Peñasco Blanco and Supernova Pictograph Trail

Supernova pictograph

This trail is one of the more famous trails at Chaco Canyon. It goes past a pictograph which may represent the 1054 Supernova that created the Crab Nebula that we see today. Besides the famous pictograph, the trail also takes you past petroglyphs, some of which are the inspiration for some of the park signs.

This trail also goes to Peñasco Blanco, which is one of the outlying ruins in the park.

Hike data:

Controlling agency: National Park Service; Chaco Culture National Historic Park
Region: Northwest; Chaco Culture National Historic Park.
start: 6099ft; 1859m end: 6259ft; 1908m
min: 6099ft; 1859m max: 6259ft; 1908m
elevation gain/loss: 160ft; 49m.
Length: 6.40mi; 10.30km.
surface: mixed
condition: Excellent
ease of following: Easy
obstacles: Crossing the Chaco River should not be attempted if it is flowing.
Fee: $8.00. The park entry fee is payable at the visitor's center. This fee is good for seven days in the park.
Season: All year. Summer will be hot; be sure to bring enough water, sunscreen, and a hat.
Dogs: Unknown.
Bikes: Unknown.
Handicapped accessible: No.
General notes: Stop at the visitor center to get a (free) backcountry permit, which is required for this hike.

You must stay on the trail. They are serious about this and we know of someone who received a ticket for leaving one of the other trails in the park.

Please leave all artifacts as you find them.

The trail is open sunrise to sunset.

Trailhead facilities: flush toilet(s). At the visitor center. vault toilet(s). At the trailhead. water. At the visitor center; not at the trailhead.
Hike attractions: history, scenery.

When we hiked it:

Date: 2001-04-15
Time it took us: 4:00.
Usage (people/hour): 0.00. Trail usage depends heavily on the season. In winter, you are likely to have the trail to yourself.
Cleanliness: 9.


Waypoint Type Description
PDAPKTrailheadParking lot for Pueblo del Arroyo, also trailhead for Peñasco Blanco hike


Paper maps:
Map name Cartographer Year Scale Topo map? Online access Notes
Guide to Indian Country of Arizona Colorado New Mexico Utah Automobile Club of Southern California 1998 1:0 N from Amazon (purchase) Good overview road map for northwest NM. No scale is given on the map. The corner coordinates are approximate.
Wildernesses of New Mexico US Forest Service 1981 1:1000000 N No online copies. Base map with national forests, wilderness areas and highways.

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Getting to the trailhead:

The National Park Service has made it much easier to find the park than in days gone by. You used to have to guess which road to take whenever you came to a fork. They now have good signs all the way in. They also have a map online.

From Cuba, take US 550 (old NM 44) past Counselor and Lybrook. Just past mile marker 112 is the turnoff, which is across the street from the Red Mesa Express gas station and convenience store. A sign indicates the turnoff to the left. The route is well signed.

After about 4.7 miles, you will turn right from the paved road onto a dirt road, county road 7950. Beware that the dirt road sometimes gets exciting when it rains. Do not cross the washes if there is any water running.

16.4 miles from the turnoff from US 550, the road turns left, and again, there is a sign here. When the road becomes really washboard-y, you are getting close. At 19.4 miles from US 550, you enter the park.

The trailhead is at the west side of the Pueblo del Arroyo parking lot on the main loop at Chaco Culture National Historic Park.

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About the hike:

Peñasco Blanco and Kin Kletso trailhead
Starting from the Pueblo del Arroyo parking lot, head west (as shown in the photo), toward Kin Kletso, Casa Chiquita, and Peñasco Blanco.
The trail heads down an old road (years ago, we drove this road when coming into Chaco Canyon). As you head up the canyon, among the things you see is this balanced rock.
A balanced rock along the trail
Diana Northup and Sue Barns at Casa Chiquita
After 20-30 minutes of hiking, you come to Casa Chiquita (GPS CCQTA).
At the end of the next canyon, you will begin to see side trails that lead to the canyon wall. You will want to take them---they lead to petroglyphs. At one point, a sign points out a petroglyph trail, but if you wait for this sign to take the side trails you will miss several petroglyphs.
Horse petroglyph
Petroglyphs and cliff swallow nests

Cliff swallows nest near some of the petroglyphs. They spend most of the day eating insects, so you will probably see them darting and swooping around as you hike.

Cliff swallows build nests of around 1000 mud pellets that the pair of swallows carry to their site under an overhang. The nest is lined with feathers and grasses.

When you see a sign that says "To Ruins" and "Return to main trail". Look west from this area and you will see Peñasco Blanco on the mesa.

One of the plants you may see along the trail is Evening Primrose.

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Cryptogamic soil
Also along the trail is cryptogamic soil (also called biotic crusts). It is a combination of microfungi, green algae, cyanobacteria, mosses, liverworts, and lichens; it helps keep the soil from eroding. These crusts/soils are fragile and easily destroyed, so please do not walk on them.

About two hours from the start (including a lunch break :-), you get to Chaco Wash (GPS PBSNY). Be careful crossing the wash, as the sides are steep.

A little further and the trail forks as shown in the photo (GPS PBSNY2). To the left is a shortcut to Peñasco Blanco. To the right is the trail to the supernova pictograph. Take the right branch; you will be returning on the left one.

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Supernova pictograph

After 10-15 minutes more, you arrive at the pictograph site (GPS PBSN). Look up---the pictograph is under an overhang, on the ceiling about 20 ft up. I wonder how the artist got up there to paint it.

Return the way you came to get to PBSNY2 and go right upon reaching the fork. This takes you up to Peñasco Blanco.

As you climb up on a shelf, look to your right---there is a small shelter cave.

A little more hiking and you arrive at another fork in the trail (GPS PBSNY3). Signs point the way to Peñasco Blanco; go right. After about 10-15 minutes, you will arrive at the ruins (GPS CCPB).

Peñasco Blanco
Wall masonry

Note the detail in the walls as you look around. The masonry is impressive.

Return to the trailhead by reversing the route you took to get here, although you can save a little distance by not going to the Supernova Pictograph site.

Plants we saw along the trail:

Reader comments about this hike:

On Thu Jan 24 10:06:08 2008 JC from Somewhere said:
IWe go to Chaco each year in late September, early October. It's a very special place and to camp there and do the trails during the day is a treat. You feel like you are part of a special group of people.

The trail itself is an easy one - but deceptive. Even in the Fall, the heat will get to you and you will feel overwhelmed if not fully covered (no skin exposed at all) with a very wide brimmed hat. It makes you wonder how the annazazi were able to cope with the heat in the summer - unless it was a "winter" convention center.

Once on the trail, you come upon an arroyo which you need to be able to cross somehow. Not even a simple plank is perovided by the park ervice. Hoever, it just adds to the adventure.

The trail is peaceful. You truly feel the full impact of the remoteness of it all. The spectacular view of the canyon at the ridge is awsome. You need to stop and take it all in for a time and hear the silence.

The actual supernova pictograph is underwhelming. The trail over all - four star show.

Bring lots and lots of water.

On Tue May 19 16:10:35 2009 Virginia Gilstrap from Santa Fe, NM said:
May 2009 - Well marked, easy 8-mile trail. Allow at least 4 hours to take in the petroglyphs along the way, and to visit Penasco Blanco at the end. I found the supernova pictograph to be a wonderful expression of human amazement at the mysteries of our universe. Just take it in. It's not surrounded by neon lights and music. It's a quiet, vivid, beautiful 1000-year-old remnant from another time. Red paint on gold sandstone.

I took 2 quarts of water but no hat, and was wiped out by the time I got back to the trailhead. The sun, though only 82 degrees, was quite draining. But if you're up for a Chaco adventure off the beaten path, this trail is definitely a must-see.

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