The words “Chaco Canyon” have always conjured up visions of mystery and grandness for me, and television documentaries whetted my appetite to know more. Recently my husband and I decided to stop wondering and imagining Chaco, and instead make a visit.
It was fall when we arrived at Chaco Culture National Historical Park in a remote region of northwestern New Mexico, about 70 miles southeast of Farmington. The weather was perfect with highs in the 60s and lows in the 30s. The days and nights were clear and exceptional for exploring ruins and for stargazing too. During the day we walked around an abundance of ruins, marveling at the Chacoans’ architectural skills and their obvious drive or desire or maybe both to work, work, work. At night, we sat in camp and marveled at the Milky Way and countless stars, knowing we were gazing at much of what the Chacoans stared at centuries ago.
Chaco Canyon was the center of a vast civilization from about 850 to 1250. That civilization encompassed what is known today as the Four Corners states—New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Utah. In recent years (about 30 years ago) folks at Chaco discovered a network of engineered roads that extend like wagon wheel spokes from Chaco to other great houses and settlements throughout the Four Corners region. Amazingly, the roads the Chacoans built to other communities were 30 feet wide.
Explore Chaco Canyon and you’ll find the remains of great houses, large structures that contain many rooms, kivas and plazas. Researchers believe these great houses were centers of pilgrimage or ceremony rather than dwellings.
To reach the park, take U. S. Highway 550 to County Road 7900 three miles southeast of Nageezi. Travel eight miles on CR 7900, a paved road, and then continue 13 miles on CR 7950, a rough dirt road. Visitors will find a campground and visitor center at the park, as well as self-guided trails. However, don’t expect to find food, firewood, lodging or fuel. You’ll need to bring your own.
Camping is by far the best way to enjoy the park. Camp and you’ll be right in the midst of things at sunrise, and after sunset you can enjoy the lack of light pollution. You’ll see the stars in all their glory. In addition, by camping it’s much easier to attend ranger talks, special talks by park researchers and other activities.
The Gallo Campground is one mile east of the visitor center. Thirty sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. In addition, there’s a group camping area as well. There are no hookups. The campground was closed during the summer because of problems with the septic system. The campground reopened on a limited basis in September with portable restrooms, but no running water. Park officials expect the campground to be restored with running water, permanent restrooms and a dump station early this year. For updated information, visit nps.gov/chcu or call (505) 786-7014, Ext. 221.
Although folks used to believe the Chacoan people and other Ancients like them just disappeared, researchers now believe that when the people left the area they just migrated from there to another area. According to park researchers, “Today, the people themselves tell stories of migrations from Chaco to their present homelands. All 20 Pueblos of New Mexico and the Hopi regard Chaco and the Four Corners area as part of their ancestral homelands. For Pueblo peoples, Chaco and other cultural sites are sacred places. Rather than viewing them as abandoned, Pueblo peoples believe that the spirits of their ancestors still inhabit these places. The ancestral homes remain special places to visit, to pray, and to honor the spirits of ancestors.”
You can honor the memory of those who lived and worked at Chaco by visiting and marveling at their stunning accomplishments. Begin your visit at the visitor center, where you can see two films and the museum displays. Next, you’ll want to get out and walk. Una Vida is reached from the parking area and is one of the original great houses constructed in the canyon. Here, visitors see an unexcavated great house just like early explorers saw in 1849. In addition to ruins, visitors will also see a remarkable rock art panel with stunning petroglyphs.
Along the nine-mile loop drive, which is paved, there are many sites to see. At Hungo Pavi, view an unexcavated, multi-story great house site as well as a wonderful hand-pecked stairway. Pueblo Bonito is a must-see and the site that demands attention if you have limited time in the park. If you can only see one ruin then Pueblo Bonito should be your pick—it is the largest and most excavated of the Chacoan sites. From the parking area for Pueblo Bonito visitors can also walk to Chetro Ketl. And if you have time, be sure to walk the Petroglyph Trail between the two sites. There are guidebooks for all the self-guided trails; use the guides for free and return them to the kiosk or purchase the well-worth-it booklets for 50 cents each.
Farther along the drive, see Pueblo del Arroyo, a terrific great house showcasing some of the newest preservation in the canyon. Casa Rinconada is just beyond and offers the largest great kiva (ceremonial round room) in the Chacoan world.
If you prefer to visit the ruins with a guide, be sure to attend one of the twice-daily guided tours of Pueblo Bonito. Offered at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. from April through October, participants meet at the parking area for Pueblo Bonito. Also offered during the same months is the Night Sky program. The Chaco Observatory opened in May 1998 and provides visitors with an intimate look at the night sky. During the day, visitors can view spectacular night sky images that were made at the Chaco Observatory. Look for the program on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday nights at dusk.
While we were in the preserve we hiked all of its trails—both the easy ones that are accessible to all, and the backcountry trails that lead to such sites as the Supernova Pictograph, a drawing that may represent an exploding star seen worldwide in 1054.
While researchers do not know the true meaning behind Chacoan rock art, composed of pictures either carved on rock (petroglyphs) or painted on rock (pictographs), they do believe the Chacoans had sophisticated wisdom regarding the sun and the moon. For instance, on top of Fajada Butte, the sun’s position is marked on a spiral petroglyph during four important events—the summer solstice, winter solstice, and the equinoxes.
While exploring the ruins and rock art, be sure to keep a look out for animal life. A total of 128 bird species have been identified in the park. The park, which covers 34,000 acres at elevations ranging from 6,040 feet to 6,860 feet, has a herd of 50 to 60 elk, along with the usual coyotes, mule deer and cottontails. There are also a variety of lizards and snakes, including prairie rattlesnakes, which are more common in the backcountry. Look for gopher/bull snakes around ruins. All animals are protected, so please leave them alone.
If you travel to Chaco through the town of Aztec, northeast of Farmington, be sure to make a stop at Aztec Ruins National Monument. Open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. most of the year and 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Memorial Day through Labor Day, the park is closed only on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Around 1100, the ancestral Pueblo people began an ambitious project—the building of a monumental great house. It would take almost three decades to build. The great house at Aztec West stood three stories high, was longer than a football field and once boasted of as many as 500 masonry rooms, including a ceremonial great kiva more than 40 feet in diameter. Walk through the ruins and be amazed and then descend into the great kiva, a reconstructed marvel that is the oldest and largest building of its kind. For more information on the Aztec Ruins National Monument, call (505) 334-6174 or visit nps.gov/azru.
For more information on Chaco visit nps.gov/chcu or call (505) 786-7014. The weather at Chaco is as varied as the ruins themselves. Summers are usually not as hot as other desert environments, but expect highs in the 90s. In July the monsoons begin so expect heavy precipitation in short intervals. Note: roads leading to the preserve can be muddy and impassable in summer. Like many visitors, we think September and October is the best time to visit with highs in the 60s and 70s and lows in the 30s and 40s.
Donna Ikenberry is a writer and photographer who lives in South Fork, Colorado.
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