Pueblo Alto Loop

Round Trip Distance: 6.2 miles
Difficulty: Moderate +
Elevation: 6108 - 6448 feet
Cellphone: 0-2 bars
Time: 3 hrs. 45 mins.
Trailhead: Pueblo del Arroyo
Fee: $8/vehicle
Attractions: Chacoan staircase, overlooks

The Pueblo Alto Loop trail is in the Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico. The trail ascends an ancient Chacoan staircase that leads from the canyon floor to the mesa where hikers are treated to various overlooks and the remnants of other archaeological features of the earlier inhabitants as well as the ruins of Pueblo Alto and New Alto. The name, Pueblo Alto, is Spanish for 'High Village'.

The trail begins at the Pueblo del Arroyo parking area.

Visitors must fill out a free backcountry permit and leave one copy on their dashboard and carry another with someone in their group. All trails and sites close at sunset so for this hike be sure to give yourself about 4 hours to complete the entire loop.

From the trailhead follow the service road to the Kin Kletso ruin. Proceed around the site to the beginning of the Pueblo Alto and Bonito Overlook trail. Here you will climb a Chacoan staircase to get to the top of the mesa. The trail is very primitive with some loose rocks and a couple of spots where you need to use your hands as you scramble around the boulders. At the point where the blue arrow ends in this photo the trail passes through a crevice in the cliff for the remainder of the climb up to the mesa.

People of all ages were making the climb on this particular day. The lady in blue appeared to be in her 80's.

Here you can see someone coming down through the slot in the cliff. Climbing the staircase is mostly a matter of just carefully choosing your footing and taking your time so you don't twist an ankle.

At the top of the staircase the trail transitions to a slickrock path that traverses the bench area along the rim. Between here and the Pueblo Bonito overlook you will pass remnants of the Chacoan people including pecked holes used to collect water and a rock circle. The pecked hole look similar to ones at Mesa Verde some of which were found with clay pots inside them. These may have been used for something else but given their location above a spill over they look like they may have served the same purpose.

Within about 50 yards of passing the Pueblo Bonito overlook the trail comes to the beginning of the Pueblo Alto Loop about 1 mile from the trailhead. For this post we continued toward Pueblo Alto which would take us around the loop in the clockwise direction.

The trail passes a section of of a Chacoan road as it ascends further up to the top of the mesa. Once on top a side trail leads over to the New Alto site. After touring the ruin you can return by the same route and continue on to the Pueblo Alto site which is within a few hundred yards or you can take one of several other trails that lead more directly there.

The Pueblo Alto site is an unexcavated Chacoan great house with many exposed sections of walls. If any areas have been excavated they appear to have been backfilled afterwards. Judging from the area covered by piles of rubble Pueblo Alto would have been an impressive site with a commanding view of the San Juan Basin to the north. Line of site communication may have been possible to places as far away as Chimney Rock which is located in southern Colorado.

From Pueblo Alto the trail continues eastward across the open mesa.

After a short distance the trail drops down to a slickrock bench that it follows continuing in a generally eastward direction. At the point where the trail begins looping back to the south it passes by another ancient Chacoan feature now called the Jackson Staircase. The staircase is part of the Chacoan road that comes up from Chetro Ketl in the valley below. Below the staircase you can still see the mound of earth that formed a ramp up to the base of the steps that are carved into the cliff.

From the staircase the trail continues along the slickrock heading south. At the end of a point in the cliff the trail drops down through a narrow slot to reach the next bench level below. The slot, or crevice, in the cliff is narrow up to the waist and required the removal of our waist packs.

From the lower bench the trail heads back to the west toward the point where the loop began. Another large mound of earth can be seen where yet another ramp was built at the base of a cliff in the box canyon behind Chetro Ketl.

Views of Chetro Ketl are impressive as the trail passes by above the site.

Passing by Pueblo Bonito you can get a more appreciative look at it. Notice the rubble pile from where a section of cliff collapsed onto the northeast corner of the ruin.

With about 1 mile left the trail is back at the point where the loop began.

Here a hiker can be seen descending through the gap above Kin Kletso. There is really nothing too difficult about the staircase but there are enough loose rocks that you have to be careful with your footing.

The Pueblo Alto Loop will get you away from most of the crowds in the park. Not that Chaco Canyon is ever all that crowded. Pueblo Alto is the most popular backcountry trail in Chaco Canyon. Most visitors seem to only go about as far as the Pueblo Bonito overlook. Just the idea of climbing the Chacoan Staircase is enough to get many people jazzed up. It is not everyday that you get to do something like that. If you would like to see it for yourself then all you have to do is 'Take a hike'.