For my third full day in Chaco Culture National Historical Park I hiked to Peñasco Blanco. The trailhead to Peñasco Blanco is located at the Pueblo del Arroyo parking lot, and the 7.2-mile hike is the longest in Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Aside from the length, this dog friendly hike is very easy.
Annie and I began the trek on the road to Kin Kletso where pit toilets may be found and then continued through the high-desert meadow. A mile from the trailhead stands, Casa Chiquita that dates back to AD 1060. The small great house which features a nearly square block of rooms surrounding an elevated kiva was built into and atop the hillside. It has many features in common with nearby Kin Kletso including the McElmo masonry and narrow rectangular rooms on its southern walls.
About a ½ mile past Casa Chiquita, a petroglyph trail branches off to the right and reconnects with the main trail later. The sandy path parallels sandstone cliffs etched with symbols from different ethnicities and time periods. There are six substantial areas marked by posts. Some, unfortunately, also include graffiti.
After studying the petroglyphs, we rejoined the main trail and continued through the high desert meadow blanketed in salt cedar and greasewood. These species are now considered invasive as they have overtaken the valley due to the overgrazing of sheep and cattle in the early 1900’s.
Additionally, the loss of grass and ground cover from so much livestock grazing coupled with violent storms has hastened the development of steep walled arroyos in the Chaco Wash. The National Park Service has fenced the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, so native grasses, shrubs, and wildlife have returned, though the hearty cedar and greasewood still prevail.
That said, cottonwoods and willows grow in the deep arroyo, and during mid-October they donned magnificent fall color. We got a close up look at them as the path turned to the left and crossed the arroyo.
This small crossing of the high-walled gully was the only hard part of the trail. Annie and I found a way across without having to scramble, but I can see how the short, yet steep sandy banks could pose a challenge. Of course, if water is flowing through the arroyo, the crossing is far more dangerous.
From the arroyo, the trail gradually ascends the rocky cliffs. The ascent is much easier than the hikes on Pueblo Alto Trail and South Mesa Trail Loop. As the path skirts the wall, a sign marks some pictographs of a star, crescent moon, and human hand. This was my favorite Native American art in the entire park. It is believed that it represents a supernova (exploding star), which lit the night sky for a month in AD 1054.
From the supernova, we followed the cairns up the rocks and mesa ¾ of a mile to Peñasco Blanco. Peñasco o Blanco, or white cliff in Spanish, is named for the light sandstone on which it sits.
Unlike any other Chacoan great house, Peñasco Blanco has an oval shape. As with Pueblo Bonito and Una Vida, it was constructed any many stages over 300 years between AD 850 and 1130. All three sites align in sight on an 8-mile axis line.
Peñasco Blanco was the terminus of several roads at the western entrance to Chaco Canyon while Una Vida was located at the terminus of roads at the eastern entrance. Pueblo Bonito was at the center axis where the north-south and east-west roads converged.
Despite the site being unexcavated, there are a decent amount of ruins to see. In fact, of all the back country sites, this might be the grandest.
Annie and I took a look around and then sat down outside the ruins for a snack as coyotes howled from the below valley.
Chaco Culture National Historical Park
I spent four days at Chaco Culture National Historical Park, and it was the perfect amount of time to explore literally every available trail and ruin shown on the map of Chaco Canyon. I really enjoyed seeing the ruins and loved that the park is dog friendly in the back country.
My four tips for a journey to Chaco Culture National Historical Park are as follows:
- Prepare for a washboard road and check you didn’t lose any hubcaps on the way in! I understand coming from the south is better choice.
- Reserve a campsite early and try get a site on the other side of the bathroom from spot 10 which is miserably located next to the group sites.
- Buy the Backcountry Trail Guide and perhaps the other site guides as they provide a substantial amount of information which is not included on the park maps or signage. It makes viewing the sites much more interesting. I bought the Backcountry Trail Guide for $3, but sort of wished I also picked up the guide for Pueblo Bonito since it is the largest great house in the park.
- At least in October, Chaco Canyon is practically crowd free prior to 9:30am. Get the place to yourself and go early. If you enter when the park opens at 7am, there is a good chance you’ll see a beautiful sunrise during a full moon or a herd of elk.