South Mesa

Rating: 
Round Trip Distance: 3 - 4.9 miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Elevation: 6121 - 6657 feet
Cellphone: 0 bars
Time: 3 hrs.
Trailhead: Casa Rinconada
Fee: $8/vehicle
Attractions: Chacoan Great House




South Mesa is a backcountry trail located in the Chaco Culture National Historic Park in northwest New Mexico. The trail begins in the valley floor and makes about a 500 foot climb to the top of South Mesa to the Tsin Kletzin site. The trail can be hiked as a 3 mile out and back or as a loop that comes out just under 5 miles. This post makes a loop by following the route from the Casa Rinconada trailhead to the Tsin Kletzin site and then coming back to the trailhead via South Gap which is a valley between South Mesa and West Mesa. An extra half mile is picked up from hiking the trails in and around the Tsin Kletzin site on the mesa.


The South Mesa trail begins off of the Casa Rinconada trail. Hikers are required to fill out a backcountry permit at the trailhead and carry a copy of it with them. The distances shown on the trailhead kiosk and the parks map don't include the distance to the beginning of the trail or that of hiking around Tsin Kletzin so your total distance will be a little further.


The South Mesa trail begins off of Casa Rinconada at the #10 trail marker. Here you might notice that the distances shown on the trail sign are closer to the actual length of the trail.


Most of the trail's climbing is completed right from the start where it angles up a couple of switchbacks.


A cairned route leads hikers over a series of sandstone benches riddled with cubby-holes of all sizes up to a tight squeeze through a narrow slot in the rocks. This part of the hike is a fun scramble.


Viewing Chaco Canyon from South Mesa back in its heyday must have been amazing with all of the Great Houses stretched out along the valley floor and others like Pueblo Alto on the distant horizon to the north and Penasco Blanco to the west. Between the Great Houses would have been many pueblos, alive with activity. Small fields of corn, beans and squash scattered around the pueblos would have given hope to the Chacoans of another year of sustenance. The people here traded with the people of Mesoamerica for things including macaws so they must have also exchanged ideas. In a way, a Chacoan Great House with its high back walls reaching 3 or more stories high that stepped down to shorter sidewalls, may have given a similar impression of grandeur and power as some of the structures from there.


The trail continues up the mesa where short climbing stretches are mixed with gentle traverses until gradually the summit is reached.


The last part of the trail across the rolling top of the mesa passes through an expanse of sage interspersed with small bunches of grass. The trail that loops around Tsin Kletzin begins near the same point as the trail that leads over to South Gap branches off.


Tsin Kletzin is a large site although it doesn't compare with the big Great Houses in the canyon. It's main function may have had more to do with communication and other things that are unique to its location. Today it looks like a huge unexcavated rubble mound with a few standing walls still remaining. Remember that it is illegal to dig or disturb an archaeological site in anyway or to collect any objects or artifacts. It would also be pretty unethical and disrespectful to disturb a site that still has such a profound meaning to the present day descendants of the people that once called it their home.


After following the designated trails around Tsin Kletzin there is the option to return back to the trailhead by the same route or follow the loop that leads through South Gap. For this post we took the loop trail that crosses the mesa heading west toward the rim.


South Gap forms a perfect thoroughfare between the mesas for the return trip. This is how it looks from South Mesa.


To get off the mesa the trail takes a fun route that descends from one bench area to the next making use of a few ridges until it ends up back in the valley floor.


There is one noticeable petroglyph off to the side of the trail on the way down that is hard to judge the age or authenticity of. Most of the Chacoan petroglyphs, other than some bird tracks, were pecked onto the rocks. This one looks like it was carved possible by a metal chisel. There is also a faint template or practice outline scratched on the rock next to it. We are by no means experts at such things and anything we say is nothing more than our opinion. After looking at thousands of petroglyphs that we have seen in hundreds of sites around the southwest we tend to speculate a lot.


Eventually the trail spills out onto an Indian Service Road that passes through South Gap. For us that was at about the 3.7 mile point of the hike. The trail follows the road for almost 1 mile where it departs again on the right a short distance before the dirt road reaches the parks paved road. From here it is about 3 to 4 tenths of a mile back to the trailhead.


Be sure to carry enough water especially on a hot summer day. There is a spigot outside of the Visitor Center where you can fill up your bottles. The trail can be a fun hike by itself with the views of the canyon and surrounding areas being a big bonus. Of course, we have hiked trails that we really enjoyed before that someone else had done and told us not to bother with. For us the South Mesa trail was one more adventure to chalk up to experience. If you would like to see it for yourself then all you have to do is 'Take a hike'.