Hike the Pueblo Alto Trail
New Mexico › Pueblo Alto Trail
Added by Kim Morris
The Pueblo Alto trail provides a unique look at many of the Chacoan ruins nestled in the San Juan Basin. You will also explore ruins, roads, ramps, stairways, stone circles and pecked basins used by the Chacoan people on top of the mesa.
Starting on the floor of the San Juan Basin and behind Pueblo Bonito, follow the signs up a twisty and dusty path that leads to a narrow gap between a very large boulder and the mesa wall. After an easy scramble through the gap, you will gain the top of the mesa. Once on top, follow the sporadic signs and reliable cairns to stay on the trail. You will almost immediately begin to see fossilized shrimp burrows, which look like gnarled tree branches set into the mesa. If you have a keen eye, you might even see fossilized clam shells. A sign will mark two pecked basins and a stone circle about a quarter of a mile down the trail. Usually the basins are located inside stone circles, but these two basins are not. Look ahead about 30 feet and to the right to find pecked basins inside a stone circle. Both the basins and the stone circles are thought to have been used for ceremonial purposes. Turquoise was commonly found in the basins. A little further down the trail, you will see a sign for the Pueblo Bonito Overlook. Be sure to stay within the marked viewing area. Viewing Pueblo Bonito from this vantage is a thrill. The size of the building and the San Juan Basin is easy to appreciate from that height. From the Pueblo Bonito Overlook, return to the trail and follow signs directing you to the Pueblo Alto Complex. Pueblo Alto is about 3/4 of a mile north on the mesa. On the way you will see Chacoan steps carved into the sandstone bench and remnants of Chacoan roads that may have been used my travelers, traders or for ceremonies. New Alto appears on a small hill to your left and just beyond that, on your right, will be Pueblo Alto. Both pueblos are open for exploration. After Pueblo Alto you will turn east and return to the edge of the mesa. Along the way you will see the Jackson Stairway, named for William Henry Jackson, famous photographer of the American west. The stairs were carved into the cliff and gave access to the mesa top from the canyon floor. Looking at the stairs from the top of the canyon will make you wonder how they did it! Next, you will arrive at the Chetro Ketl Overlook. The size of the ruin will make you appreciate the building prowess of the Chacoans. This house covers 3 acres! You will see the raised kivas, the elevated plaza and the many rooms constructed by the Chacoans. While you are looking down at the building site, take into account that this building was planned. Rooms were not just added on. This was a well-executed plan. Standing there on the mesa with the whole San Juan Basin rolling out before your eyes, you can really appreciate the effort and care taken to build these sacred buildings. After Chetro Ketl, the loop trail begins to come to a close. You will have to navigate down an even narrower gap to get to the lower terrace. If you are wearing a large backpack you may have a little trouble. Just go slow and watch your footing. You will begin to recognize the scenery and the trial as you close in on Pueblo Bonito. You'll have another chance to look down on the ruins before you come off the mesa, going down the same narrow gap that you came up in the beginning. If you haven't visited Pueblo Bonito yet, this is the perfect time. You have walked the roads of the Ancestral Chacoans, viewed their staircases, walked past their ceremonial stone circles and gazed out over the San Juan Basin from the edge of the mesa just as they did. Go on. Walk through the narrow doorways into the rooms that were lived in 800+ years ago. Think what it must have been like if that was your home.
Pro Tips: Stay at the Gallo Campground. (The closest lodging is an hour and a half away.) Reservations are recommended in the busy summer months. If you want to miss the heat and the crowds, consider visiting in September or October.
Trails are open from 7am to sunset. Plan to hike early.
Watch for wildlife. Whiptail, Skink and Collard Lizards are very common. Depending on the time of day you hike, you may even see elk in the basin.
There is no commercial food service in the park. Plan ahead. Water is available for free at the visitor center.
Before you go:
- Hiking permits are required and available at the trail head. Permits are free.
- Back country camping requires a permit. Obtain permits from the rangers at the Visitor Center. NPS.gov
- Camping at Gallo Campground is great way to experience the park. There are 49 individual campsites and two group sites. Of the 49 sites, 41 are available by reservation. Recreation.gov
For your hiking pleasure you will need:
- At least a gallon of water
- Lunch or snack
- 10 Essentials
- Circular Polarizer
- ND Filters
Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.
Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph. Learn More
Camping, Hiking, Photography
Spring, Summer, Autumn
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The road getting into Chaco Canyon is quite the beating, but worth it. Walking through these ruins you can imagine the people that once made this place a bustling center of trade and religion. It's hard to image why they would pick such a desolate place, but once you've seen some of the stunning hoodoos, fossils, and petrified wood to the north of the park, you begin to see how the area might have appealed to its occupants.
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