800 years ago, the Anasazi departed from Chaco Canyon. No
one knows why, and no one understands how the Anasazi
managed to build the impressive structures in what is now
recognized as the cultural center of these prehistoric
Indian people. To visit this long, shallow canyon is to
engage in both an historical search and an intense
emotional experience -- heightened by the enduring
mystery of the "Ancient Ones." This site is the location
of the largest and most complicated architectural marvels
of the Anasazi age.
to Get There
in the northwestern corner of New Mexico, Chaco
Culture National Historic Park is in a remote
location connected to the outside world by a gravel road,
Route 57. It is south of Farmington and Bloomfield and
northeast of Gallup. For those with less yearning for
backroad adventure, there are other, easy routes.
the north, take N.M. Route 44 from Bloomfield (13 miles
east of Farmington) and head south for 44 miles to
Nageezi. Turn west and follow Route 57 to the
the south, drive east from Gallup or west from
Albuquerque on Interstate 40 and exit at Thoreau. Drive
north on N.M. Route 371 and turn right (east) onto N.M.
Route 57, then continue to the park (64 miles from
Anasazi at Chaco Canyon
more than 10,000 years, nomadic natives roamed the Four
Corners area, passing through this canyon. The first
long-term residents arrived about ad 700. The
Basketmakers lived in the canyon, constructing small
one-storey masonry pueblos. There is evidence that the
Anasazi began building in Chaco Canyon around ad 900,
constructing what later became Pueblo Benito, the largest
of the community structures. By 1115, the Chaco culture
had spread to more than 70 other pueblos, which had been
established at some distance -- as far as 60 miles away
-- and connected to the trading and cultural center by
amazingly straight roads as much as 30 feet in width.
Pueblo Bonito had expanded to contain more than 800
rooms, with adjoining plazas and ceremonial kivas. More
than 2,000 people -- perhaps as many as 5,000 -- lived in
the canyon pueblos. Craftspeople of the region produced
distinctive black-on-white glazed pottery in addition to
turquoise ornaments including necklaces, bracelets, and
pendants. Seashells were also strung into necklaces.
Chaco traded with far-flung nations, including
the Anasazi began to abandon their pueblos. First the
outlying communities were deserted and by 1200 the towns
in Chaco Canyon were empty. Drought may have been the
reason for the evacuation. After moving to other places,
the Anasazi faded into history, with the later Pueblo
Indians carrying on some of the Anasazi architectural
1200, the Anasazi towns in the canyon sat and
deteriorated for hundreds of years. For a while, Apache
moved into the region, but they didn't stay at Chaco.
Then, one of the Apache bands -- the Navajo --
established settlements in the area, and the remains of
their homes are found on the nearby mesas. A few miles to
the west is the boundary of the vast Navajo Indian
Reservation. One-hundred miles due west is Canyon de
Chelly, another reminder of the Anasazi tradition but
occupied today by Navajo, who farm the river
Canyon has no farming today, nor has it any residents
except for a few Park Service employees. The canyon has
been preserved for its unique role as the hub of a
prehistoric civilization in North America and the center
of an ancient culture that surpassed in complexity that
of any other group of people in what is now the United
to See & Do
road from the north passes through Cly Canyon, a narrow
gorge on the drive into the historic park. After passing
several Anasazi ruins, some of which are hidden from
view, you'll find the one-way loop road that circles
through Chaco Canyon leading to the most important ruins.
The visitor center is beyond this loop road, and the
campground (the only place to stay in the area) is beyond
the visitor center.
most impressive of the ruins, this large structure is
located at the west end of the canyon. Built in stages,
this huge pueblo eventually contained more than 600 rooms
and had 40 round kivas (ceremonial chambers where rituals
were carried out). It is considered the classic Anasazi
group dwelling. If you have only a half-day to explore
the park, this is the pueblo to see first.
started here at the turn of the century and this work
continued through the 1920s. You'll be amazed at the
intricate stone work -- several storeys tall, most of it
adjacent to Pueblo Bonito, Chetro Ketl has 500 rooms and
16 kivas. This pueblo dates from about 1054, and the
structure was completed about 1100 or later. Visiting the
two ruins will take about 90 minutes.
Rinconada and Tsin Kletsin
on the opposite side of the canyon, Casa Rinconada is one
of the largest of the "great kivas" found in the Four
Corners region. A short trail leads to this building,
passing several small villages. The path continues,
ascending to the mesa where stands Tsin Kletsin, a great
house providing a fine panoramic view of the canyon and
surrounding high points of land.
Kletso, located near the west end of the canyon, was
supposedly built in two stages -- the first from about
1125 and the remainder built about 1130. Archeologists
say that it probably had three storeys on the north side
and 100 rooms in all.
east of this site, beside the canyon road, is Pueblo del
Arroyo. Built beside the wash, beginning in 1075, it was
completed with the construction of the plaza about 1110.
This building had about 280 rooms and at least 20 kivas.
A smaller ruin, Una Vida, is reached by a short stroll
from the visitor center. This partially excavated
structure is thought to have had about 150 rooms.
trails (including the path to Tsin Kletsin) lead to the
mesa areas on both sides of the canyon. Pueblo Alta,
sitting on the mesa above Pueblo Bonito, is an important
site at the junction of several major Anasazi roads.
Other trails lead to Casa Chiquita and Peñasco
Blanco, at the extreme west end of the central canyon
where the road descends into the park.
Your Chaco Canyon Visit
pays to plan ahead to fully enjoy a visit to this remote
place. First, you need to consider that modern places to
stay are some 60 to 80 miles away&emdash;to the north in
Bloomfield and Farmington, or to the south at Crownpoint
or farther still in Gallup. It is possible to spend 2 or
3 hours in the canyon and come away with
something&emdash;at least a basic feeling for the
importance of the communities that once flourished
museum in the visitor center features displays on the
history of the Anasazi. A ranger-led tour of the ruin
sites is highly recommended. The visitor center has
schedules for these tours as well as the evening
interpretation sessions. There are booklets at the larger
sites that provide walking tour information and
historical background. The shop in the visitor center has
a good supply of books on the history of the Anasazi and
other Indian cultures.
stay of 2 or 3 days is highly recommended if you are able
to camp or stay in an RV or trailer. The park campground
offers a place to stay although there are no hookups.
Water is available from a tap at the visitor center, and
there are restrooms in the campground. Trailers and RVs
more than 30 feet long cannot be accommodated.
nearest hotels and motels are located in Farmington. Many
visitors stay in Gallup.
Bisti Badlands and Wilderness
course, the ideal thing to do is stay in the canyon for a
few days and fully explore the sites in the canyon as
well as nearby points of interest. These include the
Bisti Badlands to the north, where weird, colored rock
formations and petrified wood and fossils are seen in a
desolate area on both sides of Gateway and Hunter's
Washes. The Bisti Wilderness has no developed trails and
visitors are encouraged to walk across the stark
wilderness areas -- very much like what one would imagine
walking on the moon would be like. The badlands are
accessible from the east (the shortest route from Chaco
Canyon) as well as from the west via N.M. Route 371. From
Chaco Canyon, drive out to N.M. Route 44 and turn north
toward Bloomfield. Then, take the road leading west at
the El Huerfano Trading Post (County Road 7500). This
dirt road leads beside the De-Na-Z in Wilderness Area,
coming out at Highway 371. Turn north and the Bisti
Wilderness Road is a few minutes' drive. This road leads
east to the old Bisti Trading Post and a rough parking
lot that provides access to the Badlands.
Other Historic Places
prehistoric ruins in this general region include the Salmon Ruins, south of Farmington, and the Aztec
Ruins National Monument, just north of Farmington in the
town of Aztec.
more recently developed Zuni Pueblo is near the
Salmon Ruins. Zuni are renowned for their silver and
de Chelly National Monument is in Arizona, reached by
taking U.S. Highway 191 north from Interstate 40 to the
town of Chinle. The I-40 exit is just west of Sanders.
Chinle is 67 miles from the Interstate. Go Here for the Canyon de Chelly page.