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Chaco trail covers park’s highlights

The ruins of Pueblo Bonito nestle against the side of Alto Mesa. (Journal file)

The ruins of Pueblo Bonito nestle against the side of Alto Mesa. (Journal file)

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 takes 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 said. “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 it is the prehistoric way of getting up to the cliff, so you are actually following in old footsteps. Once you get up to the top of the cliff, the hiking is 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 take O’brien up on the Pueblo Alto trail 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, the hike to Pueblo Alto 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.

“It is definitely worth the walk,” Wilkins said. “This is a magical place unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced.”