Chaco Canyon, Part 2: Pueblo Alto Trail, the Famous Pueblo Bonito, and a Moonlight Tour

Chaco Canyon, in addition to being the home of some amazing ruins, also happens to be a fantastically beautiful place. The Ancestral Puebloan people believed that this was their “center place,” a sacred place, as do many descendant tribes today who view the canyon as an important place in their people’s migration. Though inhospitable to human habitation, the canyon itself is something incredibly special and it is not difficult to understand why ancient Native Americans were drawn here.

My second morning at Chaco Canyon, I took the Pueblo Alto Trail up to the canyon rim and across the mesa. From atop the canyon walls comes an exquisite view of the canyon and the great houses below. The trail turns away from the rim after passing Kin Kletso, Pueblo Bonito, and Chetro Ketl, leading to two unexcavated houses set back on the mesa: Pueblo Alto and New Alto. The trail begins behind Kin Kletso and leads you halfway up directly into the cliff. I actually paused before I understood I was to scramble between a rock joint to get to the mesa above. The trail followed the rim for about two miles and with the morning sun shining bright, the view was breathtaking.

After the joint widened, Pueblo Alto Trail, Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, New Mexico

After the joint widened, Pueblo Alto Trail, Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, New Mexico

Pueblo Bonito from rim of canyon, Pueblo Alto Trail, Chaco Canyon Historical Park, New Mexico

Pueblo Bonito from rim of canyon, Pueblo Alto Trail, Chaco Canyon Historical Park, New Mexico

Chetro Ketl from above, Pueblo Alto Trail, Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, New Mexico

Chetro Ketl from above, Pueblo Alto Trail, Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, New Mexico

Turning inward toward Pueblo Alto and New Alto was hardly disappointing however; the high desert of the mesa was glowing under the blue sky. I reached the unexcavated Pueblo Alto first, spending time wandering the periphery, trying to identify partially buried structures and kivas, before crossing a few hundred feet to New Alto, which remains mostly uncovered. Pueblo Alto dates from ca. 1020 AD whereas construction on New Alto was believed to have begun about 1100 AD.

New Alto viewed from Pueblo Alto Trail, 1100 - 1130 AD, Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, New Mexico

New Alto viewed from Pueblo Alto Trail, 1100 – 1130 AD, Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, New Mexico

Thick masonry walls at New Alto, ca. 1100 - 1130 AD, Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, New Mexico

Thick masonry walls at New Alto, ca. 1100 – 1130 AD, Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, New Mexico

Construction began at Pueblo Bonito, the largest of the great houses in the canyon, in 850 AD, with extensive modifications throughout its occupation, resulting in at least 650 rooms and five stories. The immense D-shaped complex is thought to be the center of society here in the canyon, with most rooms dedicated to ceremony, administration, trade, and storage. Because of extensive stabilization of the remaining walls, visitors are permitted to walk through numerous rooms… which is awesome. And what’s better than that is that my visit coincided with a full moon tour of the house in which you can experience the moonlight illuminating different portions of the walls through the windows. My camera was not able to capture these shots in the dark, so you’ll just have to trust me that this was amazing and just a really special feeling to be standing in the moonlight in the midst of ancient ruins.

Pueblo Bonito viewed from on slightly elevated cluster of boulders, ca. 850 - 1140 AD, Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, New Mexico

Pueblo Bonito viewed from on slightly elevated cluster of boulders, ca. 850 – 1140 AD, Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, New Mexico

Wall of Pueblo Bonito showing modifications and original timber roof posts, ca. 850 - 1140 AD, Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, New Mexico

Wall of Pueblo Bonito showing modifications and original timber roof posts, ca. 850 – 1140 AD, Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, New Mexico

Sun shining through doorway of multi-story section of Pueblo Bonito, ca. 850 - 1140 AD, Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, New Mexico

Sun shining through doorway of multi-story section of Pueblo Bonito, ca. 850 – 1140 AD, Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, New Mexico

Doors aligned East, Pueblo Bonito, ca. 850 - 1140 AD, Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, New Mexico

Doors aligned East, Pueblo Bonito, ca. 850 – 1140 AD, Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, New Mexico

Inside multi-story room block of Pueblo Bonito, ca. 850 - 1140 AD, Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, New Mexico

Inside multi-story room block of Pueblo Bonito, ca. 850 – 1140 AD, Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, New Mexico

Sunset over Pueblo Bonito, ca. 850 - 1140 AD, Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, New Mexico

Sunset over Pueblo Bonito, ca. 850 – 1140 AD, Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, New Mexico

Lingering colors from sunset over a great kiva in Pueblo Bonito, ca. 850 - 1140 AD, Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, New Mexico

Lingering colors from sunset over a great kiva in Pueblo Bonito, ca. 850 – 1140 AD, Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, New Mexico