CHACO CANYON, N.M.
For a unique and less crowded archaeological excursion, visit the “Capital of the Ancient Southwest,” known as Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico.
Mesa Verde National Park has its signature cliff dwellings, but its popularity – 500,000 visitors per year – forces managers to limit access into the historic structures. But at Chaco, with just 30,000 to 50,000 visitors per year, people are allowed to freely explore the inside of ancient buildings and walk along the edge of huge kivas dating from 850 to 1250 A.D. And you don’t need a tour guide, although those are available for free.
At Chaco, you can pass through a succession of small doorways at the famous Pueblo Bonito ruin, ending in a pitch black, tiny room. Huh? Don’t worry, “experts” can’t figure it out either. Was it for food storage, religious ceremonies or for something no one has figured out yet, not even Robert Redford, who has hosted a PBS documentary about the celestial alignments of Chaco’s great houses.
“If it is unknown, then it must have a ceremonial purpose,” said University of Colorado professor Steve Lekson, during a recent talk about Chaco in Dolores.
The Chaco kivas are exceptionally large and numerous, many with their original walls and some still coated with painted stucco. Ceiling beams dating to 1000 A.D. were hauled by people from as far as 100 miles away, perhaps using relays from the forests of Mount Taylor and the Chuska Mountains.
The buildings, built with bricks made from a blond sandstone quarried from nearby mesas, show progressively refined architecture. In some rooms, stone masonry embedded with fossils 70 million years old is prominently placed.
Chaco is thought to be the center of a vast trading network that might have reached as far as the Toltec culture in Mexico. More than 400 miles of roads are connected to the site, with the longest leading to the Salmon Ruins in Aztec.
“Trade included live macaws and chocolate from Mexico,” said volunteer ranger Kayla Lanoue. “Turkey feather blankets were exchanged along with turquoise and copper bells.”
Chaco has a direct connection to Mesa Verde. Richard Wetherill, the first non-native to explore and document Mesa Verde, lived and excavated at Chaco. He was murdered and buried there in 1910.
“It was a misunderstanding about the treatment of a horse,” Lanoue said.
Chaco is tough to get to and is delightfully bare bones. Off U.S. Highway 550, a partially paved road turns into 13 miles of rough, often rutted dirt road that is heavily washboarded and sandy. Unless the road is muddy, most cars can handle it, but the tough approach wards off most recreational vehicles.
There are no hotels, gas stations or supply stores at Chaco. There is a newly built visitors center with drinking water, detailed maps, helpful rangers and a gift shop. A museum is planned.
“When they built the new visitors center, they ran out of money for the museum,” Lanoue said. “There is a space for it at least – it’s just empty.”
Many of the artifacts from Chaco are housed in the Maxwell Museum in Albuquerque. But much of it was lost early on.
During the first archaeological digs, wheelbarrows full of material considered less interesting were dumped into the washes, one ranger said.
As a result, much of Chaco’s history was washed away. These poor techniques, which were the standard of the day, led to the creation of the nation’s first law protecting antiquities.
Tour by foot or bike
Chaco is welcoming for campers. The Gallo campground has heated bathrooms with flush toilets. The 50 spots are first come, first serve.
The modest services are intentional, giving visitors a more direct experience of the environment. The minimal development and rural location create one of the darkest night skies in the country.
One of the best things about Chaco is the hiking. Two rugged 5-mile loops traverse across slickrock plains and through slot canyons reminiscent of southeastern Utah’s canyonlands.
Hikers are rewarded with a close-up of the Chacoan Stairway, a succession of long steps chopped into a sheer cliff.
Chaco is famous for the Fajada Butte Sun Dagger, a clever arrangement of spiral pictographs and natural shadows that precisely record solstices.
“But it is not working anymore,” Lanoue said. “The rock making the shadow shifted. We think the Chacoans may have repositioned the rock when it moved, but we left it.”
Chaco is bike-friendly. Cyclists can ride the 8-mile, one-way paved loop, stopping to explore ruins along the way. Biking also is allowed to the Wijiji ruin, and there is ample mountain-bike touring on surrounding roads.