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ANASAZI RUINS IN CHACO CANYON - NEW MEXICO NATIONAL HISTORIC PARK

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Established in 1907, Chaco Canyon National Monument became Chaco Culture National Historical Park in 1980 with an increased area of 13,000 acres (5,260 hectares). The UNESCO World Heritage site is located halfway between Farmington and Grants, in northwest New Mexico.

Great Kiva in Casa Rinconada
Great Kiva in Casa Rinconada
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Driving directions

To drive to Chaco Canyon from Farmington, New Mexico, you go 53 miles south of Farmington on Hwy. 550. The turn to Chaco Canyon is clearly marked, at mile 112.5, where you turn right on CR 7900. Drive for eight miles and then turn right again on CR 7950 and follow 13 miles of unpaved road to the National Historic Park.

At first you see a few Navajo shepherds tending their flocks and some grazing ponies, then there's nothing but miles of sagebrush, tumbleweed and flat-topped rocky mesas. You are in the middle of nowhere.

Anasazi homes

You finally arrive in Chaco Canyon. But you are nine centuries late. The Four Corners region of the Southwestern USA sheltered the Chacoan culture between 1000 and 1159 AD.

Pueblo Bonito viewed from mesa.
Pueblo Bonito viewed from mesa.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

About AD 1050, Chaco was one of the largest cultural centers in North America. In an area eight-miles (13 kilometers) long and two-miles (three kilometers) wide, there were 12 towns and more than 400 villages. As many as 5,000 people lived here.

Original vigas (wooden beams) in stone wall at Pueblo Bonito.
Original vigas (wooden beams) in stone wall at Pueblo Bonito
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Chaco Canyon, for all its wild beauty, seems an unlikely place for the culture of the Anasazi (which means ancient ones) to take root and flourish. This is a desert, after all.

Pueblo farmers, however, built elaborate irrigation systems to divert rainwater off the cliffs and down into their fields, where they grew corn, squash and beans. They also connected their towns and villages with the most extensive system of prehistoric roads north of Mexico.

Archaeological finds

Aerial photography reveals more than 300 miles (483 kilometers) of roads, averaging 30 feet (nine meters) in width. The roads were used for trade as well as transportation.

Archeologists have found seashell artifacts, copper bells and macaw skeletons, suggesting trade with other cultures, perhaps as far as Mexico and Central America. To date, excavations have yielded a million artifacts from more than 120 Chaco Anasazi sites.

Fine masonry walls give testimony to the architectural expertise of the Anasazi. Working without metal tools, they built extraordinary apartment buildings.

How to tour Chaco Canyon

Canyon Loop Drive, a nine-mile long road, brings you to six Chacoan Anasazi archaeological sites: Una Vida, Hungo Pavi, Pueblo Bonito, Chetro Ketl, Pueblo del Arroyo and Casa Rinconada.

All sites feature self-guiding trails, which take up to one hour to walk. You can obtain trail guides at each parking lot or from the bookstore Visitor Center, located near the east end of Chaco Canyon.

Pueblo Bonito

The highlight of Chaco Canyon is Pueblo Bonito (Beautiful Village). Covering more than three acres (1.2 hectares), the D-shaped complex of 800 rooms and more than three dozen kivas (ceremonial chambers) housed 1,200 people.

People view kivas at Pueblo Bonito.
People view kivas at Pueblo Bonito.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The walls in some sections of Pueblo Bonito were five stories high. It was the largest single structure built in what is now the United States, until 1884, when it was surpassed in size by an apartment building in New York City.

The best way to explore Pueblo Bonito and other Chacoan sites is on conducted walks given by park rangers between May and October. (The Visitor Center has a schedule.) Self-guided trails are open between sunrise and sunset, year-round.

Hiking trails

The ruin closest to the Visitor Center is Una Vida, reached over a short path from the parking lot.

Another trail brings you to Chetro Ketl, the second largest ruin, with 500 rooms. The structure included a plaza, where group activities took place: shelling and grinding corn, scraping hides, firing pottery and making tools from stone, wood and bone.

Just west of Pueblo Bonito is Pueblo del Arroyo, the ruins of a communal house. None of the homes at Chaco Canyon had hallways. To go from one room to the next, you had to go through your neighbor's home. In places, you can peak through one door and see a series of five more.

Small doors conserve heat in adjoining Chaco Canyon buildings.
Small doors conserve heat in adjoining Chaco Canyon buildings.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

And watch your head! The doors are only four feet (1.2 meters) high — not because the Chacoan Anasazi were dwarfs — but because they wanted to reduce heat loss and make the doors easier to close. Doors were closed, Flintstones-style, with large flat slabs of rock or by hanging matting from sticks in the lintel.

Kivas

Casa Rinconada is famous for its great kiva, 63 feet (19 meters) in diameter. Today, New Mexican Indian pueblos still use kivas as meeting places for tribal leaders and medicine men, as workshop locations for making ritual equipment, and as sleeping places for boys, while they receive religious instruction.

In addition to the self-guided walks, there are four backcountry trails. All require permits from the Visitor Center. The most spectacular trail is the Alto Mesa Loop. You climb up a boulder-strewn path through a cleft in the sandstone cliff to the top of the mesa, where several prehistoric roads once joined. From here, you can look down into Pueblo Bonito.

You must be in good shape for this hike — Chaco Canyon is at an elevation of 1882 m (6175 feet) — but the view of these ancient structures with their massive walls and circular rooms is awesome. You cannot help but wonder: "Why did the Chacoans leave?"

What happened to the people of Chaco Canyon?

This is a mystery that may never be fully solved. The unpredictable climate made farming chancy. One year might be wet, another, dry; one growing season long, another short. Overpopulation, no doubt, contributed. Perhaps disease and loss of trade did too. Probably many factors combined to cause both a social collapse and a breakdown of the religious controls that regulated life in Chaco.

Kin Kletso viewed from Alto Mesa
Kin Kletso viewed from Alto Mesa
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

It's not certain where the Chacoan Anasazi went. Perhaps they dispersed through the Rio Grande Valley; perhaps toward the present pueblo Indian towns of Acoma, Jemez and Zia. Various groups probably merged and today, their blood flows in the veins of the New Mexican Pueblo people, the Arizona Hopi and the US Southwest Navajo.

Chaco Canyon camping

Do not ponder these mysteries for too long, however, because the park closes at sunset.

Alternatively, you can camp at Gallo Campground, a mile (1.6 km) east of the Visitor Center. The National Park Service provides picnic tables, fireplaces and restrooms, but drinking water is only available at the Chaco Canyon Visitor Center.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

New Mexico Tourism: www.newmexico.org

Chaco Culture National Historical Park: www.nps.gov/chcu/

More things to see and do in New Mexico:

Cumbres and Toltec Rail Trips Between Colorado and New Mexico