Pueblo Alto Loop

View of Chetro Ketl from the trail up the cliff

This hike is probably the best hike in Chaco Culture National Historic Park. On it, you go past three different sets of ruins (Kin Kletso, Pueblo Alto and New Alto), and you get wonderful views of Kin Kletso, Casa Rinconada, Pueblo del Arroyo, Pueblo Bonito, and Chetro Ketl from the cliff above. You can also see up and down Chaco Wash, and have good views of other parts of the San Juan Basin as well.

On this hike are interesting rock formations, including iron-rich fossil worm castings and slot canyons. Plus, you get to see the Jackson Staircase, which is a staircase carved into the cliff wall. You also twice see segments of the famous Chacoan roads. If you only do one hike at Chaco Canyon, do this one.

Hike data:

Controlling agency: National Park Service; Chaco Culture National Historic Park
Region: Northwest; Chaco Culture National Historic Park.
start: 6099ft; 1859m end: 6099ft; 1859m
min: 6099ft; 1859m max: 6437ft; 1962m
elevation gain/loss: 337ft; 103m.
Length: 5.41mi; 8.70km.
surface: mixed dirt/rock
condition: Excellent
ease of following: Easy
obstacles: You climb some rocks; it is only slightly more difficult than climbing stairs.
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 is hot; ensure you have sufficient water.
Dogs: Yes. On a leash no longer than 6ft. They are not allowed in the archaeological sites.
Bikes: No.
Handicapped accessible: No.
General notes: You need a free backcountry permit to hike this trail. You obtain the permit at the visitor's center. They enforce this requirement---a ranger checked our permit as we hiked this trail.

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.

Trailhead facilities: flush toilet(s). At the visitor center. trash can(s). At the trailhead and visitor center. water. At the visitor center.
Hike attractions: geology, history, scenery.

When we hiked it:

Date: 2001-04-14 2002-03-20
Time it took us: 5:00. 5:00.
Usage (people/hour): 9.00. 8.80.
Cleanliness: 9. 9.


Waypoint Type Description
ALTOYTrail junctionJunction for short trail to Pueblo Bonito overlook
CRINCNTrailheadCasa Rinconada and parking area for several backcountry hikes
CROADTrail pointChacoan road on the Pueblo Alto trail
CSTEPSTrail pointChacoan steps on the Pueblo Alto trail
KLETSOTrailheadKin Kletso archaeological site and trailhead for Pueblo Alto loop
NWALTOTrail pointNew Alto on the Pueblo Alto trail
PBALTOTrail pointPueblo Alto
PKBSNScenic pointPecked basins on Pueblo Alto trail


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.

From the visitor center, head to the west-most part of the scenic loop. This is the parking lot for Pueblo del Arroyo. The trailhead is at the west side of the parking lot.

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About the hike:

A pictograph person holding a stop sign and a pictograph person pointing left
From the parking lot, you follow an old road west to Kin Kletso (GPS: KLETSO). The trail to Pueblo Alto takes off behind Kin Kletso. Go right at the Ruin and look for the trail signs.
You climb about 100 ft up a slot canyon right behind Kin Kletso. This climb is one of two on this hike. I can imagine some people not liking the climb. It is easy. Do not let it prevent you from making the hike.
No short text
Trail marker
After the short climb, you come out on the mesa top. The trail here is a cairn trail with some wooden posts instead of cairns. The cairns are large and easy to follow.
Once on top of the mesa, you can look down on Kin Kletso, where you started.
Kin Kletso from the mesa top
Diana Northup, Sue Barns, and a pecked basin
Not far down the trail (PKBSN), you come to some basins pecked in the mesa top. To the right, you can See Diana Northup and Sue Barns looking at one of the basins.
The trail is along some sandstone terraces.
Diana Northup on terraced sandstone
iron nodules
In these terraces, you can see iron nodules and also worm casings weathering out.
After a bit more walking, you come to an overlook where you can see the Wetherill cemetery.
Wetherill cemetery
Pueblo del Arroyo
Continuing with the views from the mesa top, the next view is of Pueblo del Arroyo.
After a little more hiking, you come to a branch in the trail (ALTOY). First, head over to the Pueblo Bonito overlook, which is to your right.
Pueblo Bonito
Steve Koch and Sue Barns heading up the trail
Return to the branch at ALTOY, and head up the mesa, as Steve Koch and Sue Barns are doing in the picture here.

A little more hiking, and you come across some Chacoan steps (CSTEPS).

A few more minutes of hiking, and you come to one of the Chacoan roads (CROAD).

Just a few minutes later, you come up a small hill and get your first view of New Alto, with Pueblo Alto visible mainly as a bump to the right. Pueblo Alto is the highest point of this hike.

The photo here is New Alto.

New Alto
New Alto
Continue up the trail, and you will get to a point where it branches. To the left is New Alto, straight ahead is a place with a view of the San Juan Basin, and to the right is Pueblo Alto and how you will continue once you have seen both Pueblo Alto and New Alto. In the image to the right, the most distant person is standing at the place where the trail branches. You can also see Pueblo Alto.
Over in New Alto, you can look at the Chacoan masonry. Also, look out of a window and imagine what it would be like to have been here when Chaco was at its peak.
Denny O'Brian at New Alto
Pueblo Alto
The walls in Pueblo Alto as not standing as high as they are over in New Alto.

Leave on the trail heading southeast. Note the view of Fajada Butte. Unfortunately, both times we hiked this trail, the light was not right for a photo. Hike this trail first thing in the morning for better lighting in your views of Fajada.

After a little more hiking, you come to where you can view the Jackson Staircase across the canyon. We have tried to imagine climbing these stairs, and we would want a handrail, thank you. Maybe the holes to the left of the stairs were for a handrail?

The Jackson Staircase
Steve Koch coming down the slot canyon
You hike around past the top of the Jackson Stairs, and then you begin to descend. Part of the descent is through a small, slot canyon, reminiscent of the one you came up, over by Kin Kletso. Again, it is an easy canyon to come down; they have placed rocks for steps.

Once you descend to the mesa edge, you follow it and soon come to a view down onto Chetro Ketl (as shown here).

Continue hiking around, along the mesa edge, and you will return to (ALTOY). From here, you return to the slot canyon near Kin Kletso, and then back to the trailhead.

Chetro Ketl

Plants we saw along the trail:

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