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From Chaco Canyon to Sky City

A hiking expedition through some of the most magical landscapes of New Mexico
By Peter Potterfield - March 18th, 2009

Even in early spring the New Mexico sun has me shedding layers as I work my way northwest up the sandy wash that defines Chaco Canyon. Here in the backcountry, a palpable sense of mystery and even spirituality permeates this storied landscape. There’s something about Chaco Canyon--and it’s spooky cluster of enormous kivas and great houses so skillfully constructed a millennia ago in a distinctive masonry style--that makes hiking here unique in the Southwest.. 

I finally climb out of the wash and onto the cliff top, where the oval-shaped ruins of Penasco Blanco come into view at last.  The Navajo name for this place translates as “the house around which the wash bends,” an apt description. We are near the northern boundary of Chaco National Historical Park, and far from the busy center of things back down by the entrance. A cool breeze blows across the mesa, and the silence is complete as I approach the ruins carefully, with respect.
 
This structure was built as early as 850 AD, so it is contemporary to the much larger and better known Pueblo Bonito in the canyon far below. In fact, as we look down valley beyond the confluence of Chaco Wash and Escavada Wash, we can see that Penasco Blaco is perfectly aligned not just with Pueblo Bonito but also Una Vida, the great house situated  at the mouth of Chaco Canyon. The scale is impressive, and one can’t help but ask: what was going on here a thousand years ago? And why did everybody suddenly depart around 1400?
 
There are magical alignments of all sorts here in Chaco, physical, spiritual and astronomical. On the hike up here this morning, we passed a rock painting known locally as the Supernova Pictograph. In 1054 Chinese astronomers recorded a supernova, an exploding star so bright that it lighted the night sky for a month, and was visible even in daytime. Researchers believed the Chacoan sky watchers recorded the event with this very rock painting. But it’s impossible to say for sure, in fact the purpose of this monumental cluster of great houses in the remote middle vastness of the desert, and its ultimate abandonment, continues to baffle archeologists.
 
As my companions and I turn to go, reluctantly, we see that the ground beneath our feet is literally littered with thousand year old shards of the distinctive Chacoan pottery. It’s no overstatement to say this park is in the middle of nowhere, accessible only by dirt roads, but hikers and Anasazi buffs find their way here nonetheless. Still, the quiet solitude of the backcountry is a welcome change from the visitor center and campground. The sense of remoteness makes the long hikes out here and up to Pueblo Alto an even more powerful experience than roaming the larger, iconic great houses of Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl, with their many visitors and guided tours.
 
This mystical canyon is habit forming. I’ve been here twice now, and hope to return again. As I prepare to leave, I’m consoled that if my time at Chaco is at an end after three days, my foray to this wild part of New Mexico has really just begun. I make the three hour drive back to the Acoma Pueblo in my rental four-wheel-drive, managing the sandy, unpaved roads with no difficulty. I’ve chosen to base this hiking trip here because the Acoma and other pueblos of New Mexico are without question the modern cultural link back to the ancient Chacoans. And the Acoma people stand apart: their mesa top pueblo, known as Sky City, sits four hundred feet above the valley, a remarkable dwelling site that has been their home since 1100 AD.
 
Many of the pueblo people of New Mexico have benefited from the economic boom created by gaming. In fact I stay at the inexpensive and centrally located Sky City Casino Hotel despite the fact it’s the hiking, and not the blackjack tables, that brought me here. El Malpais National Monument is even closer to the Acoma reservation than Chaco, situated on a fascinating plateau of high desert between the reservation lands of the Laguna and Acoma people, and those of the Zuni and Ramah Navajo.
 
I’ve come to do the legendary Zuni Acoma trail, famous for hard going and rugged terrain as it traverses ridge after ridge of charcoal colored lava flows. The route also makes up a section of the 3,100 mile Continental Divide Trail, running from Canada to Mexico. I’m fortunate to be hiking with Bureau of Land Management ranger Karen Davis, an Acoma Indian, and park ranger Susan Olin. I’m eager to learn as much as I can about the cultural elements in this part of New Mexico, a place that has seen 10,000 years of human habitation, but where, ironically, the peak population actually occurred around 1000 AD, when nearby Chaco was in it’s hey day. And I’ve got a lot to learn about the natural history in this quirky place where volcanic vents, spatter cones, sandstone arches and elaborate cave systems add variety to the usual New Mexican lodgepole forests and pinion trees. Having experts along will add a crucial element to this journey.
 
Rugged El Malpais, Spanish for Badlands,  has remained unchanged for eons.  Defined by the lava flows that emerged from McCarty Crater, the 7,000-foot high monument is surrounded by the Cebolla Wilderness and the West Malpais Wilderness. Karen, Susan and I will follow perhaps the most interesting segment as we traverse the Acoma Zuni trail. The three of us rendezvous at the Northwest New Mexico visitor center on I-40, and shuttle cars to both ends of the one-way Acoma Zuni Trail. Karen and Susan know the route well, and say west to east is the preferred direction, as that way the most strenuous sections--across the bizarre lava flows--are done first. This is, after all desert hiking, where the rangers recommend as much as a gallon of water per day.
 
As we head down the sandy trail, Karen explains that this historic 9 mile trail served as an ancient trade route between the Zuni people and the Acoma people, so we are walking in the footsteps of her ancestors. Ironically, many of the features in this ancient land bear Hawaiian names because that’s where the study of vulcanism first matured, and so geologists have used those terms to describe what is found here. We’re not two hours into the hike when I see the first of the major lava flows we will cross today, a high ridge of black hardened lava as sharp as obsidian. A fall here doesn’t bear thinking about.
 
Karen tells me the stretches of relatively smooth lava are called pahoehoe, while the more broken and rugged areas is known as aa lava. The odd meadows, surrounded on all sides by high walls of lava, but lush with grasses and pinion, are kipukas, islands of land not covered by the lava as it flowed out of the nearby vents. The hiking follows this varied terrain, through the lodgepole forest, across kipukas, and then up onto one of the high flows of aa lava that can shred a pair of hiking boots in a few hours. But the view from the top is unique: a series of flows running roughly north-south, with sandstone cliffs and arches in the distance. I have hiked in the Sangre de Cristo mountains above Santa Fe, and the Sandias near Albuquerque, but the route across the badlands of El Malpais was like nothing else I had seen in New Mexico.
 
The next day I paid a visit to the Sky City pueblo itself, which some experts believe is the oldest continuously inhabited community in North America. Perched high above the desert floor, the community was protected from many dangers, but not from the Spanish explorers lead by Francisco Vasques de Coronado. In 1540, his army arrived at the mesa, beginning a period of Spanish influence. One relic of that is the striking San Esteban del Rey mission church, still impressive almost 400 years after it was built. The towering church is surrounded by houses, but Karen explained that most of the Acoma people live in communities elsewhere on the reservation, using the mesa top dwellings for feast days and other cultural occasions.
 
The Acomas have preserved and displayed much of their heritage in the recently finished Sky City Cultural Center at the base of the mesa-top pueblo. Highlights include interpretive displays, The Haak’u, a museum of pottery and other artifacts, and  the amazing Yaak'a Cafe, a restaurant serving  native dishes that has been called one of the best dining experiences in western New Mexico. When it was time to head back to Albuquerque for the flight home, I left with an appreciation of how the Acoma people have worked tirelessly to celebrate and preserve their ancient connections to the magical landscape of central New Mexico, and yet found a way to share it with others.
 
Getting There
Albuquerque is the gateway to  Chaco Canyon , the Acoma people's Sky City, and the hikes of central New Mexico, like the Acoma Zuni trail in El Malpais.. A good way to organize a visit is fly into the airport,  spend the night in Old Town, a quarter of Albuquerque that best shows off it’s Spanish heritage, with shops and restaurants, including lodgings such as the Bottger Mansion that date from territorial days. The next day, after a visit to the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, where all 19 of New Mexico’s pueblos have gathered together elements of their cultural past and artifacts, head west on Interstate 40. A good first stop is Petroglyph National Monument, where literally thousands of petroglyphs can be found in three separate locations right on the fringes of the local suburbs. From there it’s less than two hours to Sky City Casino Hotel, an inexpensive and perfectly located base for the hikes mentioned here. (Be sure to ask for the box lunches if you're hiking, they are oustanding.) Chaco Canyon is about three hourse north, El Malpais just a half hour to the west. The hotel can arrange shuttle bus visits to the Sky City Cultural Center and mesa top pueblo. The cafe at the cultural center serves meticulously prepared dishes from the Acoma culture, and the museum displays make a tour of the mesa top pueblo more meaningful.
 
 

 


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