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.
Yet another busy summer is behind us, and the best time of the year for Santa Fe is here! Yes, “best” is quite a qualifier, but after 40+ years in New Mexico, I have come to believe that September and October make for truly sublime travel to Santa Fe. The weather is perfect, the town is not as crowded, and there are still many things to do and see. One of the big events takes place this month as wine enthusiasts from around the world pour into town (pun intended!) for the Santa Fe Wine and Chile Fiesta.
The Wine and Chile Fiesta is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year and continues to be a huge draw for those who love to have their palate tickled with the zest of New Mexico’s spicy cuisine while also enjoying fine wines.
Located at 706 Camino Lejo on Santa Fe’s Museum Hill, the Museum of International Folk Art is part of the state of New Mexico’s museum system and a division of the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs. The museum holds the most extensive collection of international folk art in the world, numbering more than 130,000 objects from more than 100 countries. Museum founder Florence Dibell Bartlett donated the core collection of 2,500 objects.
Since that time, the collection has been primarily shaped by the generous support of individuals, most notably Alexander and Susan Girard, with their gift of 106,000 objects, and Lloyd Cotsen’s Neutrogena Collection, consisting of 2,600 exceptional textiles and objects.
The collection continues to grow and is founded on the belief that we may illuminate human creativity and shape a humane world through the traditional arts. The museum is family-friendly, with multisensory experiences and a designated play area for kids.
From small beads and mirrors to sculpted works, people work with glass all over the world. The Museum of International Folk Art presents a selection of glassworks and works with glass from the collection. The display will be on view in Lloyd’s Treasure Chest this summer.
HOURS AND FEES
Regular hours for the museum are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. The museum is also closed on New Year’s Day, Easter Sunday, Thanksgiving, and Christmas Day.
Admission fees are modest. For New Mexico residents, fees for adults, students, and seniors 60 and older are $7. Free admission for all New Mexico residents is available on the first Sunday of each month. Seniors are admitted free each Wednesday. For nonresident adults and seniors, admission is $12, and children 16 and younger are free.
To learn more about experiencing all that Santa Fe offers, or for help planning your trip to the Inn on the Alameda.
If you love to fish, Northern New Mexico maybe your dream vacation. The Pecos River is an excellent location for fly fishing and regular cast fishing, offering incredible fishing options just a short drive from Santa Fe. The Pecos River is known for its Brown Trout, Rainbow Trout, and Rio Grande Cutthroats. The river has benefited from extensive restoration and rehabilitation to restore native trout, helping make the Pecos a great place to fish in almost any season.
We recommend checking out the Orvis fishing report here for the most up-to-date information on weather, water, and fishing conditions.
The Pecos offers some truly exceptional waters for casting in a beautiful setting. Let us help you plan your fishing trip.
Santa Fe National Forest: The Aspen Vista Trail
The Aspen Vista Trail is probably the most popular trail in the Santa Fe area. The trailhead is around 14 miles from downtown Santa Fe with abundant parking, right along Hyde Park Road (NM 475) and the trail is a 5.7-mile double track to experience wide grade and wonderful views. Especially in the autumn. The elevation of the trailhead is at 10,000 feet, and if you make it to the crest of Tesuque Ridge, you’ll find yourself on the lip of a cirque at nearly 12,000 feet, well above the tree line.
The hike I’ll be describing is a much shorter excursion of about a mile, with a steep side trip along upper Tesuque Creek to a unique meadow. While the Aspen Vista Trail is open to dogs on leashes, livestock, and mountain bikers, the unmaintained path to the meadow is steep and littered with downed aspen, making it impossible for livestock and bikes. This is definitely a summer and autumn hike. Be prepared for thunderstorms from June through September.
Several years ago I was lucky enough to be invited to a butterfly census around the Fourth of July weekend, led by a local lepidopterist (the oddest things happen in Santa Fe) and the high point of the walk – literally – was a tiny meadow along upper Tesuque Creek, just off the Aspen Vista Trail. Full of flowers – and butterflies – this little rift in the forest has been a favorite place to visit over and over again, to enjoy the changing palate of wildflowers that it offers over half the year.
Although it has no formal name, for me it will always be the Butterfly Meadow. It’s a remarkable spot.
I still haven’t learned the names of all the flowers that live there. I learned three new ones this weekend alone, among which was a showy member of the mustard family that grows with its feet in the water:
Who would have guessed that a hot-tempered plant like a mustard would like a frigid mountain stream?
The first of the seductive (and poisonous) Monkshoods are unsheathing their jewel-toned cowls:
At this time the meadow is full of pale lavender Richardson geranium, bright yellow Mountain parsley, intensely red Scarlet Indian paintbrush, pink and blue Franciscan bluebells, and twinkly-white Cowbane. Deep Carmine King’s Crown is blooming along the creek, and there are plenty of Magenta Shooting Stars along the walk up the path. Nature journalists have to bring all their colored pencils this time of year!
Rock-lovers will enjoy the boulders of high-grade Gneiss that fill the meadow:
And of course – once the sun breaks out of those ominous thunderheads that have already gathered over Tesuque Ridge – the butterflies appear as if by magic:
Butterflies aren’t the only creatures that enjoy this meadow:
Having disregarded my own advice about bringing rain gear, and tempting the summer rain gods thereby, I was of course caught in the shower that came up with remarkable speed. Pellets of stinging ice were soon added, although I was spared the thrill of lightning. I crept under the dense skirts of a short Engelmann spruce that swept the ground and was immediately snug and dry in a fragrant cave where I could sit quietly and wait out the rain. In that way that nature has of offering you a treasure if you will only be quiet and receptive, toward the end of my wait I spotted a carefully hidden nest among the boughs – the work of a Hermit Thrush – with a perfect jewel lovingly set within:
I wouldn’t have spotted this in a hundred chattering hikes among the spruce and aspen. It took a time of enforced quietude for me to receive this gift.
Every weekend brings a new wave of blooms and butterflies to the mountains above Santa Fe, now that summer is here. You could do no better than to take John Muir’s advice:
“Keep close to nature’s heart . . . and break clear away once in a while, climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean. . . Go to the mountains and get their glad tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”
Getting there: The Aspen Vista trailhead is clearly accessible at the eastern end of the extensive parking area along Hyde Park Road. From the Inn on the Alameda, you turn north on Paseo de Peralta, and then turn right at the light at the intersection of Paseo with Bishops Lodge Road. A second right at the next light, which is Artist Road, or NM 475, puts you on your way.
The path to the Butterfly Meadow is about 0.8 miles along the Aspen Vista walk, just after you see the sign that says “Tesuque Creek Trail” (which heads off downhill to your right). A few steps further along, you’ll see the creek flowing under the road, with the informal trail up the mountain just in front. You’ll be making a left turn and heading uphill. It’s a steep hike of about 0.2 miles, with lots – and I mean lots, after our hard winter – of downed aspen to step over, under, and around.