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Penasco Blanco Trail, NM

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Guide 7 Triplogs  2 Topics
Rated  Favorite Wish List NM > Northwest
3.8 of 5 by 6
HAZ reminds you to respect the ruins. Please read the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 & Ruins Etiquette
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Difficulty 2.5 of 5
Route Finding 2 of 5
Distance Round Trip 7.2 miles
Trailhead Elevation 6,109 feet
Elevation Gain 200 feet
Accumulated Gain 326 feet
Avg Time Round Trip 5 hours
Kokopelli Seeds 8.83
Interest Ruins & Historic
Backpack No
Dogs not allowed
feature photo
Photos Viewed All Mine Following
Inaugural Calculation on Button Tap!
20  2018-05-20 trekkin_gecko
27  2018-05-20 johnlp
20  2016-03-09 Hansenaz
10  2011-06-20 Trishness
40  2011-06-18
Chaco Culture National Historical Park Trails
25  2008-06-22 PaleoRob
Author PaleoRob
author avatar Guides 137
Routes 111
Photos 5,253
Trips 942 map ( 2,097 miles )
Age 38 Male Gender
Location Grand Junction, CO
Historical Weather
Trailhead Forecast
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Preferred   Apr, Oct, Mar, May → Early
Seasons   Autumn to Spring
Sun  5:59am - 6:10pm
Official Route
0 Alternative
Fauna Nearby
Flora Nearby
Geology Nearby
Culture Nearby
Got Crab Nebula?
by PaleoRob

Penasco Blanco sits on the western edge of Chaco Canyon, where Chaco Wash meets Escavada Wash and become the Chaco River. As such Penasco Blanco was one of the first Great Houses built in Chaco Canyon, and likely had a revered place in Chacoan mythology. Holding to its special status even to this day, Penasco Blanco remains one of the hardest-to-reach ruins that is open to the public in Chaco Canyon proper.

The hike leaves from the parking area at the end of the Chaco Loop Road, where the Pueblo del Arroyo and Pueblo Alto trails also depart. Before beginning this hike, I highly recommend purchasing the Park's Backcountry Guide book, a cheap and informative booklet that describes in more detail some of the interesting historical and prehistorical facts and items of interest along the trails. For the first couple hundred yards or so, in fact, both Pueblo Alto and Penasco Blanco follow the same old service road towards Kin Kletso, the San Juan Phase house beneath the Crack that allows access up onto Chaco Mesa. While the Pueblo Alto trail heads upward, however, the Penasco Blanco trail simply follows the cliff face past the ruin along the service road towards the west.

The road bends and dips going into Cly Canyon, then straightens back out as it passes another San Juan-style house, Casa Chiquita, or Little Tiny House. Bikes are allowed on the Penasco Blanco trail up to this point, and there is a bike rack available for parking in front of Casa Chiquita. From here the trail is foot-travel only.

Past Casa Chiquita as well, the trail leaves the old service road that has served as the trail since the parking area, and instead follows a historic Navajo wagon road that led from Chaco all the way up to Hogback along the San Juan river between Shiprock and Farmington. Quite the trek!

It is along this stretch, about half a mile past Casa Chiquita, where some of Chaco Canyon's best rock art becomes visible on the cliff to the north. A spur trail, the Petroglyph Trail (not to be confused with Chaco's Petroglyph Trail between Bonito and Chetro Ketl), goes along the base of the cliff with markers pointing out the most prominent or important panels. It is certainly worth taking the Petroglyph Spur either coming or going from Penasco Blanco. Alternately you can chose to only go as far as the end of the Petroglyph Spur, making the round trip only 4 miles.

From the end of the Petroglyph Trail, the Penasco Blanco trail drops down into a wash, with a small cottonwood. This is the only shade on the entire hike until after it crosses Chaco Wash in another mile or so. During the summer especially it is a good idea to take a breather in the wash.

After the trail climbs out of the wash, it angles out across the flatlands away from the cliffs, which are also, at this point, growing lower. Although you are still hiking on the old Navajo wagon road for another 3/4 mile, it is often hard to make out, and eventually the hiking trail diverges from it. Penasco Blanco has been visible on the southern point through out most of the hike, but as the trail now approaches Chaco Wash, Penasco Blanco begins to disappear from view as you draw near the edge of West Mesa and the Chaco Wash which runs hard up against it.

Take note: Do not attempt to cross Chaco Wash if it is flowing. The banks can be steep and slippery, and the current deceptively swift. Also, if you have purchased a trail guide at the Visitor's Center, note that there is no spur trail to the Supernova Pictograph. The trail has been rerouted so that the way to Penasco Blanco goes directly by the Supernova Pictograph.

After crossing Chaco Wash, you finally enter the shade of the low cliffs of West Mesa. Just beyond the crossing, back on the level of the old canyon bottom out of the arroyo, the trail comes to one of the most remarkable examples of rock art in the southwest. In 1054 a lone star in the constellation Taurus blew itself apart in a horrendous explosion. This exploding star was able to be seen, as we know from Asian astronomers, during the day as bright as the full moon. What the Chacoans thought of this supernova, which created the Crab Nebula, and what they called it we can never know. What we can know, however, is that the brightest appearance of the Crab Nebula Supernova was just before sunset after its third day, not too far away from the setting crescent moon. Below the then-occupied Great House of Penasco Blanco some Anasazi artisan painted a crescent moon and a star-burst shape very close together, and then painted a handprint. Some Pueblo informants say that a painted hand designates the site as sacred. Does this pictograph actually represent the Crab Nebula Supernova? Maybe. It is certainly a reasonable explanation.

From the supernova site, the trail continues for a little while along the foot of West Mesa. It drops in and out of a couple small drainages before climbing up onto the next bench. In the second drainage past the supernova site, look for a stone ramp at the base of a pourover, and some carved steps on the slickrock above the ramp. This is part of a Chacoan road that ran up from the valley floor, made an abrupt turn above the steps visible on the slickrock, and passed very close to Penasco Blanco before heading out towards Coyote Canyon to the southwest.

Once you are on top of the bench, the trail heads back to the west, with Penasco Blanco once again visible, and much more immediately close. Try and keep an eye out for the drainage where the steps were - you can catch a faint glimpse of the road before it turns. The trail then follows directly on top of the road for a short while, making the road hard to see. The trail angles away from the road, though, as it approaches a side-canyon that the ancient road cuts straight across. The road becomes slightly more visible as you move away from it, though it is best seen in morning or evening light, and it certainly helps if you have seen other Chacoan roads from the ground, like at Pueblo Alto or the Bluff Great House.

As you round the head of that last side canyon and recross that Chacoan road one last time, you find yourself finally at Penasco Blanco. To the west, on a clear day, stretches a vista that encompasses parts of Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, from the immediate Chaco River to the distant Chuska and Abajo Mountains. Looking north Sleeping Ute Mountain, the San Juan Mountains, and occasionally Mesa Verde can be seen. And to the east, most of Chaco Canyon is visible, with several of the most prominent Great Houses like Pueblo Bonito and Pueblo Alto easily discerned from Penasco Blanco's eastern wall. Take plenty of time to explore the ruin, staying on already established trails and out of the midden. The Great House was constructed over a long period of many centuries, starting around 850-900 AD and continuing up through about 1050 AD. The oval shape is unique among Chacoan Great Houses. Remember to leave all artifacts where you find them.

After enjoying an afternoon reaching and exploring Penasco Blanco, return to the trailhead the way you came. Make sure to time your hike properly, as all trails, ruins, and the loop road close at sunset.

Check out the Official Route and Triplogs.

Leave No Trace and +Add a Triplog after your hike to support this local community.

2008-07-03 PaleoRob
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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.

Most recent Triplog Reviews
Penasco Blanco Trail
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john mentioned a visit to chaco canyon a few weeks ago
i'd never heard of it but sounded like there would be a lot to see
got to the visitor center around 1015 or so, driving from petrified forest
decided on doing the longest "backcountry" hike first, setting out around 1100
the trail starts down an old road, passing by kin kletso ruin
then a sandy singletrack leads to casa chiquita
we checked both of those out and soon came to the petroglyph trail, which parallels the main trail
lots of interesting stuff to see along here and fun to spot the glyphs
another mile of flat led to chaco wash, which we crossed and headed up to the famed supernova pictograph
an interesting ascent to the top of a mesa where penasco pueblo is located
explored this great house and took plenty of photos, which convey the scale of these ruins better than words
retraced our steps, but taking a more direct route across the wash
nice hike to a cool destination with plenty to see along the way

Penasco Blanco Trail
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Spring Break 2016
I had one day to come up with a plan and sell it to my wife who was on break this week.

We drove up to Petrified Forest National Park and walked a loop over some of the Flattops. The route was inspired by an old (but typically elegant) post by Belladonna Took. We saw a few petroglyphs and on one of the mesa tops we saw plenty of evidence of habitation (metates and pottery pieces). No ruins though...I guess pit houses don't have stone walls and maybe the archaeologists cleaned up after their excavations. Nice walking out there, great time of year too (cool and uncrowded). We spent the night in Gallup.
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Next day was Chaco Canyon. We'd not been there before and I tried to assimilate as much of the detailed info on HAZ and elsewhere in making the plan. Best I could come up with was start at outlier ruin Kin Bineola then head to "downtown" Chaco. Navigating the roads is every bit as hard as the reports say. We traveled with little confidence and were surprised when we saw the Kin Bineola sign. Unfortunately the sign said "closed". The road was washed out and Chaco Rangers later told us a dam broke two years ago and it's not clear if or when Kin Bineola will reopen.

We looped north through Nageezi and arrived at Chaco Canyon National Historical Park about 3.5hrs after leaving Gallup....slow start. Nice visitor center and we decided to use our time by walking the Penasco Blanco Trail which passes the famous super nova pictograph and reaches an "unrestored" ruin on a mesa above Chaco Canyon. It also parallels (~200' apart) the Petroglyph Trail which is an offshoot nearer the rock wall; so we walked that trail on the way up and looked at a lot of petroglyphs. Unfortunately the soft rock also has a lot of modern vandalism.
The ruin was great, no one there!, and nice temperatures. The trail is a little bit sandy. Spent the night in Farmington.
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[ gps route ]

Next day we headed down to the "Bisti Badlands". Again HAZ info and a conversation with Tibber helped cement this plan. There are no trails but it seems everyone loads the same waypoints so you can see tracks most of the way. We really enjoyed this place. Not so different from Petrified Forest country but a bit more spectacular. Very nice walking on hard flat ground. We saw only 3 other people out there. Headed home in time for dinner with our daughter.
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[ gps route ]
Penasco Blanco Trail
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Chaco/Bisti Wilderness Experience 2011

Chaco Culture National Historical Park Trails =>
Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness =>

4 Days, 3 Nights - bliss!
313 images later (178 on Rebel XT, 135 on 7D)

Saturday June 18, 2011
-on the road from Mike Mattes' Chandler residence @ 7am
-Phoenix to Payson to Heber to Holbrook to Thoreau to Crown Point to Chaco via south entrance
-somehow arrive at Gallo Campground first, get sites 48 and 49 in the "tents-only" alcove. Campground less than half full at 2:30pm on Saturday afternoon. Estimate about 80% full come the end of the day.
-Trish (aka Trishness) and Tracy (aka Paintninaz) arrive and get site 40 since only 2 tents per site are allowed...
-Larry the Lost (aka squatpuke) arrives with daughter Rebecca (aka ???)
-time for our first trek, Chaco Canyon Overlook Trail that starts at the Gallo Campground entrance =>
-whip up BBQ chicken drumsticks with corn-on-the-cob and S'mores to feed the masses. Rebecca wins the best comment; "Hey Dad, this is way better than some granola bars for dinner".
-Rob (aka PageRob) arrives at sundown
-too many choice beers to be "slumming it" with a Caguama
-Camp fire discussion eventually (inevitably?) gets around to "MAN CORN" => viewtopic.php?t=5356

Sunday June 19, 2011
-Chef Mike starts the day with our traditional Prickly Pear Vodka & Orange Juice before cooking the bacon and eggs over-easy.
-7 HAZ'ers pile into Rob's Explorer and Mike's Jeep for backcountry ride to our first Chacoan Outlier, Kin Klizhin =>
-carry on through the backcountry to the "sand trap" area => that became a turnaround point for us last year.
-"sand trap", "smand trap"! No problem for Mike's 4WD Jeep and Rob's 4WD Explorer as we push through to Lake Valley Chapter House and up NM371 to CR7297 (turn off near mile marker 70 on NM371) and the Bisti Wilderness trail head
-I'm very surprised to see multiple vehicles at the TH. This is my 3rd trek into the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness and the first time I've ever seen another human!
-equipped with some Bisti tips from Letty and Laurent Martres' handbook "Photographing the Southwest", we start to walk up the South Hunter Wash noting the barbed wire fence on the north side
-when the barbed wire fence bends 90 degrees to the north, we angle ourselves in a northeast direction towards some fanciful coloured formations and into an area noted as "Stone Wings" on the Bisti Wilderness map
-we eventually make our way into the North Hunter Wash before finding a promising looking canyon with some shady walls to sit and have a lunch snack
-we continue our lasso loop back to the 90 degree bend in the barbed wire fence
-noting the crew is looking a little "spent", the "Cracked Eggs" area recommended by Letty will have to wait for a future adventure
-we head south along NM371 and the turnoff for Lake Valley Chapter House.
-a couple of miles south lies the turnoff for Kin Bineola =>
-by far my favorite Chacoan Greathouse Ruin and Chacoan Outlier!
-exploration of 3 southerly middens yields 6 inch pottery sherds and multiple handles
-a green collared lizard amuses us as it tries to protect it's midden territory
-after thorough exploration, on to Crown Point to pick up some ice and supplies
-back in cell phone coverage, some "Happy Father's Day" texts trickle in
-take advantage of the coverage to give my Dad a call
-a little south and east of Crown Point lies Kin Ya'a =>
-this is a lesser appreciated outlier, but still worthy of exploration for it's ample middens and Chacoan roads
-evening menu featuring BBQ steak, mushrooms, onions, sweet gherkin pickles, French bread, and our camp fire standby dessert, S'mores!
-wind kicks up even more followed by a rain storm forcing us to retreat to our tents (or vehicles for some) to call it a night.

Monday June 20, 2011
-Chef Mike starts the day again with our traditional Prickly Pear Vodka & Orange Juice before cooking up his famous chocolate chip pancakes.
-Trish and Tracy plan to trek the Penasco Blanco Trail to see the "Supernova" Pictograph =>
-for the remaining HAZ 5, our goal is the last remaining unexplored park trail, Pueblo Alto Loop =>
-through "the crack" and onto the mesa overlooks of Kin Kletso, Pueblo Bonito, and Chetro Ketl
-next up is the Jackson Staircase and the Chacoan Road that heads toward Escavada Wash => ... -roads.htm
-Pueblo Alto and New Alto ruins explored
-back at the TH, the first Cag's are consumed (remember that taste is proportional to thirst and we were VERY thirsty)
-mandatory exploration of "downtown Chaco"
-Pueblo del Arroyo =>
-Pueblo Bonito =>
-Petroglyph Trail =>
-Chetro Ketl =>
-interesting reverse drive by Rob to collect Larry, Rebecca, and Mike at the Pueblo Bonito parking lot
-back to the Gallo Campground for some R&R before tackling Wijiji Trail at sunset
-explore the Gallo Campground vandalized petroglyph panels =>
-evening Ranger Program with Park Rangers Joe Fleming and G.B. Cornicopia
-the Gallo Campground is filled, but the Park Rangers indicate that they are not turning anybody away
-I notice about 5 tents populating the area around the Campground Host Site
-evening meal featuring Rob's burritos and appetizers by Trish and Tracy

Tuesday June 21, 2011
-Solstice Day in Chaco
-Trish wakes me up ~4am (yikes!)
-Waiting at the Gallo Campground Host Site for shuttle van pick-up 4:45am (yikes again!)
-Arrive at Casa Rinconada about 5:15am =>
-We wait for the Laguna Pueblo tribe members to finish morning prayers at the Casa Rinconada before the masses are permitted to trek up to the site
-I'm stunned by the "cluelessness" of many of the visitors as they feel compelled to walk in front of the solstice alignment window and interupt the image being photographed and videoed by others
-I'll estimate the solstice observers to be about 3x the previous years' number
-a little "glitch" waiting for the promised shuttles back to Gallo Campground
-once back at the camp, Chef Mike has jumbo breakfast sausages and waffles ready for consumption
-break camp, say our good-byes and we hit the road
-side trip to El Morro =>

Photos to be posted when I get a chance...
Penasco Blanco Trail
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Long hot hike, but gorgeous, especially when the clouds started coming in, casting some shadows across the canyon. Some serious winds were blowing in Escavada Wash, kicking up some salty sand, but in Chaco Canyon the wind was mild. The pictograph was really amazing, and the ruins them self were really neat too. Drank lots and lots of water - it was hot! Got back to camp just a bit before sunset, and we were pretty tired, after hiking part of the Alto loop, Casa Rinconada, and finally Penasco Blanco in one day. After completing this trail, though, there is only one backcountry trail in the park I haven't done; the South Mesa Trail. I guess it'll be on top of the list for next time!

Permit $$

Chaco Canyon HP National Park
$8 per vehicle good for 7 days Entrance Fee

Map Drive
FR / Dirt Road / Gravel - Car Okay

To hike
From Grants, NM, drive north on NM Route 605 until reaching NM Route 509. Turn left onto NM Route 509. Follow Route 509 north until reaching Navajo Route 9. Turn left onto Navajo Route 9. Proceed on Route 9 until reaching NM Route 57. All of these turns are marked with signs for Chaco Culture National Historic Park.

WARNING! NM Route 57 is a very poor road, with bad washboards, washouts, and chug-holes when it is dry. It is impassable to anything by 4x4 vehicles when wet, and sometimes even not then. Travel at your own risk. Passenger cars can and do make the drive regularly when the weather is good, but be prepared to turn around or get stuck if you attempt to drive to the park in wet weather.

Once Route 57 reaches the park boundary, it becomes paved. Proceed to the visitor center and pay the fee, as well as get your free back country hiking permit for Penasco Blanco. Then drive along the Chaco Canyon loop road. Before the road crosses Chaco Wash, past Pueblo Bonito, there is a turn off for Pueblo del Arroyo. Turn and park your vehicle there.
page created by PaleoRob on Jul 02 2008 10:52 pm
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