The road to Chaco Culture National Historical Park gradually proceeds from the highway to two-lane farm road to maintained dirt road and finally into an unmaintained, poorly-grated path leading into an unimpressive campground at the foot of some sandstone bluffs. It’s no joke that it takes some work to arrive at the first-come, first served camp spots of this mysterious place in the New Mexican high desert. There are no services here, so plan accordingly with food and fuel. Water can be obtained at the visitor’s center. Hike Chaco Canyon’s Mesa for the best vistas of the great houses.
My first impressions are of the cold, abrasive winds that fling stinging sand kernels at my legs and that this place is on lockdown. Signs everywhere announce that the loop road, trails, and ruins close at 5 p.m. All hikes within the park require a backcountry permit provided at all trailheads.
The visitor center funnels tourists through at $25 a vehicle. Like most national parks, it has a tidy, scenic loop (9 miles) highlighting some of the parks features. You can stop to walk among the Chacoan ruins, getting an up-close look at these centuries-old great houses. If you’re lucky, you can glance an elk foraging in the canyon. The ruin sites include Una Vida, Hungo Pavi, Pueblo Bonito, Chetro Ketl, Pueblo del Arroyo, and Casa Rinconada. You may purchase self-guided trail brochures at the Visitor Center bookstore. There are also complimentary tours listed on the Web site calendar here.
Ancient Cultural Hub
While these ruins are 90% original, there have been some modifications by preservationists to ensure that the site well-drained and stabilized. These constructions are largely unobtrusive, and it is easy to get lost in imagining what this place may have looked like in its original form. You might picture the Ancestral Puebloans trading turquoise jewelry, pottery, and macaw feathers, worshiping, cooking, feasting, and telling stories.
It’s an intriguing canyon filled with unanswered questions. Why did the people build in this arid place? Why did they build impossibly steep staircases into the mesa walls? Who lived in these dwellings? Was there a social and political hierarchy here that dictated who stayed where? Who came here and from how far away and why? Also, why were the great houses abandoned?
The great houses here are part of a larger network of houses throughout the area. The tradition and oral history of today’s Puebloan peoples hold that Chaco Canyon was a convergence of the many tribes in the area for ceremony, knowledge, and trading purposes.
It’s clear that this was a special place for the ancient peoples living in this area. Aerial photos of the area show Chacoan roads from all directions leading into the canyon. Dendrochronology and archeological studies reveal that people were here from 850 to 1250 A.D.
Una Vida Trail
Like all the national parks, you can see some wonderful sights from the safe, comfortable scenic drives. This is where most people spend their time never venturing far from their vehicles, snapping a few pictures and continuing onward. However, I fully recommend that to experience this unique historic spot in a more impactful way, hike it! Chaco Culture N.H.P. has 4 backcountry trails, but to start with there is an easy one-mile loop beginning at the Visitor’s Center. It leads to the Una Vida & Petroglyphs. It showcases an unvandalized and well-preserved great house and has scenic views of the Fajada Butte and Chaco Canyon. It’s a good introduction to the park.
Pueblo Alto Trail
Begin early to avoid the crowds. All backcountry trails open at 8 a.m. Make sure to bring water and dress in layers to be prepared for unpredictable weather, especially high winds. Hike Chaco Canyon’s Mesa for the best vistas of the great houses. The Pueblo Alto Trail is a nearly 5-mile loop, beginning near the Pueblo del Arroyo parking area. Fill out the backpacking permit at the trailhead and proceed up the mesa’s cliff face through the narrow crevice.
Once on the mesa, you will be rewarded with fantastic views of Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl. These are the park’s largest great houses. From up here, take the time to sweep the canyon. You will notice that the canyon is filled with ancient dwellings that blend in well with the high desert terrain. Farther along the trail, you will see Pueblo Alto and New Alto ruins along with a good example of a Chacoan roadway, pecks, and a stairway carved into the mesa wall.
The Chaco Culture National Historical Park leaves me with an appreciation for the rich history of the ancient southwest. It’s beautiful deserts, windy mesas, and intriguing archeological sites make this park a wonderful destination to expand your worldview and perspective. In short, it’s a place that carries you to another time while still keeping you appreciative of its present natural beauty. For more great hiking destinations, click here.
To see more or purchase pictures from our Chaco Canyon trip click here.