Some sites are treasured for their archaeological or historical significance. Others gather a cult following because they’re off the beaten path.
Chaco Culture National Historic Park in northwestern New Mexico is all of that — and more.
The canyon site, which dates back more than 1,000 years, was a center of ceremonial, trade and political activity for the ancestral Pueblo peoples in the Four Corners region.
Chaco recently made news headlines because the U.S. Bureau of Land Management planned to sell oil and gas leases that include land near Chaco and other American Indian sites on March 28. The BLM earlier this month deferred the sale of about 1,500 acres near Chaco in New Mexico.
Tribal leaders, environmental advocates and Democratic lawmakers opposed the BLM’s plan to auction land for oil and gas exploration within 10 miles of the Chaco site, citing an unfinished land management plan about how deep horizontal fracturing would affect the area.
Chaco, a UNESCO World Heritage site, contains some 4,000 archaeological sites and 1.5 million artifacts and documents, though a fraction are accessible to the public. It’s best known for its “great houses,” or kivas, public buildings that are the largest and best preserved prehistoric architectural structures in North America.
During two visits to Chaco, I’ve been enchanted by the solitude, peacefulness and beauty of the desert. Even my 15-year-old nephew thought it was cool.
The massive buildings show off the architectural, astronomical, engineering and social achievements of the ancestral Pueblo people from the 9th to 13th centuries. Chaco’s setting also is spectacular: beautiful sandstone mesas, buttes, canyons and desert vistas from its elevation of 6,000 feet or higher.
Excavations started in 1896 by Richard Weatherill, who also excavated the nearby Mesa Verde cliff dwellings. Chaco became a national monument in 1907 and a historic park in 1980.
All of the park’s structures have been preserved, but not reconstructed. They truly are ruins.
What to do
Follow the 9-mile, paved Canyon Loop Drive to visit the park’s five major sites. You can drive it, but consider walking or bicycling it. From the loop road, short self-guided, gravel trails (from a quarter mile to 1 mile) lead to the ruins. Highlights include:
Pueblo Bonito: This is the most important cultural site in Chaco Canyon. Pueblo Bonito was the center of the Chacoan world the most important cultural site in Chaco Canyon, which once covered parts of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah. It was built in stages from 850 AD to 1150 AD. It was five stories high and had more than 600 rooms.
Chetro Ketl: This is the park’s second largest Chacoan great house. The site, which covers more than 3 acres, includes a great kiva and elevated kivas. An elevated plaza stood 12 feet above the canyon floor.
Casa Rinconada: The house and nearby small villages existed alongside grand public buildings like Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl. Don’t miss the great kiva.
Una Vida: This Chacoan “great house” is a large multi-story public building with a great kiva. Don’t miss the petroglyphs above Una Vida. You also can see rock art on the Petroglyph Trail. Tip: Bring binoculars.
Climb the Una Vida trail to see these petroglyphs. (Sheryl Jean)
Other activities, such as guided tours and night-sky programs, depend on the season and staffing. Four backcountry hiking trails range from 3 miles to 8 miles round trip.
On both of my visits, I could count my fellow visitors on my hands. For me, that’s part of the allure — to wander through these well-preserved ancient ruins practically alone.
Just over 55,000 people visited Chaco in 2017. In comparison, the Blue Ridge Parkway, the nation’s most visited national park, received just over 16 million visitors that year.
Part of the reason for few visitors is that Chaco is remote and hard to reach. The park, which sits in a remote canyon cut by the Chaco Wash, is about a three-hour drive from Albuquerque or Santa Fe. The last stretch is along a badly rutted dirt road (20 miles of that coming from the South on Highway 57 or 13 miles approaching from the North on County Roads 7900 and 7950.
If you want to stay in the park, you must camp. Other accommodations are in towns, such as Aztec, Cuba, Farmington and Grants, about 1.5 hours to 3 hours away.
The area is prone to unpredictable weather and seasonal flash floods, and GPS may not work. Heading north out of the park in summer 2017, I got stuck waiting for a flash flood to end.
Don’t late that deter you. Chaco is definitely worth exploring.