Chaco Culture in New Mexico

This world heritage site is probability one of the most fascinating places we have visited. Construction started in the 800s and continued growing for over 300 years. This massive complex served as a ceremonial and administrative center for an area that encompassed hundreds of miles. The central structure, the Pueblo Bonito, was over four stories tall and had over 600 rooms! The Chaco people inhabited lands that currently cross the boundaries of multiple U.S. states.

It is not easy to get to Chaco Culture National Historic Park since you have to travel over a rough gravel and dirt road for many miles to access this location, but it was worth taking the extra time to visit this historic park in New Mexico.

Celia and I agreed that we would never take our Bighorn down this road to the park because it was too rutted, rocky, and rough in places. Others do, given that the only campground in the park was full, but it was populated with much smaller campers that no doubt took it slow to get there. Ironically, the ranger told us that the “north” entrance (26 miles), that we took, is easier than the “southern” route (38 miles).

As you enter the park, you are greeted by a distinctive landmark called, Fajada Butte. If you stop at the overlook, you will discover that the Chacoans would climb to the top of the butte and use it as a massive calendar! Sunlight passed through three boulders onto a spiral petroglyph which marked the summer solstice, winter solstice, and the equinoxes.

The very nice Visitor Center is a good place to start to plan what to see and do while you visit. They have maps and extensive guides to the park. They also offer advice, such as to hike during the early part of the day and of course to take plenty of water.

We took their advice and hiked the trail to the Pueblo Alto. The trail head is at the end of a one-way loop road and it starts with a steep rock-scramble through a slot to the mesa above. The best part of the trail is the view of the massive Pueblo Bonito below. This large complex is the highlight of the park with its numerous kivas, rooms, and plazas. It is easy to see its unique “D” shape from the mesa above.

We made it to the Pueblo Alto Complex but were disappointed because the ruins are not nearly as intact as those in the valley. The views from the mesa below are what make this a good hike and the scramble through the rock slot will be one we will remember for a long time.

Following our hike up to the top of the mesa, it was time for a break and some lunch. We found a covered picnic table and ate our packed meal. Next, it was on to tour Pueblo Bonito itself.

We had seen Pueblo Bonito from above and now it was time to see it up close. There is a detailed guide book that will help you when touring this large facility. Of course, as luck would have it, we left ours in the truck. The touring path through the complex is almost three-quarters of a mile. This structure was one of the first built and there was continued expansion for over 300 years. There is evidence that Pueblo Bonito was used until CE 1200.

The stonework of the Chacoans progressed over the years and various building methods are on display in this one structure. You may have visited similar sites that contain one kiva. The Pueblo Bonito grounds boast 40 kivas! Kivas were used for worship, dance, prayer, public gatherings, and other purposes. These large round structures made of stone were covered by brick and wood roofs usually with a single hole in the middle for entry. Smoke from fires would also escape through this opening.

In addition to the numerous rooms and kivas, there are several large plazas which were likely used for ceremonial purposes.

Artist Rendering of Pueblo Bonito from National Park Service

While there is plenty of rock in this area, wood had to be brought in from as far away as 60 miles. It is estimated that Chaco Culture required over 225,000 trees for its structures.

While Pueblo Bonito is impressive, there are many other “great houses” in this valley. Not only are the structures extraordinary, there were over 400 miles of roadway that made up the Chacoan network for travel to this important area.

While we dedicated an entire day to visiting this historic park, we were only able to visit a small fraction of what there is to see there. Fortunately for visitors, many of the ruins are easily accessed from the paved one-way loop that starts from the Visitor Center. There is a film at the Visitor Center but that turned out to be a fail because it provided surprisingly little information.

Chaco Culture National Historic Park was designated a World Heritage site in 1987 to help preserve the over 13 structures that make up the park. Years of vandalism, graffiti, and other destruction has made the work of preserving part of Chaco Culture history even more daunting. One rancher even setup a trading post in Pueblo Bonito!

Not surprisingly, Native Americans consider this area to be sacred. Some researchers think that this inhospitable area was chosen because of the spiritual considerations.

While truly off the beaten path, this park was worth the visit if only to discover something that we had never seen before. If you do visit, keep in mind that there there is no lodging, food, fuel, or any other services for miles from this park. If it has been raining, I would recommend calling about road conditions.

We have finished our time in New Mexico and are ready to travel north to explore Colorado and enjoy some cooler temperatures.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s