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 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 – standard 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 and giant 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, and windows turn out to be astronomical observatories of subtle cunning, timing the solstices and equinoxes like a huge stone clock. Tying it all together is a network of laser-straight connecting roads, nearly lost with age, worthy of the Nazca Plains.
All of this is located 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 immediately thought of Chaco. 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 motorhome. The 15 miles of washboard dirt road that guard this place against daytrippers must be taken into account.
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 up 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 the cold. Chaco still guards its secrets, one way or another. But what a place!
The stonework here is unmatched in North America. One 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 initially 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, most likely the interiors.
The park runs a fantastic program of guided walks and night sky explorations. We took 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. I cannot recommend these interpretive walks highly enough. Your visit to the park will be immensely enriched by the knowledge and information of the rangers.
Chaco Culture raises so many questions and 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 bleak 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, they 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 only agree that it was significant.
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. An amateur astronomer donated a 27-inch telescope and observatory to the park. 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 starts 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, nebulae, and the moons of Jupiter.
Chaco Canyon offers plenty of back-country walks to the 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.
Of course, we had to climb this to get there. The road in Chaco Canyon itself forms a paved loop. 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. This allows you to explore many sites without too much walking. The ability to spend the night at Chaco will significantly enhance your visit. Here’s the morning view from our tent at Gallo Campground.
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 visit on the Santa Fe – Albuquerque – Durango leg of your drive without taking too much time out of your 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.
Be sure to bring plenty of water. There’s a clean-up crew waiting for you if you forget.
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 turning 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 are on a graded dirt road that could become impassable in wet weather. Even in dry weather, the road may be washboard, 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 $25 per vehicle, good for seven days. If you choose to camp, there is a $20 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 there is no potable water and no facilities for washing oneself or dishes. There is a faucet with drinking water at the Visitor’s Center.
Chaco is a haunting place. Be prepared for some unusual experiences while you are there.