In the fall of 2015, while we floundered trying to find the riches of Forest Finn, a small dot on the New Mexico Atlas labeled Chaco Canyon caught our attention. Knowing this obscure corner of New Mexico represented the cultural center of the ancestral Puebloan People we knew it was a detour we had to take.
Chaco Canyon, or the Chaco Culture Historical Park, is situated in a stunning 9 mile long canyon sitting in the northwest corner of New Mexico with several massive ruin complexes and pueblos. Chaco Canyon is incredibly remote and is miles from the nearest town with some of the drive to access it all on dirt roads (be careful if wet!). This area contains several grand pueblo ruins built by the Anasazi people who inhabited the area between 850 and 1250 AD.
Most of the ruin sites in Chaco Canyon are easily accessible off the main road and only have a short hike on well maintained trails.
As you start the road that loops around the Chaco Canyon there are some interesting smaller ruins and petroglyphs behind the visitor center, but the further up the road you go the better the ruins get! Some of the most impressive sites were Pueblo Bonito, Pueblo Alto, and Chetro Ketl. There are a few ruin sites up on the cliffs that do require a day permit that can be obtained at the visitor center. Each of the ruins had a very informative brochure that guided you through the area. On this trip we did not see any of the ruins requiring the longer day hikes, however we will be back for those!
The size of the ruins is one of the most amazing things about this area. It was very unique to see so many multi-story buildings. The structures and building techniques are stunning, especially when you consider when these were made and the tools the architects had available. One brochure talks about the amount of wood needed for the construction, from smaller timber to large support beams 3-4 feet in diameter, and they estimated the ruins used thousands of trees for construction. Incredibly there are no trees to be seen for miles and miles and archaeologists surmised the builders trekked into the mountains to harvest the timber. During the drive all the way from the highway to the park there are no mountain that we ever saw! Imagine the hundred mile round trip, carrying tools and then timber, all on foot, to gather the building materials needed.
Chaco Canyon represented a major hub of trade for the Puebloan people, with roads running in all directions to other pueblos, and cliff dwellings throughout the Southwest. The network was so large it even reached into Central America and trade routes were established with the Mayan and Aztec Peoples. Archaeologists have found the skeletons of Macaw birds and jars of cocoa beans, both of which are native to Central America, in the ruins at Chaco Canyon. That’s a long walk carrying a parrot!
Spread throughout Chaco Canyon are some of the most stunning kivas we have ever seen. The sheer size is overwhelming. Many of the largest are 10-20 feet deep and 40-60 feet wide and would have seating for 100 people.
For me, one of the most interesting facts we read about was the discovery of the solid stone disks seen in the above picture that were found during excavation. They are easily a foot thick and 4-5 feet wide and were suspected to have acted as foundational support in the middle of the kivas for large timbers that held up the roofs. Thinking about how that solid stone was crafted in round disks was amazing.
Overall we spent about 5 hours in the park and easily could have done a full day just in the canyon floor ruins. Be warned though it gets hot! I am not sure we would ever go back in the summer. This is very much a seasonal area. There is a small campground in the park, but beyond that there are no services in the park or in the outlaying areas.
If the ancient Puebloan People and their architecture and history interests you, this is a must see destination.
See the National Park Service Site for more information about Chaco Canyon.
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