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The splendour of Chaco Canyon

Anybody with a spirit of adventure and a love for magnificent ancient ruins must visit Chaco Culture National Historical Park deep in the desert wilds of northwestern New Mexico.  Chaco Canyon was the political, economic and religious center of Anasazi Indian culture a millennium ago consisting of huge towering buildings with hundreds of rooms housing enormous numbers of people.   When Chacoan society collapsed in the thirteenth century and the Anasazi moved on to other pueblos, they left behind their structures, artifacts, turquoise jewelry and cryptic petroglyphs for us to marvel at today. UNESCO placed Chaco Canyon on its World Heritage List in 1987 because of the extraordinary beauty and historical significance of the region.

Getting to  Chaco Canyon is no easy feat.  Traveling from Albuquerque or Santa Fe, one lumbers along State Rt. 550 through the rustic town of Cuba to Mile Marker 112.5 where one turns on a bumpy old dirt road that traverses across twenty-one miles of Navajo land.  The brilliantly blue sky hovers over the stark nearly treeless desert landscape and the horizon stretches beyond one’s imagination.  There is little sign of any life with the exception of one or two cars going the other direction and a few scrawny cows desperately seeking something to eat along the road.  A few solitary hawks swirled above us.  Signs warn tourists away from arroyos where their automobiles might be washed away in a flash flood, but normally there isn’t a drop of water in sight.   Occasionally a Navajo homestead, with its traditional round hogan, corral, and brush shade center, breaks the expanse of sagebrush and rice grass.  Conditions only improve when one goes through the park gates back on to a solid paved road and a sumptuous modern visitor’s center.   From there one observes the stark beauty of a small canyon, little more than 300 feet deep and a mile and a half wide.  Chaco Wash, a narrow streambed lined by a string of cottonwood trees, bisects the canyon.

Chaco Canyon’s high desert environment seems an unlikely home for the over 5,000 Anasazi who lived there at the height of Chacoan civilization between 800 and the very early 1300s.  Chaco Wash was a bone-dry streambed when my family and I visited in late February, 2006, but a park guide told us that there is substantial evidence that the Anasazi farmed there.  They preserved whatever water they could by damming the wash and capturing water that thundered down from cliffs overhanging the canyon and directing the precious liquid to their various small garden plots.   Evidence of dams, canals and other water control features show the great sophistication of Chacoan culture. That so many people survived in a region with a maximum of only eight inches of rain or snow a year sounds incredible, but it is possible that traders, visitors or pilgrims brought additional food from other communities along the broad boulevards and avenues that radiated out from the canyon.

The Chacoans were an amazing group of Anasazi Indians who built an impressive religious and trading complex in the canyon which consists of eighteen major ruins and about 2800 sites, only a fraction of which have been excavated.  They left massive and impressive ruins which remain beautifully preserved today because of their excellent building techniques, dry climate and remote location.  The canyon is characterized by impressive multi-storied and multi-roomed adobe apartment houses, earthen mounds, numerous huge kivas  (meeting places that served a ceremonial or religious purpose) that could hold more than 500 people, sophisticated irrigation works, and an elaborate and well-engineered road system that radiated out in all directions to other Indian towns and villages far away.  Just as all roads found their way to Rome two thousand years ago, all Indian roads in the Southwest a thousand years ago took one to Chaco Canyon!

The largest of the nine Great Houses in the Canyon is Pueblo Bonito which at its prime rose four or five stories, an amazing achievement at the time.   The complex’s 650 rooms cover a full two acres of land with masonry walls that are sometimes up to six feet thick.  The Pueblo is divided into two sections by a wall precisely aligned north-south through the grand central plaza.  More than one million bricks were used to house at least 1200 people in what was surely the largest apartment building the world had ever seen until the late nineteenth century!  Huge wooden beams had to be transported from forests many miles away to serve as floors and roofs for the many structures that sprang up across the valley.

That the Chacoans were expert craftsmen is evident in the artifacts on display in the excellent museum at the visitor’s center.  There one can see exquisite black and white Chaco pottery, turquoise jewelry, copper bells and drilled beads and tools.  Much of the material necessary to make these objects came from well outside the region, evidence of the importance of Chaco Canyon as a major pre-Columbian trade center.  For example, the turquoise used to make jewelry came from the Santa Fe region over 100 miles to the east.

Why, every visitor asks, did the Chacoan suddenly abandon their elegant pueblos in the canyon around 1300?  And where did they go.  Researchers studying tree rings in the area determine that there were prolonged periods of drought in the late 1100s and again in the late 1200s.  Water was always scarce enough, but with no water there was simply no way for thousands of people to survive in this already most desolate of regions.
There is evidence that the Chacoans burned many of their sacred ceremonial kivas, a clear sign of abandonment.   They moved to smaller pueblos to the south and east along rivers like the Rio Grande.  Today the canyon is regarded as sacred ground by many neighboring tribal groups, many of whom are direct descendents of the Anesazi.  (When we visited the Acoma Pueblo a day earlier I asked our informative Indian guide what had happened to the Anesazi from Chaco Canyon.  He replied, “We are right here, right now!”)

Despite the precious nature of the ruins, one can walk through many of the buildings, entering a maze of tiny rooms with very few restrictions as to where one can go.  There are hiking trails to the top canyon affording splendid views of the terrain below.  We had fun walking along the wash, finding (but not taking!) hundreds of tiny pieces of ancient pottery directly below some of the Chacoan complexes. 

Last spring I took a group of my students on an expedition across the ruins of the Roman Forum and could well imagine what life had been life there at the height of the Empire.  The ruins of Chaco Canyon are far more extensive than in Rome, and it is equally possible to imagine life there centuries ago.  The Canyon is without doubt the most significant archeological site in North America and must not be missed by any visitor to New Mexico.

But if you do go, plan either to camp there or to find lodgings in towns 50-60 miles distant from the Canyon.  The park closes at sunset, but one should leave an hour earlier because it might be unsafe to be driving in the pitch black night along the truly rough long dirt road leading to the canyon with its many badly marked turn offs.

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