Glancing behind us through the mirror on the passenger’s side of the car, I watched as a plume of dust rose into the air, enshrouding the rear of the vehicle in a veil of tan and brown. Not quite a year before that drive, as I sat inside of an icebreaker ship bound for Antarctica, I remembered a phrase that seemed appropriate as our boat fought the turbulence of the Drake Passage: you don’t just visit Antarctica, you earn it. After miles of bouncing about in our rental car, I wondered if the same sentiment might be true for Chaco Canyon.
Located hours away from the closest cities and many miles down unpaved roads, Chaco Canyon can’t call itself easily accessible. Visitors won’t unexpectedly stumble upon it en route to another destination. What Chaco Canyon can call itself, though, is remarkable. Historic. Mystical. For those reasons, and for many more, Chaco Canyon is a worthy destination in the USA’s Southwest and a perfect place to visit if you want to unlock the secrets of the native people who called some of the country’s most vivid landscapes home.
If you are wondering if a visit to Chaco Canyon is a great way to use your vacation time, here are some of the reasons you may love it as much as we did.
What is Chaco Canyon?
Officially known as the Chaco Culture National Historic Park, but commonly known by its more concise nickname, Chaco Canyon’s origins date back close to 12,000 years ago. Originally the home of the Anasazi, the community who lived in the region were mostly nomadic and were called the Basketmakers because they crafted baskets to preserve the food they gathered. Despite their nomadic tendencies, by the mid-800s AD they were in the midst of constructing large-scale architectural projects that relied on advanced masonry techniques and resulted in enormous, primarily residential buildings to house the Chacoan people.By the time construction was complete, more than 9-miles of buildings stretched throughout Chaco Canyon. Beyond the surprisingly advanced designs and incredible scope of the project itself, the site that served to govern the San Juan Basin also provided insight into one of the most interesting social experiments known to have occurred during that time in history. Researchers have uncovered numerous elements that suggest how life was lived and how business was conducted within Chaco Canyon, some of which conflict with one another. The structures had ceremonial, religious, and public uses, and they were connected via an elaborate road system that provides evidence of advanced urban planning techniques. Some buildings featured large storage areas that may have contributed to the region’s role as a central trading post. Additionally, it is believed that Chaco Canyon welcomed dozens of different people, who may have used the public buildings to connect and build communities that stretched far beyond the San Juan Basin.
By the mid-1100s Chaco Canyon began to experience a decline from which it never recovered. Many of the people who lived there moved on to new parts of the region, ultimately abandoning the settlement. It would be more than 600 years later when, in 1823, Chaco Canyon would be documented as part of an expedition through the region led by New Mexican governor José Antonio Vizcarra. For decades, archaeologists remained busy excavating and discovering tens of thousands of artifacts that helped to tell the story of Chaco Canyon, the Anasazi, and the peoples who both lived and connected there. Some archaeologists have compared their findings to the sites excavated in Egypt, which tell similar stories about the social and cultural societies built by people centuries ago. In 1987, Chaco Culture National Historic Park was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Despite the incredible amount of information that has been gathered from what was left behind, there is still far more that has not been excavated or interpreted to this day.
Chaco Canyon: Petroglyphs and Ruins
To visit Chaco Canyon is to immerse yourself in an incredible number of notable spots of social, spiritual, and historical significance. When visiting, it is possible to take either a professionally guided or a self-guided tour. Guided tours are offered regularly from May until October each year, and self-guided tours are easily completed based on your speed and interest in the buildings and sites located along the park’s Canyon Loop Drive. No matter which type of visit you prefer, there are a few sites you will want to include on your Chaco Canyon itinerary.
► PetroglyphsOne of the most fascinating features of Chaco Canyon are the petroglyphs, which pop out unexpectedly as you walk throughout the area. Following the appropriately-named Petroglyph Trail, hundreds of tiny pictures carved into the rocks tell the story of the people who lived there and what life was like centuries ago. Some petroglyphs are easy to spot and decipher, such as animals and birds; others seem like they may be simply decorative, and still others will make you question if they represent otherworldly beings who may have visited our planet and been documented by our ancestors. Adam coyly reminded me that the hosts of Ancient Aliens would say, “You have to ask yourself: does the spiral represent a spiral galaxy, and if so, who taught the Native Americans about them—perhaps their descendants from the sky?” You don’t have to believe in aliens to question how to interpret the petroglyphs, but a walk along the Petroglyph Trail is a great way to challenge yourself to see things through the eyes of those who walked the land before us.
► Casa Rinconada
Casa Rinconada is one of four kivas at Chaco Canyon. In Chacoan culture, kivas were rooms used for religious or political purposes. It is a large space that featured plenty of seating and was somewhat deeply entrenched in the ground, placing it a bit below the surface of the ground within the community. Casa Rinconada also featured a long underground passage that was likely used to bring people into the space during rituals, possibly as a surprise to others already in the kiva. It’s a well-preserved and interesting look into how meeting spaces were defined, constructed, and used in Chaco Canyon.
► Pueblo BonitoThe largest great house in Chaco Canyon is Pueblo Bonito, which translates to beautiful town in Spanish. The ruins have been likened to the United Kingdom’s Stonehenge and Peru’s Machu Picchu with regard to their importance, and the more than 800 rooms tell remarkable stories about its significance within the Anasazi community. Pueblo Bonito featured two great kivas as well as more than 30 smaller kivas. Despite its size, many archaeologists believe fewer than 100 people lived there. Many of the rooms were connected by interior doorways that would have allocated several rooms per family as well as a number of additional rooms just for their storage, and numerous rooms were filled with debris to provide a stronger foundation for the rooms built on top of them. Today, researchers continue to study Pueblo Bonito and the artifacts discovered there to better understand how great houses facilitated community building and the economy within the region.
► Pueblo del Arroyo
Built due to overpopulation and crowding at other great houses, Pueblo del Arroyo was constructed toward the end of Chaco Canyon’s period of large-scale growth in the mid-11th century. Close to Pueblo Bonito and boasting 300 rooms, it was the fourth-largest great house in Chaco Canyon and included 14 kivas. Although most great houses had a south-facing orientation, Pueblo del Arroyo faced to the east. Few artifacts that shed light into life in Chaco Canyon have been retrieved from the location, although it is recognized as a significant site within the landscape.
► Chetro KetlChaco Canyon has numerous great houses, which were multiple stories in height and often served to house many people. Some great houses were used to house royalty or religious leaders; this was likely the case for Chetro Ketl. It may have taken as many as 100 years to build Chetro Ketl, which used stone, clay-sand, and timber in its construction. The building most likely served to send a message of strength and authority in addition to providing a residence for Chacoan royalty, and its size and scale was intended to impress those within and outside of the community. Despite its large footprint within Chaco Canyon, researchers who have excavated the building have found few clues to life within its walls. Aside from some artifacts found elsewhere at Chaco Canyon, the building provided very little to enhance what we know about life in the San Juan Basin.
► Hungo Pavi
Another example of a large great house is Hungo Pavi, which is a bit isolated from many structures at Chaco Canyon. About a mile away from many other locations of interest, Hungo Pavi’s ruins feature more than 70 rooms. It also hosts the ruins of its own circular kiva. The great house was most likely used to house people who lived in the area as opposed to royalty or religious leaders.
► Una Vida
Dating back to approximately the time of Pueblo Bonito, Una Vida—which translates to One Life—is one of the original three great houses in Chaco Canyon. The site is particularly interesting because it is one of the least excavated areas of Chaco Canyon, which means it is one of the most naturally preserved spots in the park. With 160 rooms it is not one of the largest structures constructed by the Anasazi, but it does provide good insight into living conditions for those who called it home.
This video from Visit New Mexico provides some additional information and an overview of the history of the region.
How Do You Get to Chaco Canyon?Getting to Chaco Canyon may be the most challenging part of your trip: it’s not the easiest drive you will take. We elected to take the northern route, which is often recommended and referenced as the best of the options you have available. From US 550, we followed the signs into the park that took us down CR 7900 and CR 7950, two well-paved roads. From there, we transitioned to 13 miles of extremely rough roads that jostled all of us, often causing us to decelerate to really low speeds to ensure we didn’t damage the car. We had an SUV that was well-equipped to handle the trip, and we highly recommend a car with all-wheel drive that doesn’t mind a little off-roading.
There are additional routes from the south that will take you to Chaco Canyon, but those roads require significantly more time on unpaved roads. If you can take the northern route your journey will be a bit shorter—and a bit smoother.
Chaco Canyon is not situated near any major city; the closest city is Albuquerque, which is between 2.5 and 3 hours away. It’s also within driving distance of a few other key attractions, including Monument Valley (about 4 hours away), Four Corners Monument (about 2.5 hours away), and Taos Pueblo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is about 3.5 hours away and is another popular site worth visiting. As an important note, there are no public transportation options available; your journey to Chaco Canyon can only be taken by car.
More Information: NPS.gov/CHCU
What to Do at Chaco Canyon
When it comes to visiting Chaco Canyon, there is a vast amount of things to do if you love national parks and the outdoors. Hiking is one of the most popular activities; there are four backcountry trails that extend as long as eight miles, allowing plenty of opportunities to stretch and challenge yourself while taking in some of the incredible views of the ruins and the landscapes beyond them. Wearing good, solid hiking boots or shoes is key; we attempted a few of the trails and found they benefit from some preparation and smart footwear choices to ensure you keep your balance. Some spots also require traversing narrow spaces and situations that approximate rock scrambles, so be sure to know your limits and how far you plan to go.
If you want some easier walking, many places of interest are right off the Canyon Loop Drive, which is easy to drive and doesn’t require a lot of physical effort. The Petroglyph Trail in particular is a nice, easy walk that is both scenic and even educational, so your visit can be as relaxing as you want it to be without compromising on sightseeing.
No matter what your plans may be, visit the Chaco Canyon Visitors Center before you explore the rest of the park. The visitors center is a great place to find park information, chat with knowledgeable rangers, and get a sense for what you will see once you are walking along the ruins. We found our stop at the visitors center to be a nice way to ground our experience and ensure we made the most of the time we had there.
There is a ton to see and do at Chaco Canyon, and it’s a good idea to plan to spend at least a half day there if possible. Because it is tough to access and requires a bit of a commitment as far as your vacation time is concerned, make the most of your investment by planning to spend as long as possible there. We spent more than half a day exploring, and we agreed it was one of the best days we spent during that vacation—and one of the most unexpectedly fun destinations we have visited.
Tips for Visiting Chaco Canyon
If you are planning to visit Chaco Culture National Historic Park, here are a few tips to help you make the most of your visit.
► Fill Your Gas Tank
Chaco Canyon requires some serious time on back roads to get to the park, and there are no opportunities to fill your gas tank once you leave the main roads. We stopped for gas at the Red Mesa Express station just before turning on to CR 7900, and having a full tank made us feel a lot better about navigating the unpaved roads—there would be little worse than getting stuck on them!
More Information: Google Maps Location for Red Mesa Express
► Brace for a Bumpy RideWe knew to expect some unpaved roads, but we were surprised by just how rough the drive was for us. Go slow, stay alert, and drive safely based on the conditions. Remember that if your visit coincides with rain it may be harder to navigate and the condition of the roads may further deteriorate until they are dry. We found the roads to be extremely rough but manageable; go slow and know the end will justify the means!
► Bring Water
Another shout out to the Red Mesa Express: we stocked up on water and snacks before departing for Chaco Canyon, a smart move because you won’t find restaurants or places to stop for food or drink once you get closer to the park. Chaco Canyon is dry and often has extreme temperatures—especially during the hot summers—so having extra water is a great idea.
► Wear Sunscreen
One of Adam’s favorite tips for any trip is to wear sunscreen, and that is doubly true at Chaco Canyon, where high altitudes (more than 6,000 feet above sea level!) can contribute to strong sunrays. You’ll be outside quite a bit during your visit, so wear some sunscreen to protect yourself—and don’t forget a hat and sunglasses for some additional comfort.
Where to Stay in Chaco Canyon
You won’t have a lot of choices when it comes to lodging, especially at the park itself: aside from camping, the closest town will be Farmington, New Mexico, which is 90 minutes north and has several hotel choices. We often find the best hotel deals using Booking.com, and we recommend it as a great tool to find a hotel near Chaco Canyon.
Enjoy Chaco Canyon!
In the moments after leaving the Chaco Culture National Historic Park, as I noticed a comparable plume of dust emerging as our car gently navigated the rough road, it occurred to me that my initial observation was correct: you don’t just visit Chaco Canyon. You earn it. You arrive only after miles of challenging terrain, backed by the knowledge and research it requires to know how exceptional the site will be to explore. To walk among the ruins so carefully constructed by the people who lived there centuries ago opens your eyes to their unique community—and the similarities between their lives and our own.
Chaco Canyon is a wonderful place to visit; it will undoubtedly become one of your favorite vacation memories and will inspire you, like it has us, to learn as much as you can about the people and communities that shaped our planet long before our time.
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