Tuesday, 13-May – Albuquerque, NM to Chaco Culture National Historic Park
Trip miles: 159.5 miles
Route taken: I-40 W → I-25 N ->US-550 N → CR-7900 → CR 7950 . I-40 and I-25 in the city limits is 65mph. US-550 is a 70mph highway with a good surface. CR-7900 is paved but CR-7950 is a dirt road with some bad patches of loose gravel and some washboard surface.
Average Gas mileage: 25.8 mpg (tail wind, slower speeds and some elevation descents)
Weather: cold (40'sF) and windy with more sun and less wind in Chaco
Elevation: 5312 ft → 7379 ft Western Continental Divide → 6200 ft.
- SNOW in Albuquerque in the morning
- crossing the Western Continental Divide at 7379 ft of elevation
- incredible mesa and canyon views
- goats and sheep being herded by dogs on dirt roads CR7900 and 7950
- the 3.2 mile round trip hike to the Wijiji ruins
- the almost full moon over the east rim of the escarpment
About the trails:
Overlook Trail – This is a 2.4-mile (RT) trail to the rim of the Gallo Wash and then along the rim to where Gallo meets Chaco Wash. It provides a wonderful view of Fajada Butte.
Wijiji Trail – This almost flat 3-mile (RT) trail from the trailhead near the Gallo Campground leads to the C-shaped Wijiji Great House. The 100 ground floor rooms, many third story rooms at the back along the wall of the Wash and two symmetrically-positioned kivas were all built in the later period of Chaco habitation, around 1110 AD. The site is unexcavated. Bikes are allowed on this trail.
As if the rare rain shower was not enough of a treat yesterday, we were amazed by an even more rare May snow shower this morning. Even the local folks could not believe it. The wind, which had changed now to come out of the northeast, made us feel even colder than 39F. Taking occasional breaks to warm up, it took us two hours to eat breakfast and pack up the car. Once again we thanked John for the cabin discount before heading into rush hour traffic on I-40 N.
After leaving the city limits and turning northwest onto US-550 the road started to gradually climb from the elevation of Albuquerque over the Western Continental Divide. In general, the precipitation falling west of this Divide flows to the Pacific Ocean, although water reaching underground aquifers may complicate the flow for any specific drop of water. Most of the drive offered spectacular views of multi-coloured mesa escarpments, dry washes and dry, high desert expanses. We felt very small!
The route we took was well marked with National Park placards and the 13 miles of dirt road on CR-7950 was not as bad as the warnings suggested. The road conditions undoubtedly can be worse at some times so it is always prudent to call ahead to the Visitor Center for an update. (Don't count on cell service after turning off of US-550.) We crossed a dry wash which, if it had water in it, would have prevented us from reaching the park. It was like being transported back in time to see a girl using her dogs to herd goats and sheep.
About the campground: The Gallo Campground is beautifully situated along the western cliff wall of Gallo Wash. There is a short trail along the wall where pictographs can be seen. Two other trails, Wijiji and Overlook, have trailheads at the campground entrance. Campsites can be reserved in advance but there are also some First-come-first-served sites. There are flush toilets and cold water sinks but the only potable water is at the Visitor Center 1 mile away. A separate room in the bathroom building has a flushable 'slop sink' for dish and clothes washing (non-potable water only). The 'tents only' campsites are set back into a small recess in the wall so are more secluded but are also further from the bathrooms. The tent sites have 12'x12' tent pads. Trailers and campers, length-restricted to 35ft or less, seemed to have a difficult time finding a large enough or level enough spot on their site. There are no hookups or dump stations for these vehicles.
There were still some First Come/First Served campsites available when we arrived at noon, but by 17:00 all sites were taken. We reserved site #031, which is in the tent/camper section and near the group site and bathrooms. The 'tents only' section of the campground may have been a little quieter. I don't think the camper generators could be heard from there. The tent pad at our site was just big enough for the 3-person MSR if we staked the fly outside the tent pad perimeter.
We had already filled up all our water containers and looked at the various displays at the Visitor Center before driving to the campground. After a quick lunch we set up the tent and walked out of the campground along the Wijiji Trail to see the unusual C-shaped Chacoan Great House and a pictograph. The weather was perfect for hiking – cool, no wind and sunny.
After returning from that hike we took the Overlook Trail west of the campground. The weathered rock sculptures, fossilized crustacean tunnels and the views of the campground and Fajada Butte made for a very interesting walk. A 'Sun Dagger' carved in a narrow ledge was discovered in 1977 at the top of the butte, positioned by the Ancestral Puebloan astronomers to predict the changing of the seasons as the sun cast its shadow. It is now a sacred Puebloan site.
An Ancient Legend: 'Fajada' in Spanish means belted. The Fajada Butte was so named because of a layer of black coal part of the way up the Butte. Before the Spanish arrived a legend tells of a witch, “She who sucks you dry”, who makes her home in the rock. In the form of a beautiful woman she lures young men of the pueblo up to the top of the butte at night. When dawn comes she returns to the pueblo in the form of an old woman, bringing back the now trussed up man who is begging for water and soon dies of thirst. This legend may be linked to that of the Jimson Weed, a member of the Datura family, which grows in the Southwest and can be found at the base of Fajada Butte. Of this plant Navajos say “Eat a little go to sleep. Eat a little more and go have a dream. Eat some more and don't wake up.”
The sun had lost its heat by 17:00 and a light breeze was blowing as we prepared dinner – sauteed onions and red peppers in whole wheat pasta with added cans of fire-roasted tomatoes and corn kernels. Dishwashing, as usual, required two walks to the slop sink, first with the pail of dirty water, then to dump the soapy water. We remembered to rinse the dishes with the potable water we had brought with us before drying and stowing them for the night. Ditto for brushing our teeth.
All cleaned up with a Huggie bath, we climbed into the tent at 20:00, before it was dark. There was an incredibly large moon rising (one night away from being full) over the eastern ridge of Gallo wash. The forecast called for a cold 29F night. We were bundled up in two layers of long underwear, pajamas and socks. Snuggled into our flannel sheets and under our sleeping bag blanket we didn't think we would be cold, but we had our hooded sweatshirts in the tent just in case. Our plan was to try to stay in the tent until the morning sun warmed it up a few degrees. Even though it would be very cold tonight we half hoped we would be forced to walk to the bathroom so we could see the stars after the moon sets in the wee hours of the morning.