New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon was the cultural center of the desert southwest.
For 1500 years, Ancestral Puebloans (also called the Anasazi) thrived in the four corners region of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico.
Chaco Canyon’s complex of great houses is often perceived as a capital city. The ruins are a World Heritage Site, and some call it the “Machu Picchu of North America.”
Ancient “roads” spring from it, in all directions.
Chaco’s age spans a period of almost 400 years, from 850 to 1250 AD. In contrast, the United States of America has existed for less than 250 years.
The reason for its abandonment and collapse around 1250 is unknown, but it’s most often attributed to a changing climate.
Like most inhabitants of the Southwest at the time, Chaco’s residents were a predominately agricultural civilization that grew corn, squash, and beans.
Astronomy at Fajada Butte’s Sun Dagger Petroglyph
When driving into Chaco Culture National Historic Park, the profile of Fajada Butte unmistakably dominates an otherwise bleak landscape. The butte’s summit elevation stands at 6,623 feet above sea level, and its cliffs rise 450 feet above the canyon floor.
Its hallowed heights are now off-limits to all visitors. Near its summit sits one of the most famous petroglyphs in the southwest – the Sun Dagger.
A Spiral Sundial
The petroglyph consists of two simple spirals. The significance of these is created by the orientation of three tall, thin slabs of rock that lean in front of the rock art, creating a play of light and shadow on the main spiral.
On the winter solstice, a pair of vertical “daggers” of light shine on each side of the main spiral, encasing it in a sort of frame.
On the summer solstice, the light pierces the center of the spiral, as seen in the simple, 30-second video below:
The video is a time lapse, as the process takes about 20 minutes to unfold in real time. The play of light is similar on the winter solstice, as points of light begin at the top of the edges of the spiral and move downward.
On the equinoxes the dagger appears off-center in the main spiral. At a glance this may appear to be insignificant, but if you look closely, the light cuts precisely between lines that are located half-way between the center and outer edge of the spiral. An even smaller shaft of light bisects the center of the lesser spiral on the equinoxes.
Furthermore, it’s said that a shadow created by the rising moon bisects the main spiral at the peak of the 18.6-year lunar cycle, called a lunar standstill.
Modern Discovery Leads to Closure
The sun dagger was unknown to modern people until 1977, when artist Anna Sofaer was recording rock art on the butte. She happened to notice the play of light on the spirals. Suspecting that this was no accident, she repeatedly returned and confirmed the phenomena, coining the phrase “sun dagger.”
After the greater American society caught wind of this, of course, the site was soon condemned. By 1989 the critical sandstone slabs had shifted, altering the precision that was so painstakingly set in stone by the ancients. The shift was attributed to erosion caused by modern foot traffic, and the Park Service closed the butte to visitation.
It’s impossible to say with certainty when the sun dagger was built, or rather, when it was carved into the rock. However, surrounding evidence suggest that its construction coincides with establishment of Chacoan culture around 900 AD.
A “ramp” was built at the base of Fajada Butte around this time, identified by numerous signs of trail construction. This leads to the conclusion that access was desired for a wide demographic of Chacoan people, presumably for ceremonial purposes.
Astronomy Programs and Star Parties
The visitor center at Chaco Canyon has its own observatory!
From April through October, evening night sky programs are hosted by park rangers on Friday and Saturday nights.
Special events are typically held on the following dates:
- spring equinox ~March 21
- summer solstice ~June 21
- autumnal equinox ~September 21
- winter solstice ~December 21
Chaco is recognized as an International Dark Sky Park, established as such in 2013.
In the past, the Albequerque Astronomical Society has been known to do regular star parties at Chaco. You can check their webpage for a calendar of upcoming star parties.
For more details about these astronomy programs, see the official Park Service website.
6 Great House Ruins – a Virtual Tour of Chaco’s Buildings
The primary significance of Chaco Canyon is its series of Great House ruins. With few exceptions, these sites dwarf the size and scope of similarly-styled ruins found throughout the desert southwest.
The rare proportions and proximity of these buildings to each other is the driving force leading to the importance of Chaco, and its relevance as an ancient cultural center.
A first impression of these Great Houses implies a communal living setup, similar to a modern-day apartment complex. Further inspection, however, reveals that they were used moreso as a ritual and gathering place, and directly occupied only by important community figures.
The architecture of Chaco’s structures is similar to the majority of ruins found throughout the desert southwest. The Great Houses simply expanded this style of architecture to a greater scale and precision.
1) Una Vida
Upon arrival at Chaco, Una Vida is the first site that begs for exploration. Located immediately behind the Visitor Center, there’s a one-mile trail that leads to the site and its petroglyph panel.
In contrast to the other great houses at Chaco, the majority of Una Vida has not been excavated, and remains in its original condition as seen by early pioneers.
On-site Park Service interpretive information reads as follows:
Una Vida is a Chacoan great house containing about 100 ground floor rooms and kivas, and a great kiva in an enclosed plaza. Construction began about AD 850 and continued for over 250 years, concurrent with Pueblo Bonito and Peñasco Blanco. Centuries of blowing sand have covered the rooms with a protective blanket of sand and native vegetation.
The site looks much as it did when it was described in 1849. Lieutenant James H Simpson, on a military expedition through Navajo country, completed detailed observations and drawings of Una Vida and other Chacoan sites, using names given to him by Carravahal, a Mexican guide from San Ysidro.
2) Hungo Pavi
Continuing beyond the visitor center, the next stop along the park road is Hungo Pavi. Like Una Vida, Hungo Pavi is unexcavated, but it reveals significantly more of its structure than Una Vida.
The 0.3-mile trail will fork as you approach the walls. By taking the right fork and moving up to the distant corner, you can look back over the site and see the outline of its D-shape foundation, typical of Chacoan architecture.
The level, centered area of the structure is called a plaza – home to most communal activities. On one side of the plaza you may note a circular depression – this is the great kiva. A kiva, in essence, is the heart of a puebloan structure, used for important meetings and religious ceremony.
The Mexican guide Cavarral also named Hungo Pavi, but its meaning is lost.
Archaeologists date use of the site from 1000 to 1250 AD.
More images of Hungo Pavi:
3) Pueblo Bonito
Pueblo Bonito is the crown jewel of Chaco Canyon. It is Chaco’s largest Great House, and is the largest-known ruin in the southwest.
Here’s some quick facts about its dimensions:
- 650-800 rooms
- covers 3 acres
- up to 5 stories tall
- walls up to 3ft thick
- 2 plazas
- 32 kivas and 3 great kivas
The site was occupied from 850 through 1150 AD, and was in a near-constant state of construction.
Pueblo Bonito was arranged in a distinctive D-shape, with a dividing wall down its center. The center wall is oriented north-south, whereas the south end is generally oriented east-west.
As you can see in the image above, much of its orientation lines up with the cardinal directions of the compass. You can also see how a 1941 rock fall took out a corner of the structure, originating from a wall of the canyon called “Threatening Rock.”
Because of its shocking size, early assumptions imagined several thousand people living within Pueblo Bonito’s walls. Later research cut the number down to less than 800, and some archaeologists reduce it even further er, to 70 people or less. The lower numbers are attributed to a lack of hearths, grave sites, and trash middens.
It’s possible that few people permanently lived within its walls at all, as Pueblo Bonito (and Chaco as a whole) is increasingly thought to have served as a sort of community center.
Interestingly, a room at the Great House (known as Room 33) acted as a crypt for what appears to be important members of the ancient society. Elite burial remains were found adorned with artifacts, such as jewelry made of turquoise and sea shells (Chaco is nowhere near the ocean).
It was found that over a period of 330 years, 9 of the burials shared a common strand of DNA that’s passed only through the mother. This trend falls in sync with modern tribes that similarly observe a matriarchal social structure.
For more about the DNA findings, see this article from Scientific American.
In addition to jewelry and common pottery, the following artifacts have been found at Chaco:
- trumpets made of seashells
- incense burners
- cacao (ancient chocolate) from Central America
- copper bells
- parrot skeletons
- cylindrical pottery (common to Central America)
It’s thought that the vegetation at Chaco during its occupation may have been different than today. Specifically, it’s thought that the area was forested with the sort of habitat we now find at higher elevations.
Numerous Ponderosa Pine logs were used in the construction of Pueblo Bonito. Taking the theory a step further, it’s possible that much of the forest at Chaco was cleared for lumber and fuel, lending to a drop in the water table and accelerating the changing climate.
Climate change is hypothesized to be the single-most driving factor behind the abandonment of all Ancestral Puebloan ruins in the Southwest.
See more images of Pueblo Bonito:
The guide Carravahal called the site Pueblo Bonito, or “beautiful village,” and the name stuck. As mentioned above, Carravahal enabled the United States Army “discovery” of Chaco in 1849.
Richard Wetherill Cemetery
The first excavation of Pueblo Bonito took place from 1894 through 1900. It was led by Richard Wetherill, a local rancher and aficionado of the region’s ancient ruins. In addition to this excavation, he’s credited with the following:
- discovery of the Cliff Palace ruin at Mesa Verde
- discovery of Kiet Seel ruin at Navajo National Monument
- establishment of the original term “Anasazi”
Wetherill was buried among the Great Houses at Chaco, and a small cemetary bears his name. A Park Service interpretive plaque here reads as follows:
Richard Wetherill, a controversial figure in the history of the Southwest, is buried in this historic cemetery. He spent much of his life exploring the region, excavating sites, and selling artifacts.
Wetherill came to Pueblo Bonito from the Mesa Verde area in 1896. Working with the American Museum of Natural History, Wetherill’s excavating practices, equal to many professionals of his day, were soon criticized. Complaints from archeologists and universities halted his activities at Chaco, and led to the creation of our nation’s first law protecting antiquities.
Wetherill turned to ranching and operating a trading post at Pueblo Bonito. His relationship with the Navajo fmailies of Chaco Canyon was mixed – some families were loyal, and others accused him of mistreatment. On June 22, 1910, Wetherill was killed by Chis-Chilling Begay, after a heated dispute between his hired hand and Navajo neighbors.
Others buried in this historic cemetery are Marietta Wetherill, Grace Etcitty, C.A. and Ramona Griffin, several local Navajo people (unidentified, as was the custom), and others.
4) Chetro Ketl
Chetro Ketl is similar to Pueblo Bonita in size and scope. Located about 0.4 miles apart, some archaeologists refer to their space, including Pueblo del Arroyo, as “downtown Chaco.”
The similarities to Pueblo Bonito include its D-shape layout of 3 acres. One quality in which they differ is in Chetro Ketl’s colonnade. This feature of architecture is thought to have been influenced by Central American (aka MesoAmerican) style.
From a layman’s perspective, the Great Kiva at Chetro Ketl is more impressive than the one at Pueblo Bonito.
Here’s what the Park Service Interpretive plaque had to say about the site in 2009:
Chetro Ketl is the second largest Chacoan great house. It covers more than 3 acres, and contains a great kiva and elevated kivas. As builders constructed second and third stories, they created an elevated plaza that stands 12 feet above the valley floor.
Architectural design and large-scale engineering are typical of Chetro Ketl and other Chacoan great houses. Builders quarried rocks for construction, harvested timbers on distant mountains, and erected massive blocks of rooms during building episodes. The people built dams and canals, and engineered straight avenues and “roads” that criscrossed the region and connected Chaco to distant communities.
All these projects required complex planning, organization, and cooporation on a regionwide level. Succeeding generations carried on the work of their predecessors and created a unique vision of the world – unlike anything before or since.
The trees used in the construction of Chetro Ketl have been heavily studied. It’s estimated that 16,000 Ponderosa pines were cut for this site alone, and it’s theorized that Chaco’s forests were cleared for this purpose. Others think the pines were brought in from forests located 50 miles away.
See more photos of Chetro Ketl:
An in-depth write-up about Chetro Ketl within the broader scope of Chaco is on Wikipedia.
5) Kin Kletso
Sometimes called the “Yellow House” ruin, Kin Kletso is one of Chaco’s later structures. Based on tree-ring data (dendrochronology), archaeologists think it was constructed around 1125 AD. The term Yellow House refers to its lighter shade of sandstone than other sites at Chaco.
The site has 60 rooms and 5 kivas, one of which is a designated as a “tower kiva” (2 or more stories). As opposed to other Great Houses, the layout is rectangular (versus D-shaped) and there’s no plaza or great kiva.
Kin Kletso is located about a half-mile west of Pueblo Bonito, and acts as a significant landmark at the foot of the Pueblo Alto Trail.
6) Pueblo Alto Complex & Trail Guide
After a day spent exploring the primary sites in Chaco Canyon, the loop hike up the Pueblo Alto complex at sunset is a wonderful way to take in the big picture.
MAP: see below
PERMIT: free, self-register at trailhead
DESIGNATION: Chaco Culture National Historic Park
BEST SEASONS: spring and fall
DISTANCE: 5.4 mile loop
ELEVATION: trailhead ~6,100ft – New Alto ~6,450
ACCESS: paved roads to the trailhead
DIRECTIONS: park at Pueblo Del Arroyo – west end of the loop road at Chaco Canyon
ROUTE: well maintained, popular trail, follow rock cairns, slickrock surface
GUIDEBOOK: Hiking New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon
From Pueblo Del Arroyo, follow the trail west to Kin Kletso. Behind the ruin you’ll find your trail leading up to the base of the cliff. You’ll have to scramble behind a crack in the cliff that leads to the top of the mesa. Most of hike’s elevation is gained here.
Follow the rock cairns to the east, along the rim of the mesa. Along the way, you’ll encounter some circular stone basins of ancient origin, whose purpose is unknown.
After about a mile, you’ll come to a trail junction. Take the short spur to see the Pueblo Bonito Overlook.
Returning to the main trail, continue a short way east before turning north toward Pueblo Alto. After about a half-mile, you’ll see the “New” Nuevo Alto ruins on a hilltop to the left. New Alto was constructed around 1100, whereas Pueblo Alto itself is thought to have been built around 1020 A.D.
“Pueblo Alto,” by the way, is Spanish for “high town.”
Nuevo Alto, to the layman’s eye, is significantly more impressive than Pueblo Alto proper. It’s a true delight to stand alone at Nuevo Alto on a windswept evening after a full day of exploring Chaco.
Back on the loop trail, the main Pueblo Alto site lies a short way to the east. This is the only site in the complex that has been partially excavated. It shares a common D-shaped footprint with the other Great Houses, but Pueblo Alto is just a one-story structure, without a plaza or great kiva. An underground garbage midden is nearby, encircled and blocked by chains.
Take in the views, and imagine sending signals the Great Houses and ruins other ruins through line of sight.
Continuing on the loop, in less than a half-mile you’ll come to the Jackson Stairway, which was cut by the ancients into a cliff.
Going on to close the loop, you’ll encounter a bird’s-eye view of Chetro Ketl.
More images from the Pueblo Alto Trail:
The Great North Road leads away from Pueblo Alto, stretching away in a true-northerly direction, without regard for natural features. The “road” is difficult to discern when on foot. It stretches to Kutz Canyon, where it all but disappears. Some attest that it continues an addtional 15 miles to the Salmon Ruins.
Craig Childs has an account of tracing the North Road in his popular book House of Rain. I highly recommend this book to anyone visiting Chaco – it’s a fascinating read, if somewhat whimsical.
It’s thought that the so-called Chacoan Roads weren’t necessarily a means of practical travel, so much as they were for ceremonial, scientific, or religious purpose.
Since they provide shelter from the elements, caves and dry overhangs are important sites for archeological research. One such site within the bounds of Chaco Canyon is called Atlatl Cave, and it’s closed to public visitation.
Rather than being a true cave, the site is a large overhang. It’s home to more rock art, and was excavated for artifacts in the 1970s. The site takes its name from a spear-throwing device that was found here, called an atlatl.
Here’s a scholastic report with photos of the pictographs at the cave.
Here’s a couple of maps of Chaco Canyon. The first is a general map of the park, whereas the second is a trail map for the Pueblo Alto hike.
You can right-click on these images to view larger versions or download them. A higher quality PDF version of the first map can be seen here.
Here’s all the info you’ll want to plan a trip to Chaco.
The entrance fee is $8 per vehicle. Camping fees are $15 per night.
Dogs are allowed on all the hiking trails at Chaco, but they must be kept on a (maximum) 6-foot leash, and they’re not allowed within the walls of the ruins.
Chaco Canyon (Google Map link) is located in northwest New Mexico, roughly 20 miles as the crow flies from the east border of the Navajo Nation.
All approaches involve driving on dirt roads, but the roads within the park are paved.
The Best Roads (From the North)
Regardless of your point of origin, the recommended approach is from the northeast, via US 550. From mile marker 112.5 (3 miles southeast of Nageezi) you’ll turn onto CR 7900, and you’ll soon turn right on 7950. This route to Chaco is well-signed.
From Route 550 it’s 21 miles to reach the park. 8 miles of these are paved, and 13 are on a dirt road. In dry conditions, the road is often passable in a regular passenger vehicle… with care. However, the road can become impassable when wet. Conditions vary!
Roads from the South
If you’re approaching via Interstate I-40, it may be tempting to try a more direct route. These routes involve lengthier stretches of rough dirt roads where high clearance, 4wd is necessary. You can get more specific information about the southern approaches here.
You can also call 505-786-7014 for current road conditions.
Here’s your options for camping in and around Chaco.
Official camping within the park is at Gallo Campground. Advance reservations are necessary via recreation.gov. Here’s some more stipulations regarding Gallo:
- sites are $15 per night (group site $60 per night)
- restrooms with running water, but no showers
- picnic tables and fire rings (bring your own wood)
- no RVs over 35ft
- no hookups, but there’s a single dump site
- open all year, closed on some holidays
Some free primitive camping is available in the vicinity, though I use the term “vicinity” loosely. All of these sites are roughly 80 miles from Chaco.
Free US Forest Service campgrounds in the area includes the following:
For more paid camping options that are a lot closer to Chaco, refer to this NPS document. Sites within 16 miles of the park start at $5 per person.
In a partnership with Hotel Chaco, the Heritage Inspirations guiding company offers glamping tours of Chaco Canyon. These overnight trips run for about $1,200 per person, plus tax. Their sales page with all the details is found here.
Hiking & Backpacking
With less than 20 miles of trails in a culturally sensitive area, Chaco is not a backpacker’s destination. Free permits are required for day hikes, obtained by simply filling out a form at the trailhead.
The 5.4 mile Pueblo Alto Trail is described above. Other trails include the following (all mileages are round trip):
- Penasco Blanco Trail – 7.4 miles
- South Mesa Trail – 4.1 miles
- Wijiji Trail – 3 miles
The Park Service encourages bicycling at Chaco Canyon, but cycling is limited to the 9-mile loop road. Legal mountain biking options in the general area are slim-to-none.
It’s best to look toward Sante Fe for good mountain biking trails.
More Information & Resources
Is This a National Park?
Though it’s run by the National Park Service, Chaco is technically not a National Park. Rather, it’s called a National Historical Park. This moniker is simply an extension of the term National Historic Site, which is attributed to places like Abraham Lincoln’s House and the Ford Theater. Historical Parks involve multiple sites and a spread of land, like Chaco Canyon and Valley Forge.
In recent years there’s been a push to open the BLM lands that surround Chaco to drilling for oil and gas. Not only is Chaco Canyon a World Heritage Site, but Native Americans in the surrounding area are tired of seeing such lands opened to exploitation.
Here’s some links for more about the subject. I must admit, I’ve only listed the ones with amusing fracking headlines.
If you’re looking for the classic Robert Redford documentary about Chaco, it’s called The Mystery of Chaco Canyon and it can be seen free (for now) here on Youtube. If you were hoping for something with better quality, it’s also here on Amazon.
House of Rain by Craig Childs is by far the most entertaining and digestable book about Chaco.
Here’s some other books that look promising, based on their reviews: