With such an enticing name, it’s hard to resist the pull of this ancient place. Chaco Canyon is one of the oldest places of habitation in the United States. A trip there is life-changing.
I first learned about Chaco Canyon from books, of course. With a turbulent childhood filled with few friends, and even fewer activities, I turned to books. Once upon a time, my only possessions in the world were a few books. Today, I’m thankful for that because it opened up the world for me. History books, encyclopedias, and especially National Geographic were regularly devoured. Even today I still read a book a week (or more), not counting what I read for school. I read as many books as I could about Chaco before visiting, and I’m still reading about it weeks later. Let’s take a look at what it’s like to journey to this ancient, mysterious place. A place that is sacred, serene, and filled with a mysterious energy.
The History of Chaco Canyon
The earliest human habitation at Chaco Canyon dates to 900 BC. The first settlements at Chaco were not the grand casas that you see today, but the modest pit-houses dug into the earth around 200 AD. The first small masonry houses begin to appear at Casa Rinconada in 700 AD. From 850-1150 AD, Chaco Canyon becomes a major center of Ancestral Puebloan culture. After three-hundred years of prosperity, Chaco began to decline. The people migrated to other areas around the Southwest such as Aztec Ruins and Mesa Verde. The Hopi and other ethnic groups of New Mexico trace their ancestry directly to the culture and people of Chaco Canyon.
Archaeologists, historians, and writers have devoted entire lifetimes to studying Chaco Canyon. The formal name for the park is Chaco Culture National Historic Park. There are 4,000 known archaeological sites, and 1.5 million artifacts have been excavated and recorded. The outlying sites waiting for exploration are too numerous to count. Keep in mind that what we are allowed to see is only a tiny part of the story of Chaco.
Traveling to Chaco is an event. It is impossible to see the park in just a few hours. Two days and one night of camping at Chaco was terribly inadequate. My first tip is DO NOT attempt to use GPS. An old-fashioned map is necessary. There are two reasons for this. The service is spotty, and second, some of the roads do not show up on GPS. Trust me on this one. After leaving Albuquerque, we stopped in the tiny village of Cuba (population 742), for pancakes. After Cuba, follow these directions into Chaco Canyon:
- Continue north on Highway 550 north for 36 miles until just before Nageezi.
- Turn left on county road 7900, follow this road for 5 miles.
- Turn right on county road 7950. Follow this road for 21 miles into the park.
The last road into the park (Highway 7950) is 21 miles. The first six miles are paved, and the last fifteen are unpaved. At times the road is heavily rutted. We rarely went above 5-10 mph. Expect the last 21 miles into Chaco Canyon to take well over an hour, in ideal conditions. The road crosses several washes and may be difficult if not impassable after summer monsoon rains. This is the only way into Chaco Canyon. All other roads are closed or impassable.
The Summer Solstice Alignment
First in line.
That never happens. We camped out in our car the night before, but I couldn’t sleep. The pure excitement of being in this ancient place kept me awake. The Big Dipper, the Milky Way, and all the famous constellations made an appearance in the blue-black sky that night. Like a diamond in the sky…truly. What was it like a thousand years ago to watch these same constellations trace a path across the night sky?
Joey is a good sport when I tell him it’s time to get going, at 3:15am. We crept along the dusty road and tried not to wake the rest of the campground. First ones at the gate. I boiled some water, sipped the rich Navajo tea (greenthread), and watched the big dipper cross the windshield. It didn’t take long for first rays of the morning sun to wash out the Big Dipper, as if it never existed. After an hour and a half, the first park rangers begin to appear.
The first one-hundred people (not cars) proceeded to Casa Rinconada to watch the alignment. The air was electric. Hunger didn’t matter, the biting cold didn’t matter. All eyes were on the wall of the once-enclosed Kiva. The golden light of the pre-dawn sun was soon replaced with a dramatic light and shadow show. A small square of light appeared and began to move from left to right before reaching the final resting place on a niche in Casa Rinconada. Imagine this light show in the enclosed Kiva, it would have been even more dramatic.
What to See and Do
Hitting the smooth black asphalt at the entrance to the park after 21 miles of rough road is extremely satisfying. The first thing you see is Gallo Campground. We stopped by to check out our campsite and headed to the Visitor Center center. I recommend purchasing all the mini guides for each of the archaeological sites. They are about $1-$2 each. Due to HVAC issues, the artifacts are missing from the lonely museum exhibit. After the Visitor Center, take a drive on the 9-mile one-way loop to get an overview of the most accessible archaeological sites. The Visitor Center is the only place to get water at Chaco. A few sites to look out for:
Una Vida Ruins – One of the earliest Great Houses.
Fajada Butte Overlook – the place of the famous “sun dagger”
Hungo Pavi – An unexcavated Chacocan Great House.
Chetro Ketl– A large great house an possible ceremonial center dating to 900 AD.
Pueblo Bonito – The largest and best known Great House in the park. You could easily spend an entire day here.
Dozens of backcountry hikes are waiting for explorers at Chaco Canyon. The hikes range from an easy two-mile Pueblo Bonito overlook, to a grueling seven-mile Penasco Blanco trip. The backcountry hikes are free, but you must fill out a permit at the trailhead or the visitor’s center. Several ranger-guided talks are also available. Check the calendar online or at the Visitor Center. Today’s Pueblo people believe that the people of Chaco didn’t abandon the site, but were on a journey. A journey that continues today.
Park Safety and Other Considerations
- Running, yelling, loud or boisterous play is not appropriate, Chaco is an outdoor museum.
- Stay on the trail. Hiking off-trail causes erosion, and is why we can no longer hike to view the “sun dagger” at Fajada Butte.
- Dogs are not allowed on any of the trails.
- Please don’t take or move rocks, walk on the Kivas or other sites, add to or deface petroglyphs and pictographs, chalk messages into the walls, or pick up anything. Even if you find an artifact on the ground, it must stay where you found it.
- Be sure to bring (and drink) 1 liter of water for every hour of hiking. Water (but not food) is available at the Visitor’s Center.
- Fill out the backcountry hiking permit when required.
- Get off the cliffs and out of open spaces if you hear thunder or see lightning.
- Don’t climb on anything. Several major rock falls have happened over the years.
- Don’t put your hands and feet anywhere you can’t see them.
The Road North
This could be an entirely separate blog post. The ancient Pueblo people constructed several roads straight north. One road leads sixty-miles north all the way to Aztec Ruins. I highly recommend reading House of Rain by Greg Childs, In Search of the Old Ones by David Roberts, or Brian Fagan’s Chaco Canyon to get a deeper understanding of the landscape, culture, archaeology, and ancient Chacoan road system. Perhaps one day I will walk these roads in the footsteps of the ancient ones.
Camping at Chaco
One night at Chaco is not enough. However, it’s better than driving out and back to a hotel in Aztec an hour away. Reservations are accepted online, and it’s $15.00 to camp. Certain park pass holders can camp for $7.50. The best part about camping at Chaco? The stars. T I’ll never forget seeing the Milky Way with my naked eye. There are a couple of downsides to camping, especially car camping. The noise didn’t die down until after 10pm. Also, forty-eight degrees is much colder than I expected for the middle of June. Would I do it all again? Yes, but for longer than one night next time, and perhaps in an actual tent and sleeping bag.
What to See Next?
The Four Corners region (Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah) is dotted with thousands of archaeological sites. I recommend at least stopping by Aztec Ruins National Monument, and then to Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado to see what became of the ancestral Pueblo people after they left Chaco. Chaco didn’t become abruptly abandoned. It slowly contracted as people continued north. A few hundred years later there was another mass migration, this time far to the south at Paquime (Casas Grandes, Mexico). After the last migration the Ancestral Pueblo became the people we know today as the Hopi, Zuni, Navajo, Ute, Tewa, Acoma, and Zia.
Chaco Canyon is one of the most unforgettable places my travels have led me. Many lifetimes of scholarship, exploration, and reflection are waiting for the explorer at Chaco. If you ever get a chance to walk in the footsteps of the ancients and explore the oldest settlement in America, it’s an experience you will never forget.
Explore more of our Chaco Canyon Photos Here.