DescriptionLocated in northwestern New Mexico, Chaco Culture National Historical Park preserves the remains of 13 major great houses, or public buildings, and several thousand smaller sites representing the culture of the Ancestral Puebloan people between A.D. 850 and 1250. It is one of the most impressive cultural sites in the Southwest.
By about A.D. 500 the Ancestral Puebloan people had gradually replaced a nomadic existence with an agricultural lifestyle revolving around permanent settlements. During the mid-9th century they began to construct Pueblo Bonito at the base of the northern wall of Chaco Canyon. By the late 12th century this great house had attained a height of more than four stories in some portions and contained more than 600 kivas (ceremonial rooms).
Numerous smaller village sites along Chaco Canyon attest to the once-sizable population of the greater settlement. In addition to building monumental structures as well as an elaborate irrigation system of gates and canals that diverted runoff from summer thunderstorms into their cornfields, the Chacoans also built a vast road network. Straight, 30-foot-wide corridors linked the canyon settlements with more far-flung sites, some as distant as locations in the present-day states of Arizona, Colorado and Utah.
Another major achievement was a highly sophisticated solstice marker. High on isolated Fajada Butte, a sliver of noontime sunlight shines between stone slabs onto two spiral petroglyphs. The marker precisely timed equinoxes and solstices on which the Chacoans based crop planting times and ceremonial observances. Note: The butte is closed to the public due to its fragile condition.
As Chaco's influence waned, ceremonial centers emerged at nearby Aztec and Mesa Verde, and by 1250 only the wind whistled through the colossal and deserted masonry walls of Pueblo Bonito and its sister cities. The Chacoans were assimilated into existing Zuni, Hopi, Acoma and Rio Grande pueblo populations, but their descendants return to honor these sacred places.
The recommended park access is from the north via the US 550 exit at CR 7900; park entry is about 3 miles southeast of Nageezi and approximately 50 miles west of Cuba. Follow signs 21 miles to the park boundary. This route consists of 8 miles of paved road (CR 7900 and CR 7950), then 8 miles of gravel and 5 miles of rough dirt road (CR 7950). The road is only lightly maintained, and may be impassable during or after inclement weather.
Visitors with motor homes should make sure their interior items are secured. Phone the park visitor center at (505) 786-7014, ext. 221 for current road conditions.
Major sites are located within walking distance of 9-mile Canyon Loop Drive. The most important site, and a must-see for visitors, is Pueblo Bonito, about 4.5 miles from the visitor center. The self-guiding gravel trail through the pueblo is a little over half a mile round trip and negotiates several short but steep rises. This monumental ruin was constructed from sandstone blocks held together by adobe mortar, rising from an arid canyon floor with no natural protection from the elements. Today only standing walls and doorways remain.
Self-guiding trails explore six other major sites: Chetro Ketl, Pueblo del Arroyo, Casa Rinconada and three village sites. Allow 1 hour minimum per site. Four other back-country trails for day hiking lead to more distant sites; free permits, which can be obtained at the visitor center and at trailheads, are required.
Due to the remote location and extensive ruins and trails, it may be worthwhile to plan 2 or even 3 days for a visit. A full day is required for travel and to see just a portion of the park; a second or third day is necessary to explore the entire site. Wear sturdy shoes and bring drinking water and sun protection for any extended explorations.
There are no lodgings or food service facilities within the park. Gallo Campground, which is open year-round, is located 1 mile east of the park visitor center and has 49 campsites (15 for tent camping) available for $15 per night (maximum of 14 days). This is primitive camping with no shade; each site has a picnic table and fire grate, but gathering wood is prohibited and no firewood is available in the park. There are no showers or hook-ups; drinking water is available in the visitor center parking area. Trailers and RVs more than 35 feet in length may not be accommodated. April through October are the busiest months. Advance reservations are required; phone (877) 444-6777.
Because points of interest are accessible only over dirt roads that are rough, towing trailers more than 35 feet long is not advised. There are no gas stations or other services within the park. Campers must bring their own wood or charcoal. Drinking water and dump station facilities are available year round.
Ranger-led walking tours of Pueblo Bonito are offered year-round, and other activities are offered April through October. The Chaco Night Sky Program occasionally features astronomy programs, daytime solar viewing and telescope viewing of the night sky. Obtain schedules at the visitor center; for current program information phone (505) 786-7014. Picnicking is permitted in designated areas.
The park is open daily 7 a.m.-sunset; closed Jan. 1, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Park entrance fee, valid for 7 days, $20 (per private vehicle), $15 (for motorcyclists); $10 (for individuals arriving on foot or bicycle). See Recreation Areas Chart.
Things to SeeChaco Culture National Historical Park Visitor Center
GEM DescriptionA thousand years ago the Chacoan people flourished in this high desert community. The well-preserved ruins of their ancient city remain.