As a tour guide and archaeologist, for me, June and July were Chaco months. Chaco Canyon lies at least 40 miles from anywhere in the northwestern quarter of New Mexico. Over a thousand years ago it hosted the largest gathering of prehistoric peoples in one place anywhere north of Mesoamerica or west of Cahokia.
Along the Chaco river, the Ancestral Puebloans*(see below) built innumerable small villages and many large towns, one of which, Pueblo Bonito, is recognized as the largest single apartment building in the United States until the erecting of the Navarro/Spanish Flats in New York in the 1880s.
As I got closer to Chaco I would begin to get excited about the thing I liked best about the trip. What I most looked forward to in Chaco was hiking. There were three hikes that I tried to make each time I went there: 1. the Bonito Overlook, 2. the Wijiji trail and 3. the Penasco Blanco hike.
In this article I am going to deal with the first of these, the Bonito Overlook trail.
First, though, I should preface my remarks with a caveat. All hiking in the canyon, beyond the carefully laid out trails at each named site is considered “back-country hiking” and as such you must go to the visitor center and register for the hike. This is for the hiker’s protection as much as for the protection of the fragile ruins and other resources. Chaco Canyon is huge and it is patrolled and protected by a limited number of NPS staff, they have to have at least a nominal knowledge of who is there and where they are so that they can make sure everyone is safe and enjoying their visit.
That being said, the hike to the Bonito overlook begins at a smaller ruin northwest of Bonito — Kin Kletso. Kin Kletso is a compact town built late in the history of prehistoric Chaco canyon. It features McElmo style masonry, which employs large blocks of sandstone similar in style to some prehistoric pueblo buildings seen in sites near Mesa Verde in Colorado and McElmo canyon in Utah.
The jump off point to the overlook is a vertical scramble up a narrow trail that hugs the mesa sidewall and leads you behind one of the ‘threatening” rocks that has split off from the slope. You emerge from this crack in the rock to a well worn trail across the sandstone buttresses of the north side of Chaco Canyon.
The views of Bonito are spectacular and there are many other sites that spread out before your astonished eyes.
The trail is a fairly long one and while walking it will take you to see many things besides Pueblo Bonito and the other towns clustered near it.
But I would go specifically to see Bonito. For me, Bonito is so all-encompassing of the Chacoan experience that I would sit, dangling my legs over the cliff edge (oops, did I say that outloud?) and just stare at it for hours.
In the end it is all about Chaco. The things that resonate about this remote desert canyon are: that people first settled there, built something amazing, abandoned it and now more than nine centuries later hundreds upon hundreds of people of all ages, from many countries and professions flock to this magical place every year to look upon it in wonder. 3)
*Some people use the term Anasazi but I think that is incorrect as it is a Dine’ word referring to a Puebloan people. It is like calling the Dine’ ‘the Navajo’ or the Inde’ the ‘Apache’; a word from the Zuni language, “apachu” which means “enemy”. These names are from a non-participatory individual’s context and while of common usage and not specifically derogatory I simply find them imprecise. Hisatsinom, the Hopi word would also be an be acceptable alternative to Anasazi except I do not use that in reference to Chaco because I do not believe the Hopis and Chacoans were closely related; it is a professional opinion. I do use Hisatsinom when I speak of the prehistoric people of places like Wupatki, Tuzigoot and Canyon de Chelly.