An unexpected detour: Chaco Canyon

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.

Chaco Canyon photo Billie Frank

The sign read Chaco 21 miles, we had to go photo/Billie Frank

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.

Chaco Canyon Entrance photo Steve Collins

Entrance to Chaco, photo Steve Collins

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. While there are signs of nomadic peoples 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 500AD.

Here’s what we saw:

Chaco Canyon Fajada Butte is a striking sight photo Steve Collins

Fajada Butte is a striking sight rising from the canyon floor, photo/Steve Collins

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.”

Chaco Canyon Pueblo Bonito photo Steve Collins

Pueblo Bonito, photo/Steve Collins

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.

Chaco Canyon Petroglyphs on the Canyon wall photo Steve Collins

Petroglyphs lie the cliffs between Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl, photo/Steve Collins

Chetro Ketl, built around 1050AD features three kivas.

Chaco Canyon Kiva Chetro Keltphoto Steve Collins

The Great Kiva in Chetro Ketl at Chaco Canyon, photo/Steve Collins

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.

Chaco Canyon Pueblo Bonito photo Steve Collins

A view of Pueblo Bonito from above, photo/Steve Collins

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.

This post was included on Endless Summer, a round-up on summer travel blog posts hosted by Travel Rants and Raves.

For more on Chaco Canyon:


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21 Responses to “An unexpected detour: Chaco Canyon”

  1. Payje
    July 23, 2019 at 9:44 am #

    I haven’t been to Chaco yet, but I did a term paper in college about the evolution of architecture in Chaco Canyon and how it marked changes in societal evolution in the area… sounds boring but it was really interesting. It’s definitely on my list of places, maybe this fall when we get back to CO!!! How cool that you guys got to go when you weren’t expecting it!
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    • Billie Frank
      July 23, 2019 at 1:32 pm #

      That might make you an expert-lol. It is an amazing place- if you come back here, go. Other places I love, Mesa Verde and Canyon de Chelly.

  2. Payje
    July 25, 2019 at 9:12 am #

    I love Canyon de Chelly too, there’s so much to see there. The ruins are incredible, so is Spider Rock, and driving through the canyon on the “road” that is just the river was so much fun! It’s crazy but I haven’t been to Mesa Verde yet, that’s next on the list for Justin and me, I know it’s going to knock my socks off!
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  3. Elizabeth Rose
    August 2, 2019 at 11:24 am #

    Wish I had been on that adventure with you!

    • Billie Frank
      August 2, 2019 at 12:11 pm #

      You were in the car with us- and the dog won. We took you home-lol. Cinnamon won the day.

  4. Suzanne Fluhr (Just One Boomer)
    August 2, 2019 at 11:54 am #

    Chaco Canyon looks like a beautiful and fascinating site. We’ll be visiting the Land of Enchantment this fall, but I can see that we already need to be planning our return visit because the week we have will not be long enough.

    • Billie Frank
      August 2, 2019 at 12:14 pm #

      Chaco is a LONG day trip. We went years ago when we were visiting the 4 Corners. I’d wanted to go for years- but it was really too far to do in a day. When I discovered we were so close- I said we had to go. Didn’t factor in the long ride on dirt road at 30mph. It turned into a VERY long day, but it was magical and worth it. We didn’t get as much time to explore as we’d have liked- but we will return!

  5. noel
    August 2, 2019 at 3:59 pm #

    I’ve never been there but would love to hike around some of these landscapes and ruins, gorgeous

  6. Irene
    August 2, 2019 at 6:46 pm #

    We’re hoping to get to Santa Fe in the fall. This is a great suggestion for a LONG day trip!:-)

    • Billie Frank
      August 2, 2019 at 8:21 pm #

      There’s so much to do closer to Santa Fe- if you’re not coming for a long trip, I suggest checking out the close stuff out first- there are so many great places to see and things to do. I wouldn’t have planned a day-trip to Chaco- it’s really too far to do it justice. We went only because I didn’t want to turn around once I saw the sign- we were so close. But the round-trip from where we saw the sign was about 2 hours. We didn’t have a clue. We knew it was a ways away and we’d always planned to do it as an overnight. Because it was mid-July, we also had daylight on our side. You’ll have a lot less of it in the fall.

  7. Jan Ross
    August 3, 2019 at 8:35 am #

    What a beautiful place! We spent time out west last year and can’t wait to go back. This is now on our list.

  8. Cathy Sweeney
    August 5, 2019 at 9:16 pm #

    You captured some great shots before the rain. Looks like a very interesting place. I love serendipitous travel. Nice to have pleasant surprises in life.

  9. Marcia
    August 8, 2019 at 10:54 am #

    I guess that’s where you were meant to go that Sunday — amazing Chaco Canyon! I’ll be putting this on my list of places to visit.

    • Billie Frank
      August 9, 2019 at 8:30 am #

      I think so, too Marcia- on both you comments. It special. Just stay close to the site!

  10. Mike
    August 8, 2019 at 12:39 pm #

    Steve, those are fantastic pictures and I liked the Fajada Butte, petroglyphs and Pueblo Bonito the best. It’s amazing that structures built stone upon stone like that are still standing!

    • Steve Collins
      August 8, 2019 at 1:14 pm #

      Thanks, Mike! Have you been to Chaco? BTW did you know that Fajada Butte is part of the line up for a Solstice marker?

  11. McCreery Jordan
    September 26, 2019 at 1:17 pm #

    Steve, I have not been there, buy my friend and I are going to go in early October (from Santa Fe) and are planning to stay overnight. Thank you for the background information and lovely pictures.

    • Billie Frank
      September 26, 2019 at 2:04 pm #

      Enjoy your trip. If you are there overnight you can explore much further than we did. If you are able to hike, ask about the back country trails.

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