Climb onto a mesa to view Anasazi ruins.
The core of Chaco Canyon offers many short hiking experiences, allowing the visitor to see the Chacoan Great Houses that typify Chaco Branch Anasazi architecture with little effort. For the more interested visitor, however, it is worth the trek to take a back country hike to one of the more remote Anasazi ruins that litter the park.
The trail to Pueblo Alto is one such hike. Starting from the Pueblo del Arroyo parking lot, follow the trail/old service road .3 miles to the newer Chacoan ruin of Kin Kletso. This pueblo was constructed by Anasazi refugees from the northern San Juan Basin after the 1100 abandonment of Chaco Canyon. This can be seen by the differences in style and layout, as well as masonry work forming the walls. While the Penasco Blanco trail heads further down canyon, the Pueblo Alto trail branches at this point, heading towards the cliff face behind Kin Kletso.
The section from Kin Kletso to the mesa top is the most difficult stretch of the trail. Large blocks of sandstone from the mesa have begun exfoliating, forming a cleft in the cliff that stretches up to the top of the mesa. This is also the coolest part of the trail, as it is always in the shade. It is a scramble and narrow in parts, so be sure of your hand and foot holds.
Once on the top of the mesa, the trail continues along the rim. About a mile from the trailhead, there is a great overlook down onto Pueblo Bonito which really shows the layout of that large Chacoan building.
You continue along the rim, winding around the heads of small drainages, until reaching the overlook for Chetro Ketl, the Chacoan Great House that is just upcanyon from Pueblo Bonito. At this point the trail follows the small side canyon behind Chetro Ketl, and veers away from Chaco Canyon itself. Be sure to stop near the head of the side canyon to look at the Jackson Staircase, a series of large steps carved into the cliff, forming a portion of one of the famous Chacoan roads.
From the Jackson Staircase, the trail heads overland, crossing low sage-covered hummocks, and climbing up another tier of rock, until reaching the top of the mesa. The views along Chaco Mesa, and north across the San Juan Basin are amazing. To your northwest lays a long, low mound. This is Pueblo Alto, which means High Town in Spanish. The trail passes a large midden before reaching Pueblo Alto itself. Be sure not to climb or otherwise disturb the midden.
Many trails branch across and through Pueblo Alto. Take care to tread only where others have, and do not step, sit, or stand on any walls. Pueblo Alto is large, one of the larger Great Houses in Chaco Canyon in terms of area, though it was only a single story when it was whole. The Chacoan Great North Road began on the west side of Pueblo Alto, and stretched across the desert to the north, cutting through a gap in a low wall. Both the wall can the road can be faintly seen.
Pueblo Alto's layout is fairly typical of Chacoan Great House construction, with core-and-veneer masonry, and a D-shaped layout. Several kiva depressions can be seen throughout the northern section of the ruin.
Despite its large size, it is estimated that very few people actually lived at Pueblo Alto, or any of the other Chacoan Great Houses. Despite this, a tremendous quantity of broken pottery has been found at Pueblo Alto. This has lead to speculation about it being a ritual center, a pilgrimage site, or a city of priests. No one can say for certain which, if any, of these interpretations are correct.
To the west of Pueblo Alto, across the Great North Road, lays New Alto. Built around the same time as Kin Kletso, New Alto is a smaller "new" Great House. A side trail leads to it. Note the same massive, square building stones, more typical of Mesa Verde construction, used both here and in Kin Kletso.
From New Alto, the trail follows the old Great North Road back towards the rim of Chaco Canyon, and in several spots the road is easily visible. The trail connects back at the Pueblo Bonito overlook - make your way back to the car from here.
There is no water along this trail, and in the summer the temperature can reach well over 100 degrees. Fill up your water bottles back at the visitor's center.
WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.