Penasco Blanco

Rating: 
Round Trip Distance: 8.2 miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Elevation: 6071 - 6252 feet
Cellphone: 0 bars
Time: 3 hrs. 45 mins.
Trailhead: Pueblo del Arroyo
Fee: $8/vehicle
Attractions: Great Houses, supernova pictograph




The Penasco Blanco trail is located in the Chaco Culture National Historic Park in northwestern New Mexico. The trail begins at the Pueblo del Arroyo parking area and heads west up Chaco Wash to the base of West Mesa where it ascends a little over 100 feet to the top of the mesa and the location of the Penasco Blanco Great House. Along the way it passes closely by Kin Kletso, Casa Chiquita, the Petroglyph Trail (a short side trail) and the Supernova Pictograph that depicts the supernova seen in the year 1054. This is the longest backcountry trail in Chaco Canyon but with very little elevation change it isn't a hard hike for most people.


The Pueblo del Arroyo trailhead is the next stop after Pueblo Bonito along the paved loop road in the park. There isn't a restroom at the trailhead but there is one at Pueblo Bonito and another about a quarter mile down this trail across from the Kin Kletso site. Of course, there are restrooms with flush toilets at the Visitor Center as well as an outside water spigot where you can fill up your containers for the hike and you will want to be sure to bring plenty of water with you for this one.


The trail starts out following an old road that at one time served as the north entrance into Chaco Canyon. After a quarter mile or so it passes the Kin Kletso site where the Pueblo Alto trail branches off on the right and there is a restroom on the left.


At the 1 mile point the road ends at the Casa Chiquita Great House. Originally standing 2 to 3 stories high and containing about 50 rooms, the unexcavated Casa Chiquita, or "Small House", is thought to have been built around 1100 A.D..


From here the trail continues toward Penasco Blanco following an old wagon road. There is a bike rack here for those that rode to this point.


The official Petroglyph Trail starts at about the 1.5 mile point but within a quarter mile of Casa Chiquita there are dozens of petroglyphs that can be spotted all along the trail. A few of them are quite unique but most of them are very worn. There is a brochure available at the Visitor Center that is just for the Petroglyph Trail.


A person could spend hours examining all the various petroglyphs along the cliff and still miss some interesting details. This panel near post P2 has some faint pictographs on the light colored rock near the top. They were originally done in red so we outlined them in red on the computer. We outlined a few of the petroglyphs in white so that they would stand out in the picture. Off to the right there are some petroglyphs that were added at a later time that we outlined in light blue.


The petroglyphs that we outlined in blue may be Navajo in origin or perhaps Hopi or Zuni. All we know is that there are horses so they were added some time after the Spanish arrived in the southwest in the 16th century. If you click on the picture and enlarge it you can see that the horseback riders are depicted with horns. If these are conquistadors then the horns may be symbolic of their apparent power as they would have been wearing metal helmets and carrying metal weapons. The lead horse shown in the picture may have been wearing horse plate armor represented by all the lines. If that is the case then its rider may have been a wealthy and important person. It also has a high pommel from a saddle. Typical weapons for a conquistador were a lance and a sword. The 2 figures at the bottom are also interesting. The lance of the figure on the left seems to pierce his opponent all the way through the neck while his opponents spear stops at his shield. Here the shield could represent either armor, chainmail or thickly woven cotton all of which would have been able to protect the wearer. There is no evidence that this is the site where the campaign depicted in the panel took place. Since it occurred long after the Chacoans had left the area it could have happened at a distant pueblo, perhaps even during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. All speculation aside, it is a fascinating scene.


The Petroglyph Trail reconnects with the main route and it continues west along the old wagon road. Penasco Blanco can barely be made out on the distant mesa from this point.


The one crux of the hike is the point where the trail crosses Chaco Wash. You can check with the rangers at the Visitor Center beforehand but if there have been any recent thunderstorms the wash may be uncrossable.


After crossing the wash the trail heads back along the base of the cliff where there are numerous petroglyphs and some faint pictographs. A sign points out the location of the Supernova Pictograph which is high up under a ledge. The supernova occurred in the year 1054 A.D. and it has been traced to the Crab Nebula.The good thing here is that the pictograph is in a well sheltered place where wind and rain can hardly effect it. The bad thing is that the slab of cliff will eventually break off and fall into the wash.


The trail continues heading back to the east above the wash for about a quarter mile. As it goes it makes a few scrambles from one level up to the next. En route it passes by a few more petroglyphs. Near the upper bench area there is a wooden trail sign that marks an old trail junction that occurred before the trail was rerouted to its present course. The fact that the trail has been rerouted accounts for the discrepancy between the shorter distances shown on some of the trail markers and the actual length of the hike.


Once the trail arrives on the scene you are presented with a view of the massive complex that is now called the Penasco Blanco Great House. From here another half mile of exploration can be added by following the designated trails around the area.


Looking up at the huge rubble slope of the back wall gives the feeling that this place would have looked like a formidable fortress when viewed from afar. In its heyday this section would have stood 4 stories tall.


Penasco Blanco is Spanish for "White Cliff". The site is unexcavated but its construction consisted of a unique oval design with approximately 160 rooms just on the ground floor.  There were 2 great kivas in its central plaza with 2 more great kivas located outside of the plaza.


From its location on the West Mesa Penasco Blanco had a commanding view of both Chaco and Escavada Washes.


The Penasco Blanco trail has a lot going for it with all of the petroglyphs along the way and the Supernova Pictograph, not to mention Casa Chiquita and the ruin of Penasco Blanco itself. We had taken almost 500 pictures just on this hike and that is with goofing up and leaving our telephoto lens in the truck. If you are able to spend more than one day at Chaco Canyon, or able to return on multiple occasions like us, then Penasco Blanco will be worth putting on your list of things to do. If you would like to see it for yourself then all you have to do is 'Take a hike'.