An October 2004 trip
to Chaco Canyon by BawBaw
Quote: In the starkly beautiful wilderness of Chaco Canyon, the Anasazi (or Ancient Ones) created and sustained a center of civilization that inspires awe and fires the imagination. The dramatic landscape and remarkable achievements of the Anasazi combine to make the difficult journey to Chaco an unforgettable experience.
Chaco Culture National Historical Park is located in the high desert country of northwestern New Mexico. Situated in the central part of the San Juan Basin, Chaco Canyon is arguably one of the most beautiful spots in North America. Remote and isolated, the landscape consists of a series of canyons, arroyos, and mesas, which include the ruins of several Anasazi pueblo communities. Designated as both a national park and a World Heritage Site, Chaco is a rare gift from the past to the present and, if we fulfill our stewardship properly, to the future.
A visit to Chaco Canyon is a feast to the senses. It is spectacular in a way that can only be found in the grand emptiness of the desert—stark, given to irresistible sunsets and sunrises and to sudden storms, and filled with the drama and mystery of life flourishing in barren places. The Anasazi, or Ancient Ones, thrived in this region between 850 and 1250 AD. Then they abandoned their homes and monuments, leaving behind what became one of the great mysteries of American archeology.
The pueblos, kivas, and infrastructure of these Anasazi relics reflect the industry and spirituality of a people who lived bountiful lives on the edge of scarcity. Like their counterparts in modern pueblos, Anasazi kivas were circular rooms that were usually, though not always, built below ground level. Most likely they served as the meeting places for kiva societies that governed the worship of Anasazi clans. Built into Mother Earth herself, each kiva contained a sipula—a symbolic umbilical connecting Earth's children to their mother's womb.
The adobe and stone communities found in and near Chaco Canyon were once the focus of a network of roads, dams, and other marvels of ancient civil engineering, indicating that the Chacoans were a highly sophisticated civilization maintaining commercial ties over a widespread area. Trade goods found among the artifacts excavated in the canyon came from as far away as the Pacific coast and the Toltec regions of what is now Mexico. Scholars have also concluded that Chaco was a center of government and culture serving Anasazi communities located throughout the Southwest.
The National Park Service provides an on-site Visitor Center, interpretive museum, small observatory, and gift shop. Access within the canyon is by a paved loop road, self-guided trails at several major Chacoan sites, and four backcountry hiking trails. Except for campers with permits issued by the Park Service, all visitors (including backcountry hikers) must leave by sunset.
On arrival at the park, check with the Visitor Center for planned activities, including guided tours at major sites and astronomy programs for overnight visitors. Because Chaco is far removed from the ambient light that hovers above even the smallest towns, it is one of those rare places where the Milky Way still cuts a broad, bright swath across the night sky.
Bring your own provisions, including water. Amenities are extremely scarce, though the Park Service does ensure that drinking water is always available at the Visitor Center. For those wishing to experience the canyon at night, campsites (for trailers under 30 feet long) are available for a modest nightly fee. Camping permits are issued on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Handicapped visitors are able to access a substantial number of Chacoan sites by wheelchair, but given the wilderness nature of the park, handicapped access is necessarily restricted. For more information, visit the National Park Service website for Chaco.
When Himself and I visited Chaco in October 2004, we borrowed a small RV from a trusting family member and hit the road. Unfortunately, it was the wrong road. Having accepted tasty southwestern hospitality from friends in Grants, we planned to approach the canyon from the south. Twenty-two miles short of our goal, we found the rough dirt road south of Chaco to be impassable with our RV, which meant a detour of about 150 miles to access the canyon from the north -- and even more dear, it meant a 5-hour delay.
On arrival, we reported to the Visitor Center, paid our $8 vehicle and $10 RV fees, and headed off to the Gallo Campground, located along Gallo Wash in one of Chaco’s side canyons. The campground is open year-round, offering 48 tent and RV campsites on a first-come, first-served basis. Each space is limited to two tents or one RV, six campers, and two vehicles. RVs and trailers may not exceed 30 feet. Each campsite has a picnic table and a fire grate with grill. Firewood is not provided and may not be gathered within the park. Bring your own. In fact, bring your own supplies for everything -- food, water, and appropriate clothes. Hookups for water or electricity are not provided, though there is a dump station adjacent to the campground (if needed, drinking water is available at the Visitor Center on a 24-hour basis). The campground also includes two group campsites (for 10 to 30 campers) and a group fire circle.
Despite its overall primitive setting, Gallo boasts a very presentable restroom facility with flush toilets, handicapped access, non-potable running water, and electric outlets for dryers, razors, and (just for me!) rechargeable battery units. Sorry, showers are not provided.
The natural setting of Gallo is typical of the high desert and has been left as undisturbed as possible. Next to the campground is a small Chacoan site, identified as a farming settlement that quite likely helped support the nearby "great houses" up-canyon. The site includes petroglyphs and pictographs and even a colony of Chaco’s current residents -- birds in mud-dabbed nests built of the same adobe once used by the ancient Chacoans.
In addition to all these wonders, far and away the best reason for choosing to lodge in the Gallo Campground is the nighttime sky. Removed from ambient light and sheltered between the canyon walls, campers are treated to a rare spectacle -- the full majesty of the Milky Way, spread from horizon to horizon. Such luxury is truly priceless.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on November 14, 2004
Chaco Culture National Historical Park, PO Box 220
Chaco Canyon, New Mexico
The Petroglyph Trail offers visitors a quarter-mile-long, self-conducted tour past the canyon’s most abundant representation of ancient art, all of which has been preserved on the sandstone face of the cliff between Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl. To enhance visitors’ understanding of this art, the Park Service provides an excellent printed guide that can be purchased for the grand sum of 75¢ at either the Visitor Center or from honor boxes near the trail.
The trail itself is marked with numbered posts that correspond to information provided in the guide. By relying on the guide’s helpful hints and outright instruction on where to look, visitors are educated about the differences between ancient rock art, historic inscriptions, and graffiti. They are literally walked through what is known and what can be deduced about Chaco’s history, as illustrated by images left behind from the distant, and sometimes not-so-distant, past. On our journey down the trail, all this was set against the dramatic backdrop of the sheer cliff walls, with occasional columns of stone that reached upward, as if to touch the daytime moon.
Our party consisted of four people—four sets of eyes—and it took all of us to scan the cliff face and share our finds. One person less, and we would have missed too much. What’s more, I’m satisfied that the same could be said for a party that was significantly larger. What a visitor sees on the Petroglyph Trail depends on the time of day, the season, the quality of the light and shadow on a sunny day versus a cloudy day, and the time that’s available merely to look. It is an amazing trail with hundreds of glyphs, many of which are etched high above the desert floor, and it would take many visits to make a proper exploration.
For me, the most intriguing aspect of our visit to Chaco’s petroglyphs involved finding so many spirals, lines, and other markings that so closely resembled rock art we had seen in Britain—art created in an entirely different milieu but for an almost identical purpose. In ancient America, as in Neolithic Europe, our forebears created art to show their reverence for the sun and the passage of the seasons. These universal symbols of time and its passage were humbling and fundamentally exciting, marking our kinship with ancient peoples despite the passage of time.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on November 28, 2004
The Petroglyph Trail
Chaco Culture National Historical Park, PO Box 220
Chaco Canyon, New Mexico
Although visitors are now limited to gazing at the butte from across an expanse of desert, there was a time when the hardy and the adventure-prone were free to hike and climb in its immediate vicinity. There were plenty of reasons to do so. The view from the summit is said to be spectacular even by Chaco’s standards, and its upper reaches include the ruins of prehistoric pueblo dwellings, located in seemingly inaccessible places.
The Sun Dagger site, however, is far and away the most intriguing aspect of Fajada Butte. Near the southeast summit of this imposing landmark, ancient Chacoans erected a series of three stone slabs and etched two spirals into the rock face, against which the stones rested. Shadows cast by the slabs and daggers of light that escaped those shadows were used to mark the summer and winter solstices, as well as the vernal and autumnal equinoxes. Recent scholar research speculates that the monument was also used to track the moon’s 18.6-year cycle, possibly an effort by the ancients to seek a synchronization between lunar and solar pathways, hence to determine the proper time for conducting their ceremonies.
This sophisticated knowledge of solar and lunar cycles, plus evidence of a ramp that once provided an easier means of access to the Sun Dagger site, suggests that Fajada Butte may well have been the spiritual center of Chacoan civilization and, indeed, the hub of all those ancient roadways leading to the canyon. Thus, Fajada Butte could be the reason for the flurry of activity that resulted in the monumental public architecture of these remarkable people—or at least the reason why the great houses of Chaco were built in this remote canyon.
Despite the inhospitable character of the Sun Dagger site, unrestricted access to the butte has caused a slight shift in the alignment of the stone slabs that form the monument. To prevent further damage, the entire butte is now officially off limits to the public.
Closing the butte to foot traffic has done nothing to diminish the power of its presence. One cannot travel far in Chaco Canyon without falling under its shadow or its spell. Fajada Butte, silhouetted against a desert sunrise or sunset, provides moments to be remembered for a lifetime. It is a small wonder that the Chacoans made it the center of their universe.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on November 29, 2004
Chaco Culture National Historical Park, PO Box 220
Chaco Canyon, New Mexico
Scholarly opinion regards the great houses of Chaco, constructed incrementally between 850 and 1150, as an extraordinary example of public architecture. They were built to accommodate the ceremonial needs of a scattered people—probably a people diverse enough to speak different languages despite their common culture. The year-round population of Chaco is thought to have been relatively small, perhaps as few as several hundred people, whereas at peak ceremonials the great houses were able to accommodate several thousand pilgrims.
Modern visitors to Chaco Canyon have no such grand accommodations, but they are free to visit several important sites. Each one is impressive in a different way. The paved loop road in the heart of the park brings five of the great houses to within easy walking distance. Each of these five sites is connected to the loop by means of well-laid, self-guiding trails of a mile or less (roundtrip), some of which are accessible by wheelchair. Several other great house sites may be reached by means of the park’s four backcountry trails, ranging from 3 to 6.4 miles (roundtrip). Our overnight stay of less than 24 hours didn’t allow time for the backcountry trails, but it did permit us to take a good sampling of the sites accessible from the loop drive.
Our first goal was Pueblo Bonito, the best known and most extensively excavated of Chaco’s great houses. Its stunning architecture, characteristic "D" shape, and well-preserved doorways have come to exemplify the accomplishments of pre-Columbian Pueblo peoples in general and the Chacoans in particular. Such was the craftsmanship of its builders that when excavations began in the 1890s, after six centuries of abandonment, more than 50 rooms at Pueblo Bonito were still fully intact.
At its zenith, Pueblo Bonito consisted of an enclosed compound containing more than 650 rooms and at least 35 kivas built around a double plaza. Rising as high as five stories and covering an area of about 7½ acres, it was and is magnificently beautiful. In its heyday, its walls would have been plastered and painted. Today the warm, sand-colored walls blend perfectly into the desert landscape.
Walking around and through Pueblo Bonito is a humbling experience. The approach recommended by the Park Service starts at the southeast corner of the pueblo and leads directly back to where one of those towering pillars of rock along the canyon wall has recently collapsed—recent, that is, in terms of how the canyon measures time. The Chacoans deliberately chose to build in the wake of that huge, tilting column of rock, apparently because doing so allowed them to achieve an alignment with cardinal north. To compensate for a threat that they clearly recognized, they built a retaining wall at the rock base and placed prayer sticks in the fissure between the pillar and the cliff face. And who can argue against the effectiveness of their prayers. The Chacoans were long gone by 1941, when the pillar finally collapsed, crushing a section of the pueblo.
We followed the path from the back of the compound through a series of rooms, into the western plaza, and past several kivas—including Pueblo Bonito’s great kivas. Along the way, we encountered grinding stones once used for making meal from grain, an enduring reminder of domesticity from the past. Crossing the eastern plaza, we skirted several smaller kivas and descended a stairway into the interior of the pueblo, where we passed through a series of low doorways and into several rooms. Wandering in solitude through these rooms is an experience not to be forgotten. The high ceilings, well-preserved wooden beams, bits of plaster clinging to the walls, and the magnificent low doorways all serve to fire the imagination. Little wonder that Pueblo Bonito is an object of pilgrimage for modern followers of New Age mysticism.
On emerging from the intact rooms, we had but to turn and look above us to find an intriguing corner doorway, apparently designed to catch rays of sunlight from the winter solstice and reflect them into the room beyond. This doorway is only one of many features illustrating the depth of astronomical knowledge possessed by the Chacoans.
Chetro Ketl is located about ½ mile east of Pueblo Bonito and is separated from it by the Petroglyph Trail. Smaller and almost two centuries younger than its more famous neighbor, it is the second largest of Chaco’s great houses. The first thing one notices when approaching Chetro Ketl from the west is a long straight line of masonry that faces the canyon wall. At the height of the pueblo’s glory, this long back wall would have risen three stories high, with balconies extending from its second and third levels. Today, when viewed from a distance, it resembles a ghostly avenue.
The Chetro Ketl compound once consisted of about 500 rooms and 16 kivas, including elevated or "tower" kivas as well as the more conventional subterranean type. It covers more than 3 acres and is distinguished by a unique colonnade that once faced south along the site’s large plaza. The colonnade is a feature that archeologists attribute to the influence of the Casas Grandes region in what is now Mexico. For me, however, the highlight of the self-guided tour through the pueblo was one of the elevated kivas—or rather the underpinnings thereto. The self-guided trail allows the visitor to descend several steps into the pueblo in order to view the intricacies of the architecture that supported this unusual structure. The odd angles of straight and curved walls of masonry in the depths of the pueblo gave rise to flights of fancy. I visualized pre-Columbian architects with clay tablets and stylus in hand directing workers to build in such-and-such a place. The image was out of time and place, or course, but it was satisfying nonetheless.
Pueblo del Arroyo is located ¼ mile west of Pueblo Bonito, and it is the only Chacoan great house located on the banks of Chaco Wash itself. It also differs from its neighbors in that its orientation is east-west rather than north-south. At its peak, Pueblo del Arroyo probably had more than 280 rooms and 20 kivas, although it apparently never had a great kiva. Tantalizing aspects of a visit to this pueblo include evidence of how its residents dealt with flooding and indications that the pueblo once housed a macaw aviary. The idea of those colorful birds held captive in these high desert surroundings makes the canyon and its residents seem all the more exotic.
Hungo Pavi and Una Vida are both largely unexcavated great house sites located east of Pueblo Bonito. The lack of excavation at these locations places all the more emphasis on their natural surroundings and, indeed, allows the visitor to explore the interrelationship between various Chaco features. For example, it can hardly have been accidental that both Hungo Pavi and Una Vida have extraordinary, uninterrupted views of Fajada Butte. Our party was intrigued by a spectacular petroglyph panel on the cliff wall behind Una Vida and by the remnants of a nineteenth-century Navajo sheep camp. The confluence of Mockingbird and Chaco Canyons at the Hungo Pavi site make for exquisite views. Moreover, its long segments of masonry show signs of stress that both explain the collapse of neighboring walls and left us to marvel at the survival of those remaining.
Another major site along the paved loop road focuses on the great kiva of Casa Rinconada, which is not part of a great house but is surrounded by several small pueblo communities. Casa Rinconada is the largest of the Chacoan great kivas with a capacity that could have accommodated hundreds. The chamber is aligned on a north-south axis with only a minor deviation from cardinal north. The view from rise that houses Casa Rinconada includes Pueblo Bonito, located directly across the canyon, and the walls of Pueblo New Alto, located atop North Mesa above Pueblo Bonito—both of which share the giant kiva’s north-south orientation. There can be little doubt that this kiva had special significance.
Visitors to Chaco should also take time to view the stone stairway cut into the southern wall of the canyon near Casa Rinconada. This wide stairway was once part of the elaborate system of roads that connected the great houses of Chaco with the world beyond the canyon. There are other such stairways elsewhere within the park, but none are both as visible and accessible as this one.
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