Searching for the Kutz Canyon Stairway
Introductory Note: Kutz Canyon is a location I’ve been exploring for a few years now but never publicly mentioned. Little has ever been written about it. As it could possibly be a archaeological site I had major concerns about putting it out there for all the assholes of the world to see. However after five visits exploring the location I’m satisfied there’s nothing obviously sensitive there. Oh sure, there are small areas of sherd and lithic scatter, but that’s true of thousands and thousands of other locales in New Mexico. Nothing special here in that regard.
But because surface access to the site is….well…awkward, it may have been overlooked by professional archaeologists. My hope is that making this public data dump onto the Internet might kindle some sort of professional interest in the location. If that’s the case I’d be happy to make my full image sets available.
I think I first came across a reference to the Kutz Canyon Stairway while reading Craig Childs’ book, “House of Rain“. As part of his narrative, Childs does a solo hike along the route of Chaco’s “Great North Road” and states:
“The last sign of the Great North Road was a weathered stairway some miles back with wooden laths barely preserved, the stairway’s remains eroding out of the badlands slope”
I’ve spoken to several professional archaeologists about Childs’ book and they charitably pronounced his central thesis as extremely overconfident. However I found the book very engaging and well worth the read. And it was a first clue of something strange to track down in the desert.
But I’m jumping in the middle of the story and some background needs covering. So let’s start with Chacoan “roads”.
While the Chaco Canyon archaeological features have been known for a great many years, it wasn’t until the late 1970s and early 1980s that the surrounding area was examined with any rigor. At that time archaeologists pouring over aerial photographs discovered faint lines radiating out from many of the archaeological sites in the San Juan Basin (of which Chaco Canyon is the big dog). They seemed to connect major sites in a straight line method. For lack of a better label, they came to be called “roads”.
But subsequent ground investigation showed these features to be anything but roads. They were merely faint linear depressions in the landscape, perhaps 25′ to 30′ wide and usually littered with small pieces of broken pottery (known as “sherds”, not shards. Yeah, I know….). Near their origins at various communities and Great Houses they might be fairly distinct, and with distance fade to almost nothing. Since their discovery archaeologists have puzzled over their purpose as the Chacoan culture did not possess wheeled vehicles or even horses. Probably the best hypothesis to date is the roads served some sort of ceremonial purpose. Here is a good writeup on the Chacoan roads if you’re interested.
Of all the dozens of Chacoan roads in the San Juan Basin, perhaps best known is the “Great North Road”. This one is very well defined and has been traced from Pueblo Alto in Chaco Canyon to apparently the Salmon Ruins in Bloomfield, New Mexico, 45 miles to the north. I say “apparently” because all traces of the road discovered so far vanish when it arrives at the 31 mile point. It is here that the flat, gently rolling plateau ends and there is a drastic 500′ descent into a large wash known as Kutz Canyon. While the road may have continued in the wash bottom, years of seasonal flooding has washed away any evidence.
The reason many archaeologists believe the road continued in the canyon bottom is that the entire Great North Road runs very closely to North-South enough so that it seems more than coincidental. The Chacoans seemed to have almost a fetish about doing things in straight lines and it appears the Salmon Ruin was a likely destination (although there is still significant debate on this). Archeologist Steve Lekson has offered up a controversial theory he calls the “Chaco Meridan” that asserts the Chacoans placed an extreme ceremonial significance to a North-South alignment running through the central part of the Chaco Canyon community. The Great North Road is dead on such an alignment.
But hey….let’s get back to me, OK? I had been poking around segments of the Great North Road exploring scattered ruins and generally retracing Craig Childs’ hike. While attending the Pecos Conference in August of 2012 I happened to speak with an archaeologist who had done work in the Chaco area and asked what he knew about the supposed Kutz Canyon Stairway. He responded that while he and many of his colleagues had heard of it and took it as a “given”, he didn’t know anyone who had actually visited the site. This instantly intrigued me and moved the site to the top of my list of weird places to explore.
But just where the hell was it? Googling turned up very little at the time other than one important document, “The Great North Road: a Cosmographic Expression of the Chaco Culture of New Mexico” by Sofaer, Marshall and Sinclair, 1989.
This turned out to be an excellent source with pictures of the area to help locate it. But Kutz Canyon drains a large area and there are many fingers descending down from the plateau. Which was the right one?
The final clue came out of one of the report’s references from 1983, “Chaco Roads Project, Phase I, A Reappraisal of Prehistoric Roads in the San Juan Basin”, Chris Kincaid, editor. It mentions a site known as the Upper Twin Angels Overlook and appears to be what was pictured in the Sofaer writeup, a mound with a small, shrine-like ruin on top of it. The topographic description for the site stated, in part:
“The spectacular nature of the setting is illustrated by the presence of the Kutz Canyon Overlook at this location. The Overlook restrooms were situated dead center in the imaged alignment of the North Road, a situation which eased backsighting of the road alignment.”
Restrooms? A quick visit to Google Earth turned up BLM’s Angel Peak Scenic Area just west of Highway 550. And there, overlooking one of the drop offs into Kutz Canyon was a picnic area with what appeared to be a bathroom. Road trip!!
Because this was a fairly substantial effort on my part over several years, I have of course generated faaaaar too many words about it. In the interest of organization I’ve split the damned narrative into six parts, one for each visit and a conclusion, linked below. So, let’s get on with it!
- First Kutz Canyon Trip, August 23, 2012
- Kutz From the Bottom Up (Sorta), August 31, 2012
- Rappelling Kutz Canyon, October 25, 2012
- First Kutz Canyon Drone Imaging Attempt, April 22, 2013
- The Ultimate (and Final?) Kutz Canyon Mapping Trip, May 20, 2015
- My Conclusions (As in, did I learn anything at all?)