Chaco backcountry hiking opportunities include the Pueblo Alto Trail, Penasco Blanco Trail, South Mesa Trail, and Wijiji Trail. There is an online summary of the backcountry hiking trails. The Chaco Culture Backcountry Trail Guide ($2.00 at the Visitors' Center) has detailed information on these trails. Hiking permits are required for these trails. The permits are free, and are available at all trailheads and at the Visitors' Center.
Bc 50 is a small residential structure located just east of the Casa Rinconada Great Kiva and about one-half mile south of Pueblo Bonito. This rectangular building, also known as “Tseh So” (rock crystal in Navajo), had twenty-six ground-floor masonry rooms with four kivas along the east side. Normally these villages were single-story construction that was renovated and expanded over time; however, new buildings were sometimes built on top of old buildings. However, at Bc 50, the substructure and superstructure components of the building indicate that it may have been a multi-story building. Ceramic evidence at Bc 50 suggests a long period of occupation primarily centered around 900 - 1000 A.D. but the occupation may not have been continuous. The visible walls date from the later period of occupation (after A.D. 1050). In the villages, single-course masonry walls were used, rather than core-and-veneer like in the great houses.
Bc 51, along with Bc 50, are “type sites” for Chacoan small house residences or villages. With about 45 ground-floor rooms and seven kivas, Bc 51 is very large for this building type. When Bc 51 was first excavated in 1936-37 by Clyde Kluckholn, an earlier structure was found beneath the site that included pit houses. Pit houses predate masonry construction. Kluckholn believed that this difference in architecture indicated that villages in this area were occupied by two distinct Pueblo Indian groups at different times. This is also supported by the three tree-ring dates for the site, all from Room 7, are from trees harvested in A.D. 967 and A.D. 1043, which implies at least two construction/remodeling phases.
During the excavations of Bc 51 by the University of New Mexico archeological field school from 1936-47, nineteen rooms and six kivas were completely or partially excavated. They discovered that only a few rooms in the village were occupied at any one time. The fill in an occupied room might include a fire hearth and ash, tools, and personal items. The fill of a storage room might include storage vessels and remnants of stored food. However, many rooms at Bc 51 were filled with trash, indicating that the Chacoan residents had converted them into refuse areas. There are great views of Pueblo Bonito and the Casa Rinconada Great Kiva from this site. However, Bc 51 had something else that made it unique. It had a large, beautiful orange lichen growing on one of its walls!
Bc 59 is a small village located about 325 feet southeast of the Casa Rinconada Great Kiva. The site includes approximately 30 masonry rooms and five kivas. The Chaco Research Archive tells us that when it was excavated in 1947, the excavators noted a “refuse heap” east-southeast of the original site mound with skeletal material eroding out of it. Student notes document limited excavations in this mound and a later report by Erik Reed revealed that 38 individuals were recovered from 34 burials. In addition, Hyde Expedition photographs reveal that Pepper’s Burial Mound No. 1 was about 100 feet south of the village. Pepper recovered 12 burials from the mound and his report also indicates that Richard Wetherill and the Palmer family excavated in the same area in 1895. Many of the rooms at Bc 59 were irregularly shaped compared to the other small villages in the immediate vicinity.
Bc 59 dates from A.D. 1050-1110 but some ceramic types suggest the possibility of an earlier, 10th century, occupation. The exposed walls are the most recent construction. The older walls lie buried beneath what is visible. What appears to be a deep kiva on the west side of the village is actually three distinct kivas, superimposed on top of each other. The oldest kiva is at the bottom and the most recent near the surface. This indicates the renovation and reuse of rooms in the village over time.
There is a short, spur road off the far northwest end of the 9-mile loop road. At the end there is a parking lot with trailheads to the Wetherill Cemetery, Pueblo del Arroyo, and the Penasco Blanco and Pueblo Alto trails. It is just a short walk (~100 meters) over to the cemetery. Richard Wetherill (1858 – 1910), a member of a prominent Colorado ranching family, was an amateur explorer in the discovery, research and excavation of sites associated with the ancient pueblo people. He is credited with the discovery of Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde (while searching for stray cattle?) and was responsible for initially selecting the term Anasazi, Navajo for ancient enemies, as the name for these ancient people. He also discovered Kiet Seel ruin, now included, along with Betatakin ruin, in Navajo National Monument in northeastern Arizona.
The ruins of Chaco Canyon have been known to the outside world since the 1850's, when a military survey project passed through the area; however, the location was so remote that formal archaeological work did not began until 1896, when a party from the American Museum of Natural History began excavating in Pueblo Bonito. This "Hyde Exploring Expedition" spent five years in the region, sending collections back to New York and even operating a series of trading posts. In 1901, Wetherill, who had worked for the Hyde family in Chaco Canyon, homesteaded land that included Pueblo Bonito, Pueblo Del Arroyo, and Chetro Ketl. While investigating Wetherill's land claim, General Land Office special agent S. J. Holsinger made a report which strongly recommended the creation of a national park to preserve Chacoan sites. President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed "Chaco Canyon National Monument" on March 11, 1907, as Wetherill relinquished his claim on several parcels of land he held in Chaco Canyon.
Richard Wetherill remained in Chaco Canyon, homesteading and operating a trading post at Pueblo Bonito until his controversial murder by gunshot in 1910. Depending on the source, Wetherill's death was murder in cold blood by a Navajo Indian debtor or he was the loser in a gunfight caused by his own cattle rustling. Although his name is mis-spelled on the headstone, Wetherill is buried in the small cemetery located ~400 meters northwest of Pueblo Bonito, along with his wife, Marietta. Others buried there include Grace Etcitty, C. A. Griffin, Ramona Rollins Griffin, and several local Navajo people (unidentified as was the custom). To many modern archaeologists Richard Wetherill remains a villain, an uneducated cowboy who plundered the ruins of the pre-historic civilization of the Southwestern Native Americans. To others, he is an honest man whose accomplishments, the first excavations of the great ruins at Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon, may outweigh his faults.
Kin Kletso (Navajo for “yellow house”) is a smaller great house with ~100 rooms and 5 enclosed kivas located ~450 meters from the Penasco Blanco / Pueblo Alto trailhead, ~500 meters northwest of Pueblo del Arroyo, and ~800 meters northwest of Pueblo Bonito. The kiva at the western end of the building has been identified as a tower kiva. The ground plan is rectangular and, unlike many earlier great houses, there is no associated great kiva, nor is there a plaza. The pueblo was three stories on the north side, dropping to two stories over the remainder of the building. Tree-ring dates indicate two stages of construction, the first ~1125 A.D. and the second ~1130 A.D. or later. Even though Kin Kletso was close to the trailhead, it looked like you needed a permit to walk to it, so I went on to Pueblo del Arroyo.
On the back side of the loop road just past the Casa Rinconada Community parking lot, there is a pullover for the Chacoan Stairway. It was late afternoon when I arrived, so the sun was not in a good position for photos. The information sign tells that "The stairway was part of the Chacoan "road" system. The roads linked the great houses in the core of Chaco Canyon to far-off communities. This road segment connected Tsin Kletzin on South Mesa with Chetro Ketl in the canyon, Pueblo Alto to the north, and many distant communities. The roads were planned, surveyed, and engineered 30 feet wide. Whenever the Chacoan road builders encountered a cliff, stairways or ramps were constructed to continue the straight road alignments." The stairway is now closed. Do not attempt to climb it. You are also not supposed to leave your car unattended.
If you look close enough, there are some petroglyphs from the people that inhabited this area before. Of course, the park requires that you do not disturb this precious artifacts. They are facinating to look at and give at least some glimpse into the art and culture that once existed here
The whole park is off the beaten path! You have to take a 16 mile dirt road to get there, the nearest town is 50 miles away, but the experience is one to never forget. There are all kinds of hiking trails, camping available, and even tours at night for astrology. It's quite a facinating place with a wide range of activities. The entrance fee is $4 USD for individual, $8 per car, and $10 per night for camping
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