Chaco Canyon National Historical Park features four backcountry trails to "great houses" -- large, stone buildings of multiple stories containing hundreds of rooms and larger than structures built previously. Because Pueblo Alto was used to communicate with Chimney Rock National Monument in Colorado, I decided on that backcountry trail.
The hike starts on a side road past Pueblo Bonito (direction below). Find a parking space and head northwest to a gate and picnic shelter. After filling out the required permit (information below), walk around the gate and start the hike on the closed road.
It's about 0.3 miles from the parking lot to the first great house here -- Kin Kletso. Turn here and walk behind the Kin Kletso ruin to the Pueblo Alto Trail turnoff.
A sign here explains, "From the cliff above, you gain a different perspective on the central core of Chaco Canyon."
Now the hike changes drastically. Instead of a level, flat trail, you're about to climb. While you won't need climbing gear, you will need to use your hands and legs to climb up and around some of the bolders on this next section of trail. A ranger scouting the trail asks what level I would call this -- difficult? strenuous? I told her she she should warn people that it is "adventurous."
At the top, you'll find yourself on a rock mesa top. One sign points hikers southeast and then it's time to start looking for cairns -- piles of rocks. You'll be following a trail of cairns around the edge of the mesa for about 0.6 miles. On the way you'll pass signs for a stone circle, shrimp burrows and more.
About one mile from the trailhead, hikers come to a trail split. A sign points you straight ahead (well just over to the edge of the cliff) for the Pueblo Bonito overlook. But I decided to get the harder part out of the way and head for Pueblo Alto first.
At this point you've gained 200 feet in elevation, there's another 200 to go. The trail starts with a a few rock steps, then heads across the desert. You'll notice a plateau in front of you, you're going that way. Along the way, there are a couple sites to see -- the Chacoan steps and the Chacoan road. The road was the way visitors traveled into Chaco Canyon. The builders didn't just build a little hiking trail, they built a 30-foot wide road, even though the Chacoans didn't have vehicles, carts or even the wheel.
At the top of the rise, there's a split for two great houses -- New Alto and Pueblo Alto.
I chose to hike to Pueblo Alto, Spanish for "high town," first. According to the Chaco Research Archive website, Pueblo Alto contained about 130 masonry rooms and 18 kivas. It was likely a single story building.
Rangers say Pueblo Alto may have been an entrance stop of sorts before visitors arrived in the canyon for special events. Pueblo Alto was connected to several Chacoan roads from the north, including the Great North Road.
Walk around Pueblo Alto and imagine walking across the desert to get here. Ranger say visitors may have broken pottery in this area when they arrived, possibly as a sacrifice or gift. From here, visitors would then finish the journey into the canyon.
Before walking back to the canyon, hike the short distance to New Alto. While you can't really see it, New Alto is connected to Pueblo Alto by a low masonry wall, but no roads lead to it, according to the Chaco Research Archive. It says New Alto had about 32 ground-floor rooms, many with a second store and a single kiva.
Now you have two options, you can continue on the loop trail or return you way you came. Due to a time deadline, I decided to return the way I came.
As you walk back, once again, imagine that long walk getting here and now you're about to arrive at the canyon. What do you think you would see? hear? even smell? Would there be music and chanting from the event already starting? Would there be the smell of food cooking?
At the trail split to the Pueblo Bonito overlook, walk to the edge of the cliff and look at Pueblo Bonita. This is the largest of the great houses in Chaco Canyon. When you're done taking in this amazing place, take the trail back to Kin Kletso and the road back to your vehicle.
Note: There are four backcountry trails at Chaco Canyon. Stop at the ranger station and talk to a ranger about the options so you pick the best trail for you. The ranger told me some trails are quiet and peaceful, others are busier.
Permits: Backcountry hikers are required to fill out a permit. In 2013, the permits were free and available at the trailheads, but check at the ranger station, in case the policy has changed.
Details: The hike to Pueblo Alto, New Alto, the Pueblo Bonita overlook and back is about 3.7 miles with 400 feet of elevation gain.
Directions: From the Visitor's Center at Chaco Canyon, drive to the Pueblo del Arroyo parking lot.