Road Trip: Chaco Canyon

Chaco Canyon was a busy place 1,000 years ago. Early great houses (large public buildings) began being built around 800 AD, and construction continued for about 300 years. Today the ruins of the Chacoan great houses stand as a testament to their builders’ culture, brilliant architectural and astrological knowledge, and remarkable ability to thrive in the harsh conditions of the desert southwest. Enjoy your visit.

Where is it?

Chaco Canyon lies in the Four Corners region of the US in northwestern New Mexico. (Four Corners is where the corners of the states of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado meet.) A town called Nageezi is the closest map dot to the park, but it doesn’t offer much more than a turn off for the road to the canyon, which involves another 24-mile trek, and part of the road is very bumpy gravel. But getting there is half the fun, right?

On the (smooth) road to Chaco Canyon.

Besides being a national park unit, Chaco Culture National Historical Park is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a designated International Dark Sky Park. Features of the park include:

  • Visitor center, museum, park film
  • Bookstore/gift shop
  • Nine-mile-long Canyon Loop Drive – open to motor vehicles and bicycles.
  • Three additional bike trails.
  • Four backcountry trails – permit required.
  • Gallo Campground, featuring 32 individual and two group sites which can be reserved through RV, tent, and car camping is available with some restrictions and no hook ups.
  • Periodic night sky events, and the park also features an observatory.
  • Periodic ranger led tours or talks.
  • Seasonal hours apply.
  • Admission fee applies.

Access the park’s website here.

Chaco Canyon Visitor Center

Many Roads Led to Chaco Canyon

Chaco Canyon was a regional center for trade, and an elaborate road system covering hundreds of miles connected the area’s great houses. The map below shows the great houses and the roads. Chaco Culture National Historical Park, formerly Chaco Canyon National Monument, protects the 16 great houses in and around the canyon. The park’s great houses are the best preserved prehistoric architectural structures in North America. Additionally, archaeological and anthropological studies of the site have resulted in the discovery of over 1.5 million artifacts, most of which are in the care of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

A glimpse inside the park’s museum.

The new Chaco Canyon Visitor Center and museum opened in 2017 after years of planning and construction. Artifacts from the park’s collection as well as some borrowed from other museums were to be displayed in the park’s museum. Unfortunately, the heating and air conditioning system does not provide the proper climate controls needed to preserve the artifacts. Now, several years later with no resolution to the climate control issues in sight, empty display cases line the walls of the museum.

Some of the display cases feature reproduction pottery such as the jar shown above.

Despite the fact that the museum didn’t have original artifacts, it did provide us with a lot of interesting information about the canyon, its inhabitants, and the great houses.

The Great Houses

Builders of the great houses quarried stone and carried timber from many miles away. They also constructed dams, waterways, and stairways. Chaco Canyon’s great houses are sacred to many Native American tribes.

Hungo Pavi was occupied from AD 1000 – 1250s and remains unexcavated.

Hungo Pavi

Chetro Ketl is the second largest great house in Chaco Canyon and was occupied from AD 950 – 1250s. With 400 rooms, it covers 5.5 acres (2.3 hectares) which actually makes it the largest in terms of surface area.

Chetro Ketl practically blends into its surroundings.
Chetro Ketl’s back wall.
Petroglyphs on the mesa wall between Chetro Ketl and its closest neighbor Pueblo Bonito.

Pueblo Del Arroyo was occupied from AD 1075 – 1250s. Unlike other Chacoan great houses, Pueblo Del Arroyo does not have a great kiva (communal meeting place or possible ritual site). Perhaps its people shared Pueblo Bonito’s great kivas, as the two great houses sit just a few hundred yards apart.

Pueblo Del Arroyo
Archaeologists who excavated Pueblo Del Arroyo in the mid 1920s uncovered only about half of the great house.

Pueblo Bonito

The largest of all great houses, was occupied from AD 850 – 1250s and was the first Chacoan great house to be excavated.

Pueblo Bonito as seen from the trail.

Archaeologists believe that Pueblo Bonito was the convergence point of the roads leading to Chaco Canyon. The four story, D-shaped structure featured about 800 rooms, 32 kivas, and four great kivas. Its number of occupants remains debatable due to the lack of trash piles and burial sites. Some theorize that the huge great house was used primarily as a ritual site, thus the four great kivas.

In 1941, 30,000 tons of rock slid off of the mesa’s face and destroyed about 30 of the pueblo’s rooms. The Chacoan builders of the great house knew a rockslide was possible and had built supporting masonry walls just in case. Remarkably, Threatening Rock as it was called, held stable for centuries before it finally gave way.

View of the pueblo and the rockslide.
It is hard to tell how big the pueblo is from ground level.

For size and scale purposes, the aerial photo below shows the great house and the rockslide debris. Credit for the photo goes to Bob Adams of Albuquerque, New Mexico via Wikipedia.

Aerial view of Pueblo Bonito.

More Canyon Highlights

Casa Rinconada Community was occupied from AD 1075 – 1250s and is considered a village rather than a great house. The village features the largest great kiva in the canyon.

Casa Rinconada Community’s great kiva.

From wayside information: Unlike the monumental Chacoan great houses, the villages along this trail are more modest. Yet both the great houses and the villages were built and occupied during the same period. Hundreds of these small villages and communities have been discovered clustered around Chacoan great houses. The role of the great houses isn’t clear. Perhaps they served a central purpose: ceremonial, economic, and administrative, and the small village communities supported those efforts.

Ruins of the Casa Rinconada Community.

Una Vida is another of Chaco Canyon’s great houses and was occupied from AD 850 – 1250s. Basically untouched, Una Vida has had little excavation.

Ruins at Una Vida

According to archaeologists, Una Vida was two to three stories tall and had 100 ground floor rooms and kivas. Additional rooms surrounded the plaza. Interestingly, a jewelry workshop was found at Una Vida along with pottery from Mesa Verde which is now Mesa Verde National Park.

Petroglyph panel at Una Vida.

Desert sand and vegetation preserve most of Una Vida and its great kiva, so it looks much like it did when it was discovered in 1849. Una Vida is reached via a 1-mile out and back trail that starts at the visitor center.

Wetherill Cemetery

A lonely patch of sandy scrubland is the final resting place of Richard Wetherill, his wife, Marietta, and several others.

Wetherill Cemetery

Richard Wetherill was a Colorado rancher, but he had a passion for ancient puebloan culture and was an amateur archaeologist. He is credited with coining the word Anasazi to describe the ancient ones who occupied the ancestral pueblo dwellings of the southwestern US and is also credited with rediscovering and excavating some of the dwellings at what is now Mesa Verde National Park.

Richard Wetherill

Wetherill established a homestead in Chaco Canyon where he assisted in excavating Pueblo Bonito under the auspices of the American Museum of Natural History. He ran a trading post in the canyon until his death. Click here to learn more about Mr. Wetherill and his mysterious murder.

Fajada Butte

Rising approximately 440 feet (135 meters) from the canyon floor, Fajada Butte is the predominant natural landmark in Chaco Canyon. It is also sacred to the Navajo, Hopi, and Pueblo peoples, and it is home to the most significant petroglyph in the canyon: the Sun Dagger.

According to the park: Atop Fajada Butte Chacoan skywatchers commemorated the movement of the sun and the seasons. Sunlight passed between three boulder slabs onto a spiral petroglyph to mark the sun’s position on summer solstice, winter solstice, and the equinoxes. 

In recent years, scientists have noticed a change in the light pattern on the spiral due to slipping of the boulder slabs. They suspect that the slipping could be from human-caused erosion to the base of the rocks, and as a result access to Fajada Butte is prohibited.

See a photo of the Sun Dagger here.


We were fortunate to visit Chaco Canyon when many wildflowers were blooming. We hope that we have identified them correctly. Click on any image in the gallery below to view as a slideshow.

Thank you so much for joining us on our Chaco Canyon road trip! We appreciate you more than we can express. We’re closing the post with one of the friends we made on our visit to the park.

Common blotch-sided lizard

Want to see more in New Mexico? Check out these great destinations:

New Mexico’s Salinas Pueblo Missions

Pecos National Historical Park

Albuquerque to Taos Road Trip: Things to Do

Safe travels, y’all!

Mike and Kellye

As always, we strive to be as accurate with our information as possible. If we made a mistake, it was unintentional. (Hey, we’re only human!) Our opinions are our own.





76 thoughts on “Road Trip: Chaco Canyon

  1. What an awesome post Kellye. So nice to see the history of past civilizations. Imagine the engineering and social skills of the time to build such pueblos in such a desolate landscape. Too bad there is no political will to provide the proper environment for the artifacts. This history needs to be kept safe. Thanks for taking us there. Allan

  2. Oh my gosh, thank you so much for sharing these beautiful photos, flowers and history, guys! I’ve never heard of this place, the people were certainly very skilled in many ways in how to live in the difficult climate. I hope to travel more in the future like you guys do. ❤️😊

      1. They are the real Americans. I consider myself a European by following the events of the British that left England and how they became Americans. I hope that makes sense. 🤭

  3. Brad M

    Kellye and Mike, very nice job. I appreciated the variety of photos of the Great Houses, flora, and history of the Chaco Canyon National Park. Another to add for our great Southwestern National Park tour in the future. Have to max out that Annual Park Pass.

  4. Great photos as always. The stone architecture is impressive. The fact that it still stands today is a testament to the skilled people who built it. I was also impressed by the pottery reproduction. With the rough texture at the top and the intricate geometric designs it looks authentic. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thank you so much for reading the post. The architecture is much more impressive in person. Some of those walls have no mortar – only little stone chinks. It’s a wonder how they still stand. The pottery reproductions were very good, but we would’ve preferred to see the real thing. Maybe we will track them down at some point. Have a nice evening.

  5. The Four Corners area is a place everyone should visit. This museum wasn’t there when I passed through and I didn’t know of this thriving civilization in the desert. Thanks for enlightening me. It seems that every civilization, no matter how great, is temporary, even ours.

  6. Incredible to think that a museum can be built without thought to ancient artefacts. The park seems to have a mystery about it which is fascinating even more so that New Mexico is about 30% bigger than England

    1. I had no idea that New Mexico was bigger than England. Wow! Well, New Mexico has some interesting sights and great national parks. Whoever was in charge of the HVAC system for the park certainly wasn’t thinking when they installed it. Now, it’s probably tied up in government red tape and won’t ever be fixed. Sad, but it really didn’t take anything away from the park for us. Thanks for reading!

    2. Great post Kellye, sad that there aren’t more artefacts or the houses are just walls now. I feel sorry though for Mrs Wetherill, I wonder what she did all day!

  7. That is such an interesting sight to visit! It’s amazing how the structures are still standing even after all these centuries. I had never heard of an International Dark Sky Park, but I always get excited when we travel somewhere we can see the stars. I can only see the moon in NYC.

    1. Thank you for reading, Lyssy. I think those Chacoan people were pretty brilliant. I wish I could take you to Big Bend National Park to see the Milky Way. You wouldn’t believe how the sky looks where there is no manmade light to disturb it.

  8. wow, what an incredible site! It is so hard to fathom that those houses are still there centuries later. I was surprised at how large they were and how many people must have lived there. How sad though that artifacts were damaged from a lack of temperature control. Great post! 🙂

  9. It is amazing that this place has survived, and it is amazing it was even built in the first place! Again, this is a place I didn’t know existed, but I have been to Mesa Verde. I do wonder how far apart each of these “houses” were. Did you walk? Drive? Were there tours? Thanks for your post and introducing me to Chaco Canyon.

    1. Thank you, Betty. You can hike, bike, or drive to each great house along the loop road to see the main pueblos. There are others that can only be reached by hiking. Chaco Canyon is about two and a half hours south and east of Mesa Verde. We would love to camp at Chaco Canyon sometime.

  10. A remote spot in the middle of nowhere! Chaco Canyon looks rich in history, and it’s evident through its pueblos, still very well-preserved…it’ll take some time before I return to Arizona, but I would brave the trek out there just to see Chaco! Thanks for sharing!

  11. What a fascinating place to explore! It’s amazing to contemplate the efforts that went onto building these structures and to wonder about the people who did so. I enjoyed the flowers and little lizard too 😃

  12. How fascinating. Isn’t it so stirring to explore places which had a long lost heyday, now just traces of their illustrious history hiding in the ruins. Love visiting places like this, both in reality and by reading posts like this. Great read, Kellye.

    1. Thank you, Hannah. It’s kind of surreal to think that so many centuries ago it was a bustling community, and this is all that’s left. What do you suppose people will think 1,000 years from now when they come across our ruins and artifacts?

  13. It’s pretty incredible how these stone buildings in Chaco Canyon were built so long ago and are still around today. It’s too bad to hear that the heating and air conditioning system within the Visitor Center isn’t adequate enough to display some of the artifacts from the park’s collection.

  14. Another fascinating place to explore, Kellye, which you have presented exceptionally well as always. What a bizarre story about the unfortunate museum with its inadequate heating and air conditioning system. After years of planning and building, how did they get it so wrong? I love the Una Vida petroglyphs, the small cemetery and your wildflowers gallery at the end.

  15. Well worth the visit. We were on our way home and opted to skip it. Your photos make me want to go back. Maybe next time we go through. I especially love the photo of Pueblo Del Arroyo

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