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.
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.
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.
Summer weather opens up all of the beautiful high country hikes in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains above Santa Fe. If you’re up for a more challenging trek, be sure and put the hike to Nambe Lake – the nearest alpine lake to Santa Fe – on your bucket list. The actual hiking distance is only 3.3 miles from the trailhead at Ski Santa Fe – the jumping-off spot for most of the high country hikes around here – but you will need to be in better than an average condition to reach the lake, which sits at an elevation of over 11,300 feet. If you’re longing to be immersed in alpine scenery, this is the hike for you!
Wildflowers are everywhere now, and some of the Rockies’ most beloved species are showing off along this climb.
All along the cascades of the Rio Nambe, you’ll find this gem now.
This is the Bog Primrose, or Parry’s Primrose, one of the delights of the high country streams. Its color is amazing.
The cheerful little Elkslip brightens all the damp and boggy places.
If you have any energy left to climb up among the massive bouldery talus that borders the cliffs, you might be rewarded by the first blossoms of the true Queen of the High Rockies, the ethereal Blue Columbine.
The Rio Nambe accompanies you along the entire climb after you turn at the junction of the Lake Trail (400) off of the Winsor Trail (254) – a climb that will take you up 1000 feet in just about a mile, along a canyon choked with glacial moraine. The stream cascades endlessly from rock to rock.
A little over midway up the canyon, a boggy glacial meadow opens up and gives you a respite from the stair-mastering you’ve been enjoying. It’s our own little mini-Yosemite.
The creek here meanders lazily in deep trenches of the purest water:
But don’t be fooled. You still have another massive step up in elevation over a steep and bouldery trail to reach the lake.
It’s worth it.
Lake Peak towers above the southern end of the lake.
This is the perfect place to sit and enjoy a well-deserved break.
The air here is fragrant with the balsamic scent of the Engelmann Spruce, which surrounds you on every side.
Little details might catch your eye, like this patch of Stonecrop clinging to an outcropping of gleaming white granite.
Every view here is captivating.
Now is the perfect time to plan this hike. The days are long, and the summer thunderstorms of July and August haven’t set in yet. As I mentioned before, this is not a walk to be undertaken lightly. Although the distance is only 3.3 miles, you’ll make an immediate 800-foot elevation gain in the first mile of the walk. From there, it’s a leisurely descent back down toward the Rio Nambe and then you face a 1000 foot gain in the last mile of the hike, over two enormous bottlenecks of glacial moraine. The trail is rough in places and even a little hard to follow in those sections where hikers have made alternative paths along Rio Nambe. It’s popular in the summer months, and you may not find that perfect solitude that we New Mexicans are accustomed to enjoying on many of our mountain trails.
But it sure is beautiful up there.
The Winsor Trail is Santa Fe’s gateway into the Pecos Wilderness from the west.
Its most popular trailhead is near the western end of the large parking area of Ski Santa Fe, at an elevation of 10,240 feet. The portion of the trail from the parking area to its intersection with the Nambe Lake Trail is a walk of about 2.5 miles one way. To reach the crest of Raven’s Ridge and the entrance to the Pecos Wilderness, there is a relentless elevation gain of 760 feet in about a mile. So be prepared as this is the price everyone must pay to enjoy this beautiful walk. Dogs on leashes, mountain bikes, and livestock are allowed on the Winsor Trail. You can hike this trail year-round, but it is snow-covered in the winter, and snowshoes or cross-country skis might be necessary. Thunderstorms are very frequent in the summer, and you’ll want to bring at least some light rain gear because the showers are chilling. Lightning and hypothermia are dangers once you get above the treeline.
The Winsor Trail, the local hiker’s route into the magnificent Pecos Wilderness east of Santa Fe, is beautiful from end to end. But there is a short section that passes through a grove of trees with such a remarkable quality of light and peace that I call it the “Zen Forest.” And since you can reach this place after only a two-mile walk from the parking area at Ski Santa Fe, it makes an ideal destination for a day hike during your visit with us.
I’M NOT SURE EXACTLY WHAT ACCOUNTS FOR THE APPEAL OF THIS STRETCH OF ASPEN.
The mature trees, tall and widely spaced, let in a generous amount of radiant northern light. The dark spruces are widely spaced as well and hang their dark boughs down in a manner admired by the Arts and Crafts printmakers, contrasting beautifully with the bright upright aspen. Huge boulders and outcroppings of white stone emerge from the forest floor in sculptural forms, nestled in a sea of bright green heath and wildflowers. At any moment in this forest, you expect to hear the sound of temple bells or catch a glimpse of a forest hermit reclining in the shadows.
And the fragrance here is heavenly. In summer, the air is drowsy with the balsamic scent of spruce needles, warming in the sun. In spring, the powerful life force of the aspen adds its note. In fall, with the yellow leaves swirling down against an alpine blue sky and collecting on the stones, there arises the subtle fragrance of oriental lilies, faint but unmistakable, distilled somehow from the aspen leaves as they participate in the Eternal Return. It’s hard for me to tell you exactly when you’ve reached the Zen Forest. Not too long after you’ve left the dense spruce thickets along the slow descent from the saddle at Raven’s Ridge, the trail begins to turn to the right, and the aspen begins to replace the dark evergreens.
These trees grow larger, the light magnifies, and presently you’ll reach spruce whose branches sweep toward the trail, forcing adults to duck down ever so slightly. You’ve entered the grove. By the time you reach the rustic little bridge over the Rio Nambe, you’ve left it. Wildflowers are abundant here. Despite the high elevation, some of these forest dwellers have an almost tropical luxuriance.
THE CLEAN WHITE BOULDERS THAT CROP OUT IN THE ZEN FOREST ADD TO THE GROVE’S LUMINOSITY. A CLOSER LOOK AT THESE ROCKS REVEALS COMPLEX PATTERNS THAT HINT AT TURBULENT PAST LIVES.
Without leaving the thread of our story too far, I just want to mention that these are genuinely remarkable rocks. They are called migmatites, and they represent metamorphic rocks that have been subjected to geologic conditions so extreme that the rocks began to partially fuse, bleeding white granitic melt and contorting into fascinating marble-like patterns.
When you reach the cheerful Rio Nambe and leave the Zen Forest, you will catch views of Santa Fe Baldy Peak shouldering its great massif skyward to the north. This might even be your destination if you are in good shape and you’ve left the trailhead early enough on a cool summer’s morning. You’d already be about a third of the way there, with a climb to a rocky summit at 12,622 feet still facing you. But you might be content to sit quietly by the stream and take in the peace of the forest, and then make your way back home, blessed by your brief sojourn among the aspen of the Zen Forest.
Getting there: The parking area at Ski Santa Fe is approximately 16 miles from the Santa Fe Plaza, at the very end of NM 475. 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 Hyde Park Road. A second right at the next light, which is Artist Road, or NM 475, puts you on your way. The Winsor Trail trailhead is clearly marked at the northwestern corner of the parking area, and the Forest Service maintains some pit toilets and picnic facilities there. It would not hurt to bring a trail map if this is your first walk on the Winsor Trail. You can download the PDF from the link I provided above or purchase a map at the Travel Bug right next door to the Inn.