Sometimes life is serendipitous. We set out on a mid-July Sunday on a quest to find Georgia O’Keeffe’s Black Place. The beautiful ride was the perfect activity for the day. We found it. We needed to turn around to get photos. That’s when it happened. We saw the sign. It said “Exit for Chaco Cultural National Historic Park” (aka Chaco Canyon). Hmm… had we come that far? We’d been there when we lived in Colorado and wanted to go back. We thought Chaco wasn’t doable in a day. We figured it was still over an hour away. We took the exit and saw the sign.
We were within 21 miles: instant detour. Granted 16 of these miles are dirt road, but undaunted, we drove on. The drive was worth it. Chaco Canyon was at the end of the road. We didn’t see it all. Realistically, we didn’t have enough time. Then it started to rain pretty heavily. It was a clear signal it was time to go home. We plan to return.
A brief history of Chaco Canyon:
Chaco Canyon was inhabited from around 850AD to 1250AD. It was the major cultural center for the Pueblos of the southwest. It had 15 major building complexes. Archeological sites scattered around northwestern New Mexico, southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah are considered “outlier” communities for Chaco. This means they are offshoots of Chaco.
There are signs of people in the area as long as 10,000 years ago. The first settlers are believed to have been the group, known as “Basketmakers.” They began farming the area around 490AD.
Here’s what we saw:
Pueblo Bonito, the largest building at Chaco Canyon. According to the National Park Service website, Pueblo Bonito “is the most thoroughly investigated and celebrated cultural site in Chaco Canyon. Planned and constructed in stages between 850AD and 1150AD by ancestral Puebloan peoples.”
Walk along the cliff from Pueblo Bonito to Chetro Ketl, the second largest great house here, which covers over three acres. No matter which you choose to visit first, walk along the path below the cliffs that connects the two. Look up and you’ll see petroglyphs carved into the cliff-face.
Chetro Ketl, built around 1050AD features three kivas.
How to make the most of your visit:
Start your visit at Una Vida, just off the Visitor’s Center parking lot. The one-mile loop trail takes you to this Chacoan great house with a great kiva. This site is in a semi-unexcavated state.
When you return from Una Vida, drive the nine-mile paved loop around Chaco Canyon. First stop is Hungo Pavi, an unexcavated Chacoan great house containing over 150 rooms, a great kiva, and an enclosed plaza. This semi-excavated site is a good example of what unexcavated sites here look like covered in sand and vegetation.
Casa Rinconada is a small “village,” more typical of life in those in Chaco’s heyday than are Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl.
Pueblo del Arroyo, built between 1025 and 1125 AD, typifies the Pueblo architecture of Chaco Canyon communities.
A few things to know if you go:
Your visit starts at the Visitors’ Center where you pay your use fees and get a hang-tag for your vehicle. Rangers will answer any questions you may have. The day we were there staff outnumbered visitors. Check out the gift shop and bookstore, featuring a selection of books about Chaco Canyon and more. There is also a theater that shows a 26 minute video introducing to Chaco culture.
Four back country hiking trails access more remote sites. You can get free permits to hike these at the Visitor Center and at all trail heads. Chaco Canyon is open from sunrise to sunset. Pets are permitted on the back country trails if they are leashed.
Chaco Canyon and the park are very isolated. Bring enough food and water for the time you plan to spend there and perhaps a bit extra, just in case. If you want to take more time to explore Chaco, there is limited camping on a first come, first served basis.
Allow at least an entire day here. If you aren’t camping, the closest towns offering restaurants and lodging are Bloomfield and Farmington to the north or Cuba to the south all on US 550. The northern towns are larger, giving travelers more options.
The Santa Fe Traveler can create a memorable day-trip or Santa Fe itinerary for you. Explore Chaco Canyon, take the High Road to Taos, take a scenic ride or discover an off-the-beaten-path treasure. We know Santa Fe and Northern New Mexico and what it has to offer you. Contact us about creating the perfect Santa Fe experience for you.
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