“I just thought it was time to bring Henry to Chaco Canyon,” Eric Gernhauser of New Orleans was standing in the road at the Gallo Campground, speaking about his 12-year-old stepson visiting Chaco Culture National Historical Park for the first time. “My brother brought me here the first time more than 25 years ago, and I’ve come six times since then.”
Asked how he liked visiting the great houses for the first time, Henry shrugged and said, “The petroglyphs were really neat.”
The age of curiosity is time to visit Chaco Canyon
When kids in the family reach the age of curiosity, a visit to the national historical park near Nageezi, New Mexico, U.S., should be in the cards. The park is located in the middle of the Navajo Nation between Farmington and Gallup, New Mexico.
The Chacoan culture was the center of North American culture from the latter centuries of the first millennium, nearly until the arrival of Europeans in what’s now the American Southwest. The Chacoans were living in multistory, stone great houses while most Europeans were still living in mud hovels.
Taking the kids to a national park, or particularly, Chaco Canyon, as it’s informally called, takes a little up-front research. It is hours from the nearest fast food, far from mobile device signals, and in the middle of a quasi-foreign nation. There were many who thought the Chacoan pueblos were Aztec ruins because of their size. But, that is not the case as you’ll discover when visiting this UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is a unique experience in the United States. Chaco Culture is a demonstration of how advanced cultures lived in North America before Europeans came to the Western Hemisphere.
It’s also an opportunity to learn that the peoples of the San Juan basin are not the “Anasazi” culture. This term is considered derogatory, and the preferred reference is “Ancestral Puebloan people.”
Chaco Canyon has Plenty of Activities for kids
“There are a surprising number of activities for children of all ages,” said Kathy Hensler, seasonal ranger at Chaco Culture. We were sitting at a well-used conference table in the Visitor Center research library. “The most popular is the Junior Ranger program, which is also offered at almost all national parks.”
The Junior Ranger program is the National Park Service’s primary outreach program to connect children with national parks, according to Kathy Kupper, Public Affairs Specialist with NPS. Kupper said that the programs are custom designed for each park. There are ten specialized national programs.
At Chaco Canyon, Junior Ranger candidates are offered in-park options for children seven and under, and something different for those over 8-years-old. The programs focus on activities in Chaco Canyon and link with national programs for archeology and night sky. Chaco Culture National Historical Park is world-renown for its night skies and is a certified Dark-Sky park. On the archaeological side, the park is home to 18 great houses – ancestral pueblos with hundreds of rooms.
Stargazing at Chaco Canyon
“I hope it doesn’t rain tonight,” said Henry. “I want to see the stars through the telescopes.”
“It’s our last night here,” said Gernhauser. “We’re heading out in the morning to go backpacking in Colorado.”
Chaco Canyon is the oldest national park with a publicly accessible observatory. It’s open weekends through the summer season and on special occasions in the winter. Sadly, Henry would miss the observatory when sunset brought a sky crackling with lightning and echoing thunder from a tumultuous summer monsoon rainstorm.
Chaco Canyon’s Ranger Program
Ranger Hensler came to the compact auditorium in the Visitor Center with examples of Chacoan pottery and samples of the natural clay used to make them. A very full room listened to the stories behind the pottery in a video and demonstration by Hensler. After the talk, everyone was given a sample of clay and instructions on how to shape it.
The storm passed by the end of the session and visitors were able to scrabble through the low door into the observatory and see the park’s telescope. With occasional flashes of lightning, the dome would sadly remain closed.
‘So visually different than where we live’
That afternoon, Eric talked about how their hike on the Peñasco Blanco and Petroglyph trails left Henry quite tired. He said they looped in the Pictograph Trail, which added about a half mile (800m) to the 7.4 mile (12km) roundtrip. Overall, the trail is level with almost the entire 200-foot (61km) elevation gain coming on the West Mesa climb to Peñasco Blanco, about 3.7 miles (6km) from the trailhead.
“(Chaco Canyon) is so visually different from where we live,” Gernhauser said. “We live in a marsh, this is the total opposite.”
He wanted Henry to experience, as he had years earlier, the totally different landscape in the canyon. The canyon is different from most other parks of the U.S. There are few places on earth that combine the landscape with the intensity of ancient life that once thrived in the canyon.
The variety of backcountry trails to Chacoan sites is another attraction. It’s an opportunity to experience the landscape as it might have been when the Chacoans lived and celebrated in the region.
A Pueblo is Not a Ruin
Looking at USGS topographic maps, and many other maps, the pueblos (villages) of Chaco Canyon are referred to as “ruins.” Today’s Pueblo people, descended from the peoples of the San Juan Basin, prefer the villages to be called “ancestral pueblos.” There is a pattern to each. Rooms in which the Chacoans lived and the various kivas in which they worshipped.
The immediate experience of the pueblos comes at the visitor center, where a short walk takes visitors to the Una Vida pueblo. A steep climb beyond the pueblo is rewarded with a wall filled with petroglyphs.
Peñasco Blanco Trail
The Peñasco Blanco trail is the only way to see the Kin Kletso and Casa Chaquita pueblos, as well as Peñasco Blano on top the West Mesa. The hike is easy to moderate, but it is the longest hike in the park. Plan on about a 5- to 7-hour round trip depending on stops. Eric and Henry completed the trip in under 5 hours. This means carrying at least five liters of water, one liter of non-sugar electrolyte drink and snacks with carbs and salt. See Exploring Chaco Canyon safely at the end of the article.
Four of us headed out on the trail starting mid-morning from the Pueblo del Arroyo parking lot. This lot adjoins the pueblo, and serves as the trailhead for Pueblo Alto rim, Pueblo Bonito overlook, Petroglyph and Peñasco Blanco trails. There is a covered ramada at the trailhead, but it is the first and last place with shade on any of the trails. Wear sun-protection. In our group, a couple of us used the 50SPF cool-sleeves normally worn by cyclists.
Much of the hiking trail is on the alignment of old New Mexico Route 57, which used to provide access to the park when the Visitor Center was located at Pueblo Bonito. The road portion of the trail ends at Casa Chaquita. Bicycles are permitted to that point, where they can be locked at an available rack. Leashed pets are permitted on this trail. Be sure to carry pet water and treats, too!
Many trails are Mobility-Device Accessible at Chaco Canyon
“The main trails around the pueblos, even to Casa Chaquita, are accessible for (mobility devices), said Hensler. “The trails are well-packed dirt, gravel or paved.”
The old SR-57 alignment has its rough spots, and a four-wheel scooter might have some maneuvering challenges.
Hensler also echoed that the Peñasco Blanco trail was not accessible beyond Casa Chaquita because it requires fording the Chaco Wash and it has a softer surface in places. None of the rim trails are accessible for wheelchairs or electric scooters. The Petroglyph Trail, which is a 30-minute side trip on the Peñasco Blanco trail, is narrow, with a soft sand surface. Mobility devices will not be able to use it. However, the petroglyphs are visible from the main trail, which can be accessible.
The level trail doesn’t require trekking poles, but they were strapped to packs for the climb up the West Mesa. We’d learn later, they really weren’t necessary at all for three of the four of us. One hiker used the poles to offset a knee issue. Accessible pueblos include the world famous Pueblo Bonito and its paired pueblo, Chetro Ketl.
The Petroglyph Trail is Must-See
The Petroglyph Trail is a must-see side trip. It’ll add 15 to 30 minutes to the hike, but seeing the rock-art close up is a memorable experience. A 10-year-old with her family was the most astute observer, picking up the difference that some of the sheep had tails up, and others were tails down. A Pueblo elder at Canyon of the Ancients National Monument, Cortez, Colorado, explained that the tails up are living sheep, tails down are not.
Chaco Culture is one of the few backcountry dog-friendly national parks. Dogs are permitted on the South Mesa, Wijiji, Peñasco Blanco, and Pueblo Alto trails.
Hensler stressed that visitors should get into the backcountry.
“This is a destination to see how people lived differently than we do today,” she said. “Yet, we still have the same desires. In some ways, (life is) static.”
Fording the Chaco Wash
We stood on the bank of the Chaco Wash looking at the flowing water.
“How deep do you think it is?” was asked. The water was moving quickly, and water flowing as little as 5 mph (8km/h) at ankle depth can sweep a 6-foot (183cm) adult off his feet and into the water.
A trekking pole was pressed into the flow, “It’s only about three inches deep.” We didn’t even remove shoes to splash across to the slippery bank on the other side. On one Peñasco Blanco hike, we stuffed socks into boots, tied the hiking boots around our necks, and swished across knee-deep, slowly flowing water. The wash flows are so muddy, it’s impossible to see the depth or what’s in the water.
“There can be sticks, scorpions, even snakes in that water,” said Hensler. “Chaco Wash drains a larger area.”
The Chacoan Canyon Offers Surprises in Trade Goods
A point of fascination for kids is the cross-cultural trade that historically took place at Chaco Canyon.
“We’ve found (Gulf of California) abalone sea shells, Chumash beads (California Central Coast) and other goods indicative of a wide trade culture,” Hensler said. She stressed that there is no evidence to indicating that the goods reached Chaco Canyon directly, but it’s believed they were traded from culture-to-culture before arriving in the San Juan Basin.
The Chacoan trade routes include Macaws from Central America.
“These must have been brought here, because Macaws tend to bond with their person,” the ranger said. “Without that bonding, those birds do not thrive in captivity. We can speculate that the birds brought to the canyon.”
The central location of Chaco Canyon’s great houses were part of a large, advanced civilization in the Four Corners region. Chacoan outliers, small clusters of buildings in outlying pueblos, are prominent across Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico.
Why Should I Visit Chaco Canyon?
Personal experience has been that the study of Chacoan culture is ongoing, and the conclusions and theories are evolving. On the first visit in 1996, it was believed that the Chacoan population was as high as 6,000 in the canyon. On the third visit in 2001, archeologists suggested that the small agricultural terraces, the lack of middens—ancient waste landfills—and the few burial sites in the canyon meant the population could not have been as large as thought.
Each trip has unveiled new theories and discoveries of the lives led by the Chacoans.
“Why would visitors come here?” Hensler was repeating the question. “There is a sense of something special in Chaco Canyon. A sense of adventure. Visitors come here curious and take away a sense of place. That’s what makes this special.”
“We really aren’t taught a full history (in school),” said Gernhauser as he prepared to head back to his campsite to check on Henry. “Parents should bring kids here because you can see that before we came to (the Western Hemisphere), there were people living here in these amazing (pueblos).”
Nearby Attractions to Chaco Canyon
While Chaco Canyon itself is somewhat isolated from major roads, there are other pueblos and sites nearby that add to the value of this kind of a visit. Aztec Ruins National Monument, in Aztec, New Mexico, is a wrongly-named pueblo with a reconstructed great kiva. About 90 minutes north in Mesa Verde Natonal Park.
The closest major airport is the Albuquerque, New Mexico, Sunport.
Water and snacks. Carry lots, have more in car, or you could die; snacks needed too
There is no more important hiking accessory at Chaco Canyon, or any desert park, than water. It’s recommended that when inactive, a gallon (4 liters) a day is the minimum consumption target.
When active, consume 1 liter per hour. Rotate ½ liter of non-sugared electrolyte drink or powder in water for each 3 liters of water.
Keep a spare gallon in the car at the trailhead in case needed upon return.
Anything with sugar or caffeine—soda, tea, coffee, sugared “energy” drinks—contributes to dehydration. Avoid this if possible.
Carry trail mixes with complex carbohydrates and salty snacks. High cacao-percentage chocolate (which will likely melt if not kept cool), dehydrated fruit, peanuts or nuts, make a good mix. Remember, cocoa and cacao are not the same. Cocoa is mostly sugar and fat, so look for 70 percent or higher cacao, which is chocolate. That’s why there is a cost difference. Some cheaper candy confectioners are starting to add confusion by calling their product “70% cocoa” to imitate the quality “70% cacao” products.
Dehydration can happen quickly and it’s deadly. If feeling thirsty, you’re already dehydrated. Carrying adequate water is a serious life safety requirement. Listen to Eric Gernhauser:
“We ran out of water on the last stage of the return trip,” he confessed. “I just didn’t realize how much we would drink with the temperature just in the 80s. We could really feel the effects of dehydration. I was giving all my water to Henry, but talking with a ranger later I learned that was not the smart decision.”
Rangers say when hiking with children, the adult must maintain physical ability in case something happens. A child would not necessarily know how to handle the situation, or be able to drive to the Visitor Center, if something happened to the adult. When it comes to rationing water, it’s important that at least one responsible person retain all faculties.
One commenter to one of my articles stated that “you’re always pushing water.” As a former search and rescue volunteer and, despite my experience, a victim of dehydration, it’s important to stress the need to remain hydrated in the desert.
Stings, bites and pokes
The desert is filled with plants, insects, and animals that can sting, bite or prick the skin. Never pick up a rock without first using a stick or trekking pole to lift and look. Look around before sitting down on the trail or on rocks. Most snakes and wildlife will avoid people, but when threatened they will defend territory. Be aware of what’s around you when hiking, even in the main pueblos.
Never leave a pet in a vehicle, even with windows partially open. Even with the motor running and air conditioning on. Period. Never.
Vehicles heat up, even in winter, and can be deadly traps for pets. The Chaco website has guidance for taking pets into the backcountry. As a pet owner, I would personally take my dog only on the Peñasco Blanco and Wijiji trails. Even so, the rocks get hot and can burn paw pads. If hiking with a dog, be sure to have extra water and snacks for pets. Stop where possible to let furry friends rest in shade. Some of the climbs are pretty tricky for humans and may be challenging, even with four-paw drive. It is a requirement to pack out dog waste.
Camping at Gallo Campground
The only accommodations at the park are in the Gallo Campground. Sites may be reserved at Recreation.gov. The campground has one section exclusively for tents and the remainder of the campground is for tents and RVs 35 feet (11m) or less in length. There are two group camp sites.
The tent-only area is a favorite and fills quickly. The sites are all nestled adjoining the North Mesa walls and huge boulders from rockfalls provide some privacy. There are some sites reserved for walk-ins, but arrivals after 11:00 a.m. are unlikely to find open spaces.
Between June and September, monsoon storms, called “male rains” by the Navajo, frequently occur in the late afternoon and early evening. The storms are accompanied by strong winds. It is crucial to tie down tents and shade canopies. Lowering height on the canopies when not at the campground or overnight is a prudent move.
The campground has packed sand areas for tents with tie-down clamps. The sand is packed solid enough to hold tent stakes, but stakes should be pounded at 45-degree angles, rather than inserted straight into the sand.
The campground has flush toilets and potable water, including a dish sink for washing gear. There is also potable water at the Visitor Center.
Advice from a Ranger
- Camping with Kids: https://www.nps.gov/subjects/camping/camping-with-kids.htm
- Hiking and camping with pets: https://www.nps.gov/chcu/planyourvisit/pets.htm
- Hiking with Kids: https://www.nps.gov/subjects/trails/hiking-with-kids.htm
- Visiting National Parks with Kids: https://www.nps.gov/articles/visiting-national-parks-with-kids.htm
Aztec Ruins National Monument: https://nps.gov/azru
Campground and reservations:
- Gallo Campground information: https://www.nps.gov/chcu/planyourvisit/camping.htm
- Recreation.gov: https://recreation.gov
Canyon of the Ancients National Monument: https://www.blm.gov/programs/national-conservation-lands/colorado/canyons-of-the-ancients
Chaco Culture National Historical Park: https://nps.gov/chcu
Desert Safety: https://travelingdad.com/44-family-desert-safety/
Junior Ranger Program: https://www.nps.gov/kids/junior-rangers.htm and at the Chaco Visitors Center information desk
Mesa Verde National Park: https://nps.gov/meva