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Chaco Culture National Historic Park

New Mexico

About 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.

How to Get There

Located 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.

From 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 park.

From 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 I-40).

The Anasazi at Chaco Canyon

For 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 Mexico.

Then 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 tradition.

After 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 valley.

Chaco 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 States.

What to See & Do

The 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.

Pueblo Bonito

The 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.

Excavation 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 without mortar.

Chetro Ketl

Located 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.

Casa Rinconada and Tsin Kletsin

Situated 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.

Smaller Communities

Kin 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.

Slightly 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

Hiking 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.

Enjoying Your Chaco Canyon Visit

It 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 here.

The 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.

A 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.

The nearest hotels and motels are located in Farmington. Many visitors stay in Gallup.

Side Trips

To Bisti Badlands and Wilderness

Of 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.

To Other Historic Places

Other 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.

The more recently developed Zuni Pueblo is near the Salmon Ruins. Zuni are renowned for their silver and turquoise jewelry.

Canyon 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. 

 

New Mexico Destinations

Alamogordo

Albuquerque

Aztec

Bandelier National Monument

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Chaco Culture National Historic Park

Chama

Cloudcroft

Los Alamos

Mesilla

Ruidoso

Santa Fe

Silver City

Taos

 


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