Chaco Culture National Historic Park — This park is famous for its concentration of massive Puebloan buildings that showcase the organizational and structural engineering prowess of their builders. The area was a hub of activity for thousands of people between A.D. 850 and 1250.
While the area as a whole is an explorer's delight, there is a hiking trail that embraces the entire culture of the park. The Pueblo Alto Trail has an overlook for Pueblo Bonito, the largest great house in the park. The trail also overlooks the other Chacoan buildings, takes you through Pueblo Alto and New Alto, brings you past famous Chacoan stairs built into the rocks and offers amazing panoramic views.
National Park Service Ranger Kayla Lanoue says the trail take you through areas with the highest concentrations of cultural sites in the park.
"When you come up on the overlook of (Pueblo Bonito), it is very easy to get to and provides a lot of insight. You can see the way they worked to create an interconnected system," Lanoue explained. "This is also the only trail that you can see fragments of the ancient roadways that led to Chaco."
There are more than 400 miles of prehistoric roadways that lead to Chaco. The road systems are believed to have connected Chaco to outlying communities and resource areas. According to a National Park Service brochure, Chaco was the center of a far-reaching trade network and goods were traded with groups as far south as Mexico. The roads are aligned precisely and continue without curving or adapting to the landscape. When a road comes to a mesa or cliff, it often goes straight up with stairs carved into the rock. The Pueblo Alto trail contains some of these architectural features.
"That is also the loop where you can see one of the famous staircases, the Jackson Stairway. It is one of the best preserved that we have that you can get to as a visitor," Lanoue said.
The trail has an unusual start, taking visitors up a crack in the rocks to the top of the cliff. Lanoue says is the ancient way of getting up to the cliff so you are actually following in old footsteps. Once you get up to the top the cliff, the hiking is then easy.
Jonathan O'brien, of Phoenix, was out with his friend Andy Colb, of Madrid, N.M., on his first trip to Chaco on a Saturday earlier this month. Colb wanted to bring O'brien up on the Pueblo Alto trail for fresh air and exercise and so they could see the ruins from above.
"It gives you a bird's eye view of everything up here," O'brien said. "And it's a great hike for taking photographs."
The entire trail is 5.1 miles round-trip. However, if you'd like to just hike to Pueblo Alto, it is only 3.2 miles, and the section of trail to Pueblo Bonito Overlook is 2 miles.
Also out hiking on that Saturday was Arnie Burnham of Nebraska and Jo Wilkins of Colorado.
"Last year, we saw people up here when we were down at Pueblo Bonito and we decided we'd come back and hike this trail," Burnham said.
Check out a ranger program
The park offers ranger-led walks through Pueblo Bonito year-round. It also offers additional programs from April through October. Check with the visitor center or go to nps.gov/chcu for a schedule.
Get in a little bit of biking
Biking is a great way to experience the park. There are nine miles of paved roads through the canyon. The Wijiji, Casa Chiquita and Kin Klizhin trails may also be biked. Ask at the visitor center for free permits and directions.
Take the kids to a Junior Ranger program
Bring your children out to earn a Junior Ranger Badge while they explore the park. Junior Ranger booklets are free at the visitor center. They can help children learn about the ancestral Pueblo life.
See the nature and wildlife
The park has a nature walk that highlights local plants. There is also an elk herd that frequents the area, and plenty of birding opportunities are all around the area. Make sure to bring your camera with you on the trip.
Pueblo Bonito is the best known Chacoan great house because it has more rooms and kivas than any other Chacoan structure. It is believed to have functioned as a place for ceremonies, administration, trading, storage, hospitality, communications, astronomy and burial grounds of the honored dead. There were more than 600 rooms, and it is believed to have been four or five stories high. The Pueblo has a unique D-shape, something that can really be seen from the overlook of the Pueblo Alto trail.
"It is definitely worth the walk," Wilkins said. "This is a magical place unlike anything else I've ever experienced."