A few years ago I saw a documentary on the Chaco Culture National Historical Park…I was completely surprised that I’d never heard of this wondrous place before—after watching the documentary, I knew it was somewhere I had to go one day. “One day” came this past May…here’s my adventure.
Coming from Santa Fe, I was working my way through New Mexico. Chaco Canyon is located in the northwester part of the state, near the “Four Corners” area. The elevation is around 6500′ and so the weather this time of year was absolutely perfect, maybe 80 for a high and 50s for a low. As I neared the area of Chaco, taking several remote county roads, I began the arduous drive down a rough dirt road. I knew I was in the right area, going in the right direction, but kept questioning how there could be a national park in an area this seemingly inaccessible. After arriving at the visitors center, I learned that the road is not paved for a reason…they intentionally want to minimize the amount of people in the park to help preserve it. It was a fairly rough journey, even in my four wheel drive truck, but let me tell you…so worth it.
Chaco Canyon is a special place for many reasons. For one, it’s not that popular, so it’s a joy to explore without being inundated by crowds or traffic. One of the reasons for the lack of tourists, as I mentioned, is the dirt road as you approach the park, however once inside Chaco, all the roads (except for the camp grounds) are paved. Chaco is remarkable for its multi-storied “Great Houses,” ceremonial structures and distinctive architecture. The buildings of Chaco required considerable planning, designing, organizing of labor, and industrious engineering to construct. It’s a marvel like nothing I’ve seen before. It’s also feels like a very spiritual place…very peaceful.
Chaco Canyon dates back from around 800 to 1150 AD, during that time the construction methods changed…quite significantly in fact. I asked one of the park rangers about this and he told me they believe it was due to several factors…from technique evolution, to most likely…a change in available resources. Because the surrounding land is so barren, one of the first questions I asked myself when I entered the park was, “where’s the water?” There was no water to be found anywhere…only seasonally. How did these people survive? Initially archeologist thought that perhaps 1000 years ago there was water, but later concluded through research that this was not the case. It’s still a mystery today how the Chacoans survived for more than three hundred years with so little water available. The most obvious answer is that they created damns and other storage methods when it did rain, but on average this area only receives about 8″ per year. As you look around, it’s really an inhospitable land…very little vegetation or wildlife to speak of.
Chaco Canyon was a major hub for trade and administration—unlike anything before or since. Something else I found fascinating was the fact that these people combined sophisticated architectural elements in their structures, from astronomical alignments, geometry, landscaping, and, complex engineering to create an ancient urban oasis. The sheer size of Chaco is incredibly impressive.
As my first day of exploring was coming to an end, I made my way back to the camp area were I cooked up some grub and enjoyed some relaxing time in my hammock. Because there are few trees to speak of, I had to get creative in how I hung the hammock. After a good deal of contemplation, I was able to use two large boulders to affix my hammock straps (see video). As evening approached, bringing darkness with it, I headed over to the visitors center for an interpretive program put on by the park rangers. This was really really special…the rangers not only talk about the history of Chaco and many of the hypothesis’s, but they also make available the observatory and telescopes for visitors to view one of the darkest skies in the country. Because Chaco is so remote, there is little light pollution. Just don’t go when there is a full moon like I did. Even with the full moon, we were able to see many of the planets, the most impressive of which was Saturn.
The next morning I cooked up some breakfast, packed up camp and enjoyed one more siesta in my hammock before heading off to do some back-country exploring. I climbed to the top of the northern wall of Chaco Canyon and enjoyed some amazing birds-eye views of the valley and structures below. I also found an area full of pottery shards…these pieces of history date back some 1000 years.
By mid-afternoon I was off to my next destination…Mesa Verde National Park.
Click the following link if you’d like to see more of my pictures of Chaco Canyon.
- Be sure to fuel up before getting close to the park.
- I recommend camping out for a night, it’s tough to fully appreciate the park in one day. Plus, Chaco Canyon is one of the least light-polluted places in the country and offers some spectacular star gazing opportunities. And, several days per week the Park Rangers offer an astronomy and historical lecture.
- If you’re camping out, you may want to consider bringing firewood.
- Hours: 7:00 a.m. to sunset
- Entrance Fee: only $8 per vehicle
- Google Map: Click here
If you’ve been to Chaco Canyon before, please leave a comment below and tell my readers and me what you enjoy most. If you enjoyed this post and video, please click the “like” button and share it with your friends and family.