Chaco Culture National Historical Park is a United States National Historical Park providing for visitors the most noteworthy Ancestral Puebloan (living there between 850 and 1250 A.D.) structures in the American Southwest. The park, accessible via dirt roads, is located in northwestern New Mexico between Albuquerque and Farmington.
It is a major destination for those interested in understanding the mysteries of these people who were known for building the massive structures using stone-age tools and often oriented to solar, lunar, and cardinal directions. How did these early people have the foresight and the knowledge to construct such massive great houses and kivas and why did they incorporate astronomical features into their work? Some believe that Chaco was an important ceremonial and trade center.
Since the park is remote and so significant, there are some things to know before you go.
1. Read Up on Chaco. At a minimum, check out the Chaco Culture website and print out a few of the brochures. You’ll come prepared with a little background information, learn about the trails and sites in Chaco Canyon, know how weather affects the area and whether there are special events or Ranger-led hikes when you will be there. Ranger programs are offered daily throughout the year. Check the schedule at the Visitor Center or call 505-786-7014 for more information. Special programs can be found on the park calendar.
Did you know that there is camping in Chaco Canyon? That would be a great option for those interested in the Chaco Night Sky Program. From April to October, Night Sky programs and telescope viewing of the spectacular dark night sky are offered three days a week.
2. Consider a Guide or a Tour. We visited Chaco Culture National Historical Park with Southwest Adventure Tours who selected an experienced guide for our group. There is so much to understand about Chaco that, unless you have done considerable research yourself, you’ll miss some of the highlights and details and you may fall prey to some of the sensationalist stories about the Chacoans. Our guide at nearby Aztec Ruins, Larry Baker, also leads guided tours out of Salmon Ruins and will take tour participants on a day trip from the ruins.
Don’t be surprised that your guide cannot give you all the answers to the mysteries of Chaco. There are many theories and beliefs, but sometimes the answer to your questions will be, “no one knows.” Research continues and guides build on their knowledge as new research comes out.
3. Plan your Route. Whether you are visiting Chaco for a day trip or a longer stay camping, you’ll need to know how to get there and how long it will take you. There is a northern route (closest to Santa Fe) and a southern route (closest to Gallup). Both will lead you to the point where the road becomes dirt and rocks. Both will take considerable time. (Map) When we went, the southern route was easier than the northern route, which was pretty much 80% washboard road. But, that all changes with the weather and the seasons. Gas up before you go and, of course, carry water.
4. Wear appropriate clothing. At the Chaco Culture National Historical Park you’ll not only be able to walk among the Ancestral Puebloan structures, you’ll be able to enjoy the natural beauty of the canyon and wash. It is rocky and sandy. Weather can affect the trails and the roads.
There are easy sightseeing trails and more difficult backcountry trails. Our group decided to scale a boulder-laden trail to reach Pueblo Alto and enjoy a panoramic view. The trail started at the Pueblo del Arroyo parking area and was fairly easy except for the 250-foot climb. Be sure and ask at the Visitors Center about trails, backcountry registration and needed equipment.
In general, be sure and wear day hikers with tread or hiking boots. Carry a hiking stick if you are a bit unsteady on your feet. Wear a hat, dress in layers, and use sunscreen. And, of course, carry water. The weather is unpredictable so be prepared for the day when you visit Chaco Canyon.
5. Consider the Culture. The Chaco Culture National Historical Park is considered a spiritual place by most of the surrounding indigenous people. It is the place of their ancestors whose spirits still walk there.
No longer called Anasazi, the people who lived at Chaco are ancestors to those who currently live in the surrounding pueblos. Thus the term, Ancestral Puebloans, is much more appropriate. In fact, the Navajo translation of the term Anasazi is “ancestral enemies.”
We don’t refer to the buildings at Chaco as ruins and don’t consider them abandoned. Remember, the ancestors’ spirits are still there!
We don’t say that the Chacoans disappeared. They are all there around you in the Southwest. We noticed linkages when touring Acoma Pueblo. The people there recalled trade with the people of Mexico and the Mexican coastal areas. In Chaco, evidence was found of trade in Macaw feathers, shells and metal bells in exchange for local turquoise.
Enjoy your visit. Most are impressed with the sites and most gain some understanding of the connections between the early Chaco people and the native peoples of today who live in the Southwest.
Chaco Canyon National Historical Park
Visiting New Mexico
Southwest Adventure Tours
Grand Circle Association
This experience was part of a Grand Circle tour provided by Southwest Adventure Tours and hosted by the members of the Grand Circle Association. While this has not influenced this content, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.