The ruins of Pueblo Del Arroyo in Chaco Canyon

Of all the thousands of archaeological sites you can visit on a trip to the American Southwest, the remains of the Chacoan Great Houses, preserved in Chaco Culture National Historical Park –  a three hour drive west of Santa Fe – have to be the most remarkable. They utterly fulfill your childhood fantasy of finding the lost cities of Montezuma. Instead of a few low walls of hewn stone coursing through dead grass, with an interpretive sign above – common fare in our parts – these ruins tower three stories high and penetrate deep into the ground. The stonework is exquisite. There are mysterious T-shaped windows above. There are huge circular kivas as perfectly preserved as Pompeii, below. Walls align north-south and east-west with absolute precision; great houses align with other great houses throughout the canyon; windows turn out to be astronomical observatories of subtle cunning, timing the solstices and equinoxes like a huge stone clock – and webbing it all is a network of laser-straight connecting roads, nearly lost with age, worthy of the Nazca Plain.

All in the middle of the most arid, silent, isolated region you can imagine.

I had a chance to make an overnight trip this past weekend, and Chaco suggested itself immediately. Because of its distance from Santa Fe – or any other city where there is lodging – about the only way to explore Chaco Canyon properly is to camp there, or bring in a motor home. The 15 miles of washboarded dirt road that, to put it bluntly, guard this place from daytrippers have to be taken into account:

On the way to Chaco Canyon

This means autumn is the perfect time to make the trip. You would not want to be on this road during a summer downpour! On the other hand, as isolated as it is, high on the Colorado Plateau, not far from the Continental Divide, temperatures drop like a rock out here at nightfall and the winter weather is viciously cold. Even spring camping will require preparations against this. Chaco still guards its secrets, one way and another.

But what a place!

An excavated kiva at Pueblo del Arroyo

The stonework here has no match in North America:

Courses of dressed stone at Casa Rinconada

And the fact that amazes every first time visitor is this: all of this exquisite work – and there must be thousands upon thousands of square feet of it – was originally plastered over with smoothed mud and hidden from sight! From hints found deeper in the ruins, much of it might have been painted, as well, at least on the interiors.

The park runs a nice program of guided walks and night sky explorations. We got on the 4:00 walk through the ruins of Chetro Ketl with Ranger G.B. Cornucopia, a 23 year veteran of service in the park and an astronomer, to boot, on Saturday. I cannot recommend these interpretive walks highly enough. Your visit to the park will be immensely enriched:

G.B. giving speculations on the kiva phenomenon

Chaco Culture raises so many questions that it attracts a bewildering array of theories and speculations, some of which shade off into the simply bizarre. People lived here and worked on these structures for over 300 years, in a very inhospitable place, with clear evidence of long term planning and monumental vision – Pueblo Bonito was the tallest dwelling in North America until the 19th Century! – and yet left very little evidence of themselves. They had no written language. Their descendants still live with us here in New Mexico and Arizona, but the stories retained by these people do not agree on the significance of Chaco. They just agree that it was very significant.

A room with a view

Chaco Canyon is ground zero for the study of archaeoastronomy. So it makes perfect sense that the park would offer a program of night sky viewing. Even today this isolated place is one of the darker places in the United States after the sun sets. An amateur astronomer donated a 27 inch telescope and observatory to the park, and on a couple of evenings each week, G.B. gives a slide presentation on the more cosmic aspects of Chaco Culture, and then opens up the scope for some deep sky stargazing. The program last Saturday started at 8:00 p.m., and when the last slide faded the Milky Way was glowing over the mesas, Jupiter was rising in the east, and shooting stars brought gasps from the audience. Other enthusiasts had brought their telescopes, and so we were regaled with views of Messier Objects, nebula, and the moons of Jupiter.

Chaco Canyon offers plenty of back country walks to ruins of Great Houses that have not been touched at all. If you want to recreate the experience of coming upon one of these remarkable places as the Spanish must have, you should make time for one of these hikes. Here we are coming upon Tsin Kletsin high on South Mesa, standing hauntingly in its own debris:

Tsin Kletsin

Tsin Kletsin

Of course we had to get up this, to get there:

Ascending South Mesa

The road in canyon itself forms a paved loop, and once you’ve braved the bumpy drive into the park, you can explore many of the Great Houses on your own, taking advantage of the interpretive booklets that are available at the entrances to the sites, without too much walking.

Superimposed windows at Pueblo del Arroyo

The ability to spend the night at Chaco will greatly enhance your visit. Here’s the view from the tent on Sunday morning, at Gallo Campground:

Early morning sun on the Cliff House Sandstone, above camp

If you can find any way of visiting this remarkable place, I urge you to make the effort. Many companies that offer tours of the American Southwest include Chaco Culture National Historical Park on their trip calendars; some of them even stay at Inn on the Alameda when in Santa Fe. If you are doing an auto tour of the Four Corners, you can make the visit on the Santa Fe – Albuquerque – Durango leg of your drive without taking too much time out of the day. And if you are staying in Santa Fe and would like to arrange for a trip and a guide, please consider Great Southwest Adventures.

Just be sure to bring plenty of water. There’s a clean-up crew waiting for you if you forget:

Turkey vultures roosting above Chaco Wash

Getting there:

Chaco Culture National Historical Park is approximately 180 miles west of Santa Fe. The most straightforward way to get there is to take I-25 south from Santa Fe to its intersection with State Highway 550 at Bernalillo, where you will turn right, following the signs for  Cuba and Farmington. 550 is a good 4-lane road that skirts the Jemez Mountains to the south and cuts through the little town of Cuba before tuning northwestward toward Bloomfield, Farmington, and the Colorado border. Approximately 50 miles from Cuba, near mile marker 112, you will see signs for the park on the left. This is county road 7900, which will later intersect county road 7950 to bring you into the canyon. The intersections are clearly signed.

Please be aware that it is a 23 mile drive from 550 into the park, and that the last 15 miles of this drive is on a graded dirt road that could become impassible in wet weather. Even in dry weather the road will be washboarded and you will not be able to make the drive very quickly. The roads in the park are one-way, and paved.

The park charges an entrance fee of $7 per vehicle, good for 7 days. If you choose to camp, there is a $10 nightly fee, payable at a self-serve station at the entrance to Gallo Campground (although the camp host graciously helped us in person). Camping is on a first come – first serve basis, and since the sites are limited, this can be a frustrating issue on popular weekends. There are restrooms at the campground, but NO potable water nor any facilities for washing oneself or dishes. There is a faucet with drinking water at the Visitor’s Center.

Chaco is a haunting – and haunted – place. Be prepared for some unusual experiences while you are there.