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Culture shock at Chaco Canyon

As seen from the mesa above Chaco Canyon, Chetro Ketl’s three grand kivas form nearly perfect circles. (Glen Rosales/For the Albuquerque Journal)

CHACO CANYON – It is one of the most iconic of ancient sites in North America.

Reached via a rutted, 20-mile-plus dirt and occasional gravel road, Chaco Culture National Historical Park is a wonder. Chaco was the hub of the thriving Puebloan culture that proliferated not just in the Four Corners area, but across many parts of what is now New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Arizona.

Rising from a sparse and infrequently watered canyon, the intricate ruins at Chaco – a UNESCO World Heritage site — spark the imagination and curiosity of visitors.

Views from the mesa tops stretch for miles, and thoughts soar back 1,000 years.

The Pueblo Alto Trail is a veritable step back in time, starting with an adventurous climb through a hidden passage to the mesa top from behind Kin Kletso ruin. From the ground, the cliff face appears to be a sheer shelf, strewn with rock rubble at its base. But as one draws nearer, crude steps emerge and present a steep and precarious-looking but rather stable approach to the cliff. Hikers with balky knees should take extreme care, as the hike down can be particularly taxing on the joints.

On the hike up, a sliver of a crevice in the wall beckons climbers to persist in their quest to reach the top. The abruptness of the path actually lessens upon disappearing into the fissure, but the walls narrow at points.

Popping out on top presents a panoramic overview of the vast Chaco Canyon complex, putting into perspective the civilization that the Puebloans realized.

From this point, an approximately five-mile loop trail circles out across the mesa, connecting to the northern Pueblo Alto and New Alto outposts. Hikers should take plenty of water and a hat, because there is no shade. The exposed nature of the mesa top means afternoon monsoon storms turn it into a potential lightning field.

It’s believed that the elevated locales of the Alto outposts provided line-of-sight communication lines with other mesa top communities. Several Chacoan roads, including the Great North Road, radiate from the site.

For visitors wanting a shorter excursion, a 3.2-mile round trip is an option, but following the path as it meanders eastward takes visitors past interesting geological formations and tight squeezes as the trail hunkers down through massive boulders and additional examples of how the Chacoans bent the landscape to their will.

One of the finest examples of this is Jackson Stairway, named for famed Western photographer William Henry Jackson.

Steps chiseled into a precipitous rock face, joining a mesa top roadway with a lower road through the valley, provide a vertical climb that is a testament to the ancients’ dexterity. Post holes alongside some of the steps may have provided a means of support for the climbers, but the steps are off-limits to visitors.

The trail, oftentimes connected via can’t-miss rock cairns, gradually circles back to the mesa rim, providing a brilliant overview of Pueblo Bonito, Chaco’s show-stopping ruin.

After completing the circle, the climb back through the crevice passage, be sure to visit Pueblo Bonito, famous for its alignments of doorways and windows, and secret spaces that children will enjoy exploring.

Each of the ruins has its appeal and is worth visiting for those with the time to amble through. Take note of the precision of the craftsmanship as the walls come to 90-dergee points, windows are square and kivas are nearly perfectly round.