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?
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 www.recreation.gov. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The largest of all great houses, was occupied from AD 850 – 1250s and was the first Chacoan great house to be excavated.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A lonely patch of sandy scrubland is the final resting place of Richard Wetherill, his wife, Marietta, and several others.
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.
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.
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.
Want to see more in New Mexico? Check out these great destinations:
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.