulch 
Handies Peak, 14,048', Via Whitecross Mountain
Hayden Mountain South, 13,206', Via Richmond Pass
Hazelton Mountain, 12,527'
Houghton Mountain, 13,052' 
Ice Lake Basin, 12,257', Island Lake, 12,400'
Jones Mountain, 13,860', from Burns Gulch 
Jura Knob, 12,614'
Kendall Peak, 13,451' 
King Solomon Mountain, 13,220'
Little Cone, 11,981' 
Little Giant Peak, 13,416'
Lone Cone, 12,613'
Macomber Peak, 13,222' 
Matterhorn Peak, 13,590'
Middle Peak, 13,280', San Miguel Mountains 
Mount Kennedy, 13,125'
Mount Rhoda, 13,402'; Mountaineer Peak, 13,434'; Whitehead Peak, 13,259'; CDT Loop
Mount Massive, 14,421', Via Southeast Ridge 
Mountain View Crest, Overlook Point, 12,998', West End
Niagara Peak, 13,807', from Burns Gulch
Niagara Peak, 13,807', from Minnie Gulch 
North Twilight Peak, 13,075', West Needle Mountains
Peak 13,300', via Columbine Lake
Peak One, 13,589'
Point 13,795', Colorado's #109, Via Handies Peak 
Redcloud Peak, 14,034'
Rolling Mountain, 13,693'
San Joaquin Ridge Summit, 13,460' 
San Miguel Peak, 13,752'
Sheep Mountain, 13,188', East Ridge Gendarme (Lizard Head Pass) 
Sheridan Mountain, 12,795'
Snowdon Peak, 13,077'
Spencer Basin to Blair Gulch Thru-Hike 
Spencer Peak, 13,087' (Grand Turk Neighbor)
Storm Peak, 13,487', Silverton 
Sultan Mountain, 13,368'
Sundog, 13,432'
Sunshine Mountain, 12,930' (Ophir, CO) 
Sunshine Peak, 14,001'
Telluride Peak, 13,509', Black Bear Pass to Imogene Pass
Tower Mountain, 13,552'
Trico Peak, 13,321', Black Bear Pass to Imogene Pass 
Tuttle Mountain, 13,203' 
Twin Sisters: East, 13,432', and West, 13,374'
V8 (Point 13,300'), from Bandora Mine
Vermilion Peak, 13,894' 
Wetterhorn Peak, 14,015'
Wildhorse Peak, 13,266' 
White Dome, 13,627'
Whitecross Mountain, 13,542', Via Grizzly Gulch
Wood Mountain, 13,650'
Yellow Mountain South, 13,177'

Durango, Colorado and Locations Nearby

Animas City Mountain, 8,161'
Bisti Badlands, Northern New Mexico 
Carbon Mountain, 7,844', Bodo State Wildlife Area 
Cascade Creek Waterfalls, San Juan National Forest
Castle Rock, 10,441', Via Elbert Creek Trail, Hermosa Cliffs
Chaco Culture National Historical Park, World Heritage Site, New Mexico 
Missionary Ridge Trail System
Pautsky Point and Crader Ridge to Point 8,175' Via Horse Gulch
Perins Peak, 8,346': Durango's Natural Landmark 
Twin Buttes East, 7,737', West, 7,700', and Trail System 

National Parks:

Arches: Delicate Arch
Arches: Landscape Arch and Double O Arch
Big Bend: Emory Peak

Canyonlands, Island In The Sky District: Murphy Hogback Trail
Canyonlands, Needles District: Big Spring Canyon, Lost Canyon Loop
Canyonlands, Needles District: Druid Arch 

Capitol Reef: Dome 6,630' and Stegosaur Fin via Hickman Natural Bridge 
Capitol Reef: Golden Throne, Cassidy Arch, Upper Muley Twist
Capitol Reef: Lower Muley Twist Canyon via Cutoff Trail

Death Valley: Corridor Canyon
Death Valley: Hidden Dunes and Eureka Dunes
Death Valley: Surprise Canyon to Panamint City
Death Valley: Telescope Peak, 11,048'; Bennett Peak, 9,980'; Rogers Peak, 9,994'
Death Valley: Thimble Peak, 6,381' and Titus Canyon 4WD Road
Death Valley in Spring: Wildrose Peak, Fall Canyon, Racetrack, Ubehebe Peak, Road Biking
Death Valley in Winter: Corkscrew Peak

Grand Canyon: Escalante Route, Tanner to Grandview
Grand Canyon: Kanab Creek Side Tripping 
Grand Canyon: Marion/Seiber Route, Kolb Arch
Grand Canyon: South Rim Corridor Trails and Clear Creek Spur
Grand Teton: Static Peak

Joshua Tree: Pinto Mountain

Rocky Mountain: Trail Ridge Road Bike Ride, Mount Ida

Southern Utah, Northern Arizona

Abajo Peak, 11,360', High Point of the Blues
Arizona Strip: Coyote Buttes, North and South
Big Horn Canyon, Harris Wash, Zebra Canyon: GSENM
Boulder Mail Trail to Death Hollow 
Bull Valley Gorge: GSENM
Cedar Mesa, Utah
Cobra Arch, Buckskin Gulch Rim, and Middle Route: GSENM
Hole In The Rock Road: Peek-A-Boo & Spooky, Fortymile & Willow, Fiftymile, Stevens Arch
Inselberg Pit Via Old Sheffield Road: GSENM  
Jacob Hamblin Arch from Red Well Trailhead: GSENM
La Sal Mountains: North Block
Ladder Canyon, Spencer Canyon Grid, Milagro Passage: GSENM 
Lick Wash to No Mans Mesa: GSENM
Moab Rim: Hidden Valley and Behind The Rocks Wilderness Study Area 
Natural Bridges National Monument: Three Bridge Loop, Deer Canyon 
Paria River via Buckskin Gulch
Phipps Arch and Wash from Old Sheffield Road: GSENM
Red Breaks Canyon from Harris Wash Trailhead: GSENM
Southeast Utah: Whirlwind Draw, Moqui Canyon
Upper Calf Creek Falls to McGath Point, 6,759'
White Pocket: Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Willis Creek Narrows: GSENM
Wire Pass to Buckskin Gulch Trailhead: Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Yellow Rock, 5,524', and Lower Hackberry Canyon: GSENM

Southern Arizona

Agua Caliente Hill, 5,369', Coronado National Forest
Bassett Peak, 7,663': Galiuro Mountains
Bighorn Mountain, 5,660', Pusch Ridge Wilderness
Catalina State Park to Sabino Canyon National Recreation Area Via Romero Pass, Pusch Ridge Wilderness
Cathedral Rock, 7,957', Pusch Ridge Wilderness 
Dos Cabezas Peaks, 8,354' and 8,357', Via Cooper Peak, 7,950'
Finger Rock Guard, 6,475', Pusch Ridge Wilderness 
Gibbon Mountain, 5,801', From Bear Canyon Trailhead, Pusch Ridge Wilderness
La Milagrosa and Agua Caliente Canyon: The Narrows Loop 
Linda Vista Ridge to Point 5,730', Pusch Ridge Wilderness
McFall Crags, 5,840', Pusch Ridge Wilderness
Mount Ajo, 4,808', Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument 
Mount Kimball, 7,258': Pima Canyon to Finger Rock Canyon, Pusch Ridge Wilderness
Oracle Ridge Trail: Catalina Mountains
Pontatoc Loop Route: Canyon and Ridge Trail Connector, Pusch Ridge Wilderness
Pontatoc Ridge to Point 7,123', Mt. Kimball Loop 
Prominent Point West, 6,628', Pusch Ridge Wilderness
Pusch Peak, 5,361', Pusch Ridge Wilderness 
Ragged Top, 3,907', Silver Bell Mountains 
Rattlesnake Peak, 6,653', Pusch Ridge Wilderness
Rincon Peak, 8,482', Saguaro National Park, Rincon Mountain District
Saddleback Ridge to Point 5,001' Via Phoneline Trail; Blackett's Ridge to Point 4,409'
Sabino Canyon Recreation Area, Tucson
Sutherland Trail: Catalina State Park to Mt. Lemmon, 9,157' 
Table Mountain, 6,265', Pusch Ridge Wilderness
Tanque Verde Peak, 7,049', Saguaro National Park, Rincon Mountain District
Window Peak, 7468', Pusch Ridge Wilderness

Sierra Nevada Mountains

Lamarck Col to Bishop Pass
Mount Gabb, 13,741', Via Lake Italy and Granite Park 

The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild, Wildness is the preservation of the World.
Henry David Thoreau

Debra Van Winegarden (Chris Blackshear, photo)

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Helmet Peak, 11,969', to Rush Basin

Essence: A short out-and-back that provides a unique perspective on the La Plata Mountains from the westernmost peak in the range. Huge views into the wide-open west from this humble peak out there all by itself. Helmet is the launch point onto a two-and-a-half mile ridgeline traverse to Rush Basin, a hidden high alpine cirque.
Travel: From the US 550/160 intersection in Durango, travel west on US 160 for 24.7 miles to the signed Echo Basin Road and turn right/north on MC 44. Zero out your trip meter. Stay on the main road, passing old homesteads and hay meadows. In 2.4 miles pavement turns to gravel and transitions to FSR 566. The roadbed deteriorates at 3.8 miles where winter plowing stops. The track climbs steadily through scrub oak to a cattle guard at 6.4 miles. Directly east is The Hogback. Grazing ceases and on the other side of the guard are acres of mule ears in early summer. At 6.8 miles take the right fork, staying on FSR 566. Climbing, the road passes through an aspen forest, the floor covered in wildflowers. At 8.0 miles the road forks again; turn right. 4WD with HC and sturdy tires are needed on the choppy track. Turn right/south on FSR 322 at 10.3 miles and cross a talus field at 11 miles. Go over a little pass, elevation 10,951 feet, between The Hogback and Helmet Peak. Park on the rocky parking platform at 11.5 miles. Allow 1:00 to 1:15 from Durango.
Distance and Elevation Gain: Helmet Peak: 2.0 miles round trip with 1,020 feet of climbing. Total for the peak and Rush Basin: 6.8 miles with 2,770 feet of climbing.
Total Time: 2:00-3:00 for Helmet, 5:00 for a leisurely walk to Rush Basin
Difficulty: Off-trail; moderate navigation; no exposure.
Maps: Rampart Hills; La Plata, Colorado 7.5 USGS Quads
Latest Date Hiked: June 17, 2017 
Quote: There is a way that nature speaks, that land speaks.  Most of the time we are simply not patient enough, quiet enough to pay attention to the story.  Linda Hogan

A hiker glissades down the Helmet Peak summit cornice. Hesperus Mountain is on the left and Rush Basin is nestled under Spiller Peak. (THW, photo)

Route: Helmet Peak is due east of the parking platform at 10,960 feet but rock glaciers and spectacular west-face cliffs prohibit a direct approach. Ascend southeast to Saddle 11,580'. Climb the south ridge to the summit and return as you came. For the optional walk to Rush Basin head northeast over three numbered points. Return on a prominent bench before regaining the ridge.

From the parking area at 10,960 feet, unbounded views disappear into the blue distance. The town of Mancos is 4,000 feet below on the valley floor. Point Lookout identifies Mesa Verde National Park and to its right is Sleeping Ute Mountain.

Just beyond the platform the road does a triple split. Take the upper left branch through a talus field.

In 0.1 mile leave the road and launch east-southeast up a slope with a consistent pitch. Follow the glades in the spruce-fir forest keeping the prominent rock glacier rolling off Helmet Peak just to the left/north. There is a maze of roadways on the west-facing slope and you will cross abandoned tracks several times. Reach the treed saddle, elevation 11,580 feet, in 0.7 mile. There is a small opening revealing the western massif of the La Plata range. Gibbs Peak, 12,286', is image-center.

The summit is just 0.3 mile off with 400 feet of climbing remaining. Ascend the Class 2 south ridge, a mix of dirt and talus. A social trail comes and goes; just stay near the ridgetop.

Crest Helmet Peak at one mile.

Situated west of the principle range, the summit provides a unique perspective on westerly faces. On the skyline from the left: Hesperus Mountain, Lavender Peak, Mount Moss, Spiller Peak, Middle Babcock, Burwell Peak, and Gibbs Peak.

Off-image,  Lone Cone is a solitary thrust to the northwest; the San Miguel Mountains are a triple threat; El Diente Peak, Mt. Wilson, and Wilson Peak form a bulky cluster of fourteeners; and Lizard Head juts radically. (THW, photo)

The American West is home and in this moment the sense of cavernous space overwhelms.The Colorado Plateau extends south and west until it falls off the curve of the world. Due west is The Hogback. The first time I climbed Helmet we started west of The Hog to add interest, mileage, and elevation. We climbed a total of 3,650 feet by parking on FSR 566 and dropping through shrubs and deadfall into Hells Hole. After gaining the ridge, we bashed and thrashed our course in a spectacularly and constantly cluttered forest for almost four miles across The Hog. I do not regret it but neither do I recommend it. Of course, hours into the trek, we crossed the very road where your car will likely be parked. In this image, the rock glacier runs right into The Hogback. (THW, photo)

Rush Basin
The ridgetop cross over to Rush Basin adds 4.8 miles and 1,750 feet of climbing. Snowfall during the winter of 2016/2017 was exceptional. We planned to walk to Rush Basin but the ridge, basin, and bench were covered in deep snow. (THW, photo)

To reach Rush Basin simply follow the ridge from Helmet to the northeast, shown. Drop off the summit on a grassy slope, crossing an old wagon road. From the minor saddle at 11,420 feet climb and tag Point 11,490' at 1.5 miles. Continue past Point 11,522', and go over the highest prominence of the hike, Point 12,201' at 3.1 miles.  

The stark and colorful ridge is appealing as seen from the Rush Basin Bench in autumn. There is some easy scrambling on the ridge and the 260 foot descent to the shared saddle with Spiller Peak. (THW, photo)

Descend another 100 feet into the basin at 3.4 miles, elevation 11,840 feet. The west ridge of Spiller Peak, 13,123 feet, rises over the tundra-bound lake, headwaters of he East Mancos River. (THW, photo)

To return, walk southwest on the irresistible and alluring bench, a tableland that rests between the out-going ridge and the river canyon well below. Resist bench suck and climb back to the ridge in about 0.9 mile when the land is just starting to drop off the contour. Further on the gravel-covered hard pan slope is ultra steep. Avoid it. This image was taken from Point 12,070', a thin westerly ridge between Gibbs and Burwell. It provides a superior view of the lake, bench, and ridge to Rush Basin. Helmet is off-image to the left. (THW, photo)

Retrace your steps over the top of Helmet Peak.

Below, Helmet Peak presides over a riot of mule ears on FSR 566.

Helmet's western escarpment is seen from the air in May, 2011.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Chaco Culture National Historical Park, World Heritage Site, New Mexico

Essence: Chaco Canyon is distinctive for its superbly crafted monumental structures and large number of great kivas and great houses. Pueblo Bonito is the largest prehistoric structure on the Colorado Plateau. Chacoan culture was a triumphant crowning of human achievement and a vibrant society that lasted over 300 years. The subject of in depth archaeological scrutiny, mysteries remain. This essay describes two short tours: Pueblo Bonito to Chetro Ketl via the Petroglyph Trail; and Casa Rinconada. Two backcountry hikes follow: the Pueblo Alto Loop and the trail to Peñasco Blanco via the Supernova Panel.
Travel: From Durango, travel south on U.S. Route 550 for 82 miles. Just south of mile marker 113 there is a brown sign for Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Turn west on paved San Juan County Road 7900. Turn right onto San Juan CR 7950, 5.1 miles from the highway. Pavement ends at 8.1 miles. The gravel road is wide and swift. However, at 16.8 miles, county maintenance ends and the dirt road is vulnerable to deep ruts. It would be problematic or impassible if wet. Turn back at a wash crossing at 17.5 miles if water is flowing more than a few inches. Upon entering the park at 21.2 miles, the road is paved. 4WD recommended but when the road is dry, 2WD with good clearance should suffice. Allow 2:15 from Durango. There is no fuel available in the park.
Entrance Fees Information
Gallo Campground: This is a National Park Service campground. There are 49 sites and two group sites which may be reserved, a good idea during busy months. Picnic table, fire ring, tent pad, and restrooms with non-potable water. Drinking water is available at the visitor center. Restrooms are closed in winter when porta pottys are available. Plenty of morning sun but no shade throughout the day. Food and ice are not available in the park. Chaco was designated an International Dark Sky Park in 2013. Spend the night in true dark and see the Milky Way and vast regions of space shot with stars.
Time: Plan to spend the entire day in the park.
Difficulty: Visitors are asked to remain on trails; navigation easy; no exposure
Trail Guide: The informative Backcountry Trail Guide with maps is available for purchase at the visitor center.
Latest Date Hiked: June 2, 2017
Quote: Something colossal happened here, an astounding feat of organization for a semi-nomadic people who had never before built anything near this scale...After Chaco fell into decay, there was never a place on the Colorado Plateau with so much concentrated religious wealth.
Craig Childs, House of Rain.

Pueblo Bonito is an immense D-shaped great house located at the center of the Chacoan world. It was constructed in stages over 300 years and is located at the juncture of Chaco Wash and the South Gap.  (THW, photo)

History of the Park 
In a remote canyon in northwestern New Mexico, at the center of the San Juan Basin, lies the remains of a complex agrarian society. Transitioning from a loose aggregation of Basketmaker communities, building began along Chaco Wash on a monumental scale in the mid-800's. By 1175, the great houses of Chaco Canyon were deserted. Architectural marvels and vast treasure lay buried under silt and sand, undisturbed for seven centuries.

In 1849, a column of soldiers in a United States Army expedition from Santa Fe happened upon Pueblo Pintado. Moving westward, each successive cluster of ruins was more remarkable. In 1896, the Hyde Expedition led by Richard Wetherill excavated 190 rooms and kivas at Pueblo Bonito. Railcar loads of artifacts were shipped to the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

In 1906, Congress passed the Antiquities Act to protect prehistoric sites on public lands. A year later, Chaco Canyon was designated Chaco Canyon National Monument. In 1980 it was named Chaco Culture National Historical Park. One of humanity's crowning achievements, in 1987, Chaco was designated a World Heritage Site. 

More archaeological research has been conducted at Chaco than any other location in North America. And yet, of the estimated 3,600 archaeological sites within the park boundary, only a small percentage have been excavated. The greater Chacoan community covered roughly 60,000 square miles.

Public architecture at Chaco is unique for its massive scale and perfection wrought by stone masons. There are twelve great houses within the park. Pueblo Bonito is the largest prehistoric structure on the Colorado Plateau. It is a five story, superbly crafted, terraced great house with over 650 rooms and 35 kivas in a half-circle geometric tucked against the south-facing sandstone walls of Chaco Canyon.

Despite all the scrutiny at Chaco, deep mysteries remain. One on-going controversy is population size and class structure. Research by Chacoan authority, Dr. Stephen Lekson, Professor of Anthropology, University of Colorado Boulder, suggests that about 2,000 people lived in Chaco Canyon. The archaeological evidence is unambiguous: the class structure, common for the era, was that of nobles wielding power over commoners.

Fewer than five percent of the population, 50 to 100 nobles, inhabited Pueblo Bonito. Great houses were ceremonial buildings, monuments, temples, and trading centers housing astronomers, priests, master masons, and warriors.  Nobles were clearly influenced by Mesoamerica but DNA studies show they were local people. Commoners lived in nearby unit pueblos with five rooms and one kiva.

Another perplexing enigma is the purpose and extent of road networks that linked the great houses in the canyon to outlying communities. One hundred fifty miles of road have been indisputably documented and another 300 miles of roadway are still visible. Roads radiated from Chaco in all directions. The Great North Road leaves from Pueblo Alto and heads 50 miles toward the San Juan River.  It was engineered to aim straight north without deviation, requiring ramps and stairways carved into bedrock.

Archaeologists question whether the 30-foot wide roads were meant for transportation and trade networks or formal processions. 250,000 timbers were needed to construct over-engineered great house ceilings. Trees were harvested from forests 60 miles away, hoisted and hauled in procession. Studies indicate that most of the timbers came from the Chuska Mountains to the west and from the southern Zuni Mountains. Less than ten percent were hauled from the San Juan Mountains.

Roads supported Chaco's bulk economy. Seashells, chert, and obsidian were imported as well as live macaws from 500 miles away in Guatemala and copper bells from Mexico. Cacao and vast quantities of turquoise were carried from faraway lands. Pottery was fired at the wood source and supplemental corn was grown where water was plentiful. Porters could carry supplies for 250 kilometers before it became counterproductive.

During 300 years of habitation in a desiccated landscape irrigation canals and catchment dams captured sufficient water to grow corn, squash, and beans. At least one 25-year drought occurred. By the late 1100's the Chacoan people had mostly dispersed. While Chaco's influence is clear at Aztec Ruins, Mesa Verde National Park, and the Bluff Great House, those who migrated south created vibrant societies that live on today.

It is believed that the high level of civilization and refinement created at Chaco was the work of indigenous ancestors of present day Puebloans. There is a clear line between earlier societies and modern villages such as Zuni where people reinvented themselves, doing away with the repressive class structure. Today's Puebloans won't talk about Chaco and will only say, "Bad things happened there."

Lingering mysteries abound and persist at Chaco, adding to its allure. The creation of wondrous structures speak to traits within us that yearn for excellence in beauty, purpose, and execution.

Pueblo Bonito, Petroglyph Trail, and Chetro Ketl
Chaco Loop Road is one-lane, one-way. Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl share a parking lot. The trail through Bonito is 0.6 mile long. Pick up an interpretive guide at the visitor center.

Pueblo Bonito means "pretty village" in Spanish. The great house was constructed in stages from 850 to 1150. It was the epicenter of the Chacoan world; one archaeologist dubbed the great house and immediate surroundings "downtown Chaco."

Masonry techniques were unique for the time and evolved over the centuries. While different masonry styles are represented at Bonito, they are typically core and veneer as seen below at the southeast corner.

Four types of doorways were used in great house construction. Most common are small doors with a high sill. Shown below is a series of four doors at rest under a cloudy sky.

Vigas cast long shadows in full sun.

There are seven corner doors in Bonito which serve as astronomical markers. In one interior room Wetherill found a stockpile of 198 cylinder jars with black-on-white Mayan designs. The unique pottery forms were filled with turquoise and cacao, Chacoan currency. Nobles controlled the production of turquoise beads made in commoner houses. Stacked burials of nobles were covered in turquoise, shell, and macaw feathers. (THW, photo)

There are three great kivas in the plaza and many smaller ones crowded together.

Chaco Canyon lies in northwestern New Mexico along the upper reaches of Chaco Wash, a 100 mile-long tributary of the San Juan River. An ephemeral stream, the wash cut Chaco Canyon through Cliff House Sandstone, the upper member of the Mesa Verde Group. It is underlain by the Menefee Formation, a dark shale containing thin sandstone strata and coal. Find the intersect between structures and the cliff rock from which they were created.

The Navajo named the pueblo, "house where the rocks are propped up." Threatening Rock was a colossal standing rock detached from the cliff. Chacoans buttressed it with a supporting masonry terrace. The column collapsed in 1941 demolishing a portion of the great house.

A trail guide for the 0.25 mile Petroglyph Trail is available at the visitor center. Incised lines are possibly sharpening grooves for axes, awls, and knives. Stone tools were used to create petroglyphs and to construct buildings.

This complex panel has anthropomorphs, a venomous snake, and spirals spinning off each other.

Chetro Ketl is the second largest Chacoan great house. The earthen plaza rests on an artificially raised platform twelve feet above the valley floor. There are a cluster of subterranean kivas, including a great kiva. These massive, perfectly circular structures had standardized architectural features. Looking at the image below, the circular masonry-lined pits seated four wooden pillars that supported the domed roof. The timbers stood on stacks of sandstone disks, shown. Notice the raised floor vaults and firebox. A staircase served as entryway from the plaza level. A low masonry bench encircles the room. The square wall niches held offerings. Finally, kivas possessed a sipapu, a small hole that served as passage to and from the underworld.

Chetro Ketl is distinctive for its elevated kiva and 500-foot-long undeviating back wall. It is aligned precisely with east-west cardinal points. (THW, photo)

Casa Rinconada 
The trail through Casa Rinconada and nearby sites is 1.2 miles long but the great kiva is just a few steps from the parking area. Casa Rinconada is the largest excavated great kiva in Chaco Canyon. It was constructed on a hill within a community of small villages. The kiva accommodated hundreds of people for ceremonial purposes.

The kiva's diameter is 64 feet. Thirty-four niches are tucked into the inner wall above the masonry bench. Casa Rinconada is aligned with solar, lunar, and cardinal points. The northern entryway is aligned precisely with true north. Dr. Lekson claims that cardinal directions are obsessively embedded in Chacoan architecture. As interest in archaeoastronomy gains traction, people come to Casa Rinconada at the Summer Solstice to watch first light enter a window and cast a rectangle of light inside a niche. While archaeoastronomers are not sure whether this particular alignment is a true solstice marker, other astronomical alignments in Chaco have been verified. (THW, photo)

Wall detail on the north antechamber exterior.

Backcountry Trails
Two of the four backcountry hikes at Chaco are shown on the map below. The Pueblo Alto Loop Trail is the black-line route. Peñasco Blanco is depicted in blue. Backcountry hikers must carry a permit, available at the visitor center or trailhead. There is little or no shade; carry plenty of water.

Pueblo Alto Loop Trail
This trail begins from the Pueblo del Arroyo parking lot at elevation 6,120 feet. It is a six mile stem-and-loop with 400 feet of elevation gain. The hike will consume between two-and-a-half and four hours. Highlights include two Chacoan passageways, Pueblo Bonito Overlook, Pueblo Alto Complex, and the Jackson Stairway.

From the parking lot head northwest toward Kin Kletso on a dirt road that parallels Chaco Wash and the canyon cliffs. The valley floor is thick with big sagebrush, four-wing saltbush, greasewood, and blackbrush. Cottonwoods edge the arroyo.

At 0.3 mile, the Alto Trail splits off to the right passing by Kin Kletso, "yellow house" in Navajo. According to the information placard at the site the great house was built over a ten year period in the early 12th century just before construction at Chaco ended. The masonry style is McElmo characterized by the use of larger, softer, and lighter sandstone slabs.

The well-armored escarpment is broken by a two to three foot-wide crack, an ancient passageway. It is a delightful, easy Class 2 scramble to the cliff top.

Emerge from the crack onto a sandstone bench that overlooks Kin Kletso.

Follow cairns across sandstone sheets bearing southeast. Pass pecked basins typically carved near cliff edges on sandstone benches. Turquoise was found in some basins.

In February, 2017, an elk herd stoically watched as we passed.

Fossilized shrimp burrows, masonry terraces, and stone circles are explained in the trail guide.

Leave the Pueblo Alto Trail and take the short spur to the Pueblo Bonito Overlook at one mile. (THW, photo)

From the overlook see the graceful sweeping curve of Pueblo Bonito. The plaza is bifurcated into eastern and western halves by a room block aligned with true north. Several roads entered the canyon through the South Gap. Archaeologists think that regions south of Chaco were even more influential than those to the north. The northern boundary is limited and defined by the San Juan Mountains. Chacoan influence extended west to Hopi, east to the Rio Grand River, and south to the Mogollon Rim. (THW, photo)

Return to the Alto Trail and begin the gentle climb to the Pueblo Alto Complex. A Chacoan Road linking Pueblo Alto to Bonito and other buildings on the canyon floor was cleared in the 1970's but it is hard for the untrained eye to detect. Look for stacked rocks curbing the boarders. Masonry steps were constructed between tiers of sandstone. Below, New Alto is seen from a distance.

At 1.8 miles, take the left branch to visit New Alto. It is a two story great house with rooms arranged symmetrically around a central kiva. The site has been stabilized but not excavated. Walk around the structure and then take a cut-across trail to Pueblo Alto just 0.2 mile afar.

Pueblo Alto, elevation 6,440 feet, is the literal highpoint of the hike. It is the largest structure in the complex and the only one that has been excavated. However, it remains mostly buried. As with Bonito, fewer than five percent of the rooms show evidence of habitation.

Pueblo Alto was the first great house built on the Great North Road. At an opening in the north wall, several roads radiate to northern outliers including Salmon Ruins on the San Juan River and Aztec Ruins on the Animas River. It is curious that Chaco wasn't built in Aztec, New Mexico to begin with. The great house at Aztec was the single biggest construction project done in a decade at the height of Chacoan power, post 1125. Aztec maintained the same class structure of nobles and commoners and fell into rapid decline shortly after completion. Earl Morris fully reconstructed the great kiva at Aztec between 1916 and 1922.

The hilltop site has a full-circle view of the endless horizon. The Jemez Mountains are east; Mt. Taylor is south; the Chuska Mountains are west; Huerfano Mesa, the San Juan Mountains and La Plata Mountains may be seen in the north. The Puebloans communicated great distances using signal fires. A fire box was found at Pueblo Alto. A repeater signal sent the message from Huerfano Mesa to Chimney Rock and from there to Mesa Verde. Blocky McElmo style is shown in this masonry detail.

The Mesa Verde Group is overlain by Lewis Shale which forms the plain north of Pueblo Alto. Walking is flat and easy heading east on a well-defined dirt path hemmed in by ephedra, prickly pear, and native grasses. Be watching for the Jackson Stairway on the opposite wall of a box canyon. Reach the stairs at three miles.  The stairway was carved into the cliff face to enhance travel between Chetro Ketl and Alto Mesa. Photographer William Henry Jackson traveled with the Hayden Survey of the western United States in 1877.

Walk to the south end of the mesa rim and squeeze 25 feet down a boot-wide crack or stem the breach.

From the Chetro Ketl overlook, gaze into the great kiva. An arc of rooms encloses the elevated courtyard and tower kiva.

Signs point to road segments and the remains of a broad ramp that ascended from the floor of the canyon to the cliff top. Close the loop at the spur to Pueblo Bonito Overlook. A second visit will reveal the great house in different light.

Descend the Chacoan passageway. At the bottom find a boulder covered in fossilized, glossy sea shells. It attests to the marine origin of Cliff House Sandstone during the Cretaceous Period.

Peñasco Blanco Trail
This trail begins from the Pueblo del Arroyo parking lot. It is a 7.8 mile out-and-back with 300 feet of elevation gain. Total hiking time is three to five hours. Highlights include a high concentration of rock art, the Supernova Panel, and the western gate of Chaco Canyon, Peñasco Blanco.

The track is shared with the Pueblo Alto Trail to Kin Kletso and then carries on to Casa Chiquita at one mile. The compact great house was built on a rise. A square room block surrounds an elevated kiva.

The trail continues down Chaco Wash as an historic Navajo wagon road once did shuttling goods between Wetherill's Pueblo Bonito Trading Post and points west.

Keep a keen eye out for petroglyphs on random boulders at the base of the Cliff House Sandstone. Chaco Canyon has the most Basketmaker sites found anywhere, dating from the 6th century. The sites are contiguous in the canyon and so is their rock art.

The 0.3 mile Petroglyph Trail begins at 1.5 miles. It runs along the cliff adjacent to the main trail. Here you will find the largest concentration of petroglyphs and inscriptions in Chaco Canyon: Puebloan, Navajo, and cowboy engravings. The initial 15 foot panel features geometrics which some attribute to the shaman's inner eye. The panel shown below is 35 feet above the canyon floor. The three elements are a bighorn sheep, an anthropomorph, and a katsina (supernatural being) mask. Off image-right are faint but exceedingly beautiful designs beside sandal tracks going up the wall.

Rejoin the main trail and walk on the floodplain. After crossing Chaco Wash at elevation 6,060 feet, the trail abuts the cliff directly below Peñasco Blanco. The Supernova Panel is located here, three miles from the trailhead on the ceiling of a small overhang. The red pictograph depicts a star, crescent moon, and human hand.

On July 5, 1054, Chinese astronomers recorded the rare explosion of a supernova in the constellation of Taurus. The Crab Nebula is the supernova remnant. It was as bright as the full moon, visible mid-day for a month. This occurred when the great houses of Chaco were at the height of power. On that morning the horns of the waning crescent moon pointed west. The middle finger of the hand points to where the supernova rose.

On the vertical wall in the image below is a pecked and painted solid sphere with two concentric circles. Red paint flows out to the right. Halley's Comet passed Chaco twelve years after the supernova in 1066. Notice the swallow nests attached to the wall.

Peñasco Blanco, "white bluff," is 0.8 mile further. The trail steps up the cream-colored sandstone and tops out on a mesa at elevation 6,270 feet. The great house overlooks the confluence of Chaco Wash and Escavada Wash. The site is located at the terminus of several roads at the western entrance to Chaco Cyn. We searched fruitlessly for the 30-foot-wide Chacoan road going west. Blanco is in line of sight with Bonito and Una Vida, eight miles away. Pueblo Alto, signal fire location, is also visible. (THW, photo)

Wetherill and Navajo workers searched some of the rooms looking for turquoise, but Peñasco Blanco remains chiefly unexcavated. The great house with its unique oval layout was constructed over a 300 year period and different masonry types are evident. Walking around the lofty pueblo I felt a sense of timelessness and shared human experience.

Pueblo Del Arroyo Upon returning to the trailhead visit the "village by the wash." It is notable for three concentric, circular walls. In contrast, this razor-sharp corner is typical at Chaco. Circular or linear, exceptional craftsmanship is the esthetic norm in Chaco Canyon.

The condition of the road and remoteness of Chaco Culture National Historical Park is its saving grace.