It’s possible to plan an educational and memorable experience for one day at Chaco Culture National Historical Park, near Nageezi, New Mexico. This is possibly the first major conference and convention center in world history. Despite the thousands of rooms between the pueblos, archeologists and anthropologists estimate the full-time population was around 2,000 people.
Chaco Culture National Historical Park is one of those places that stir a different family experience. It shows that contrary to popular media, there were extraordinary and sophisticated cultures living in the U.S. before Europeans arrived.
The Chacoans were the ancestors of today’s Pueblo Indians. They left their mark in a series of villages, or pueblos, located across the Southwest. While many are available to the public, Chaco Culture is one of the few places where visitors can explore the great houses at one’s own pace. It will change minds about how American Indians lived in the Southwest.
What to expect at Chaco Culture
Artifacts, including feathers from Central America and sea shells from the Pacific Northwest lend credence to the theory that this was a center of trade and cultural exchange between native tribes long before Europeans landed on islands in the Caribbean Sea. Most of the construction was completed two centuries before Columbus set sail and many were completed before the Norwegians were first landing in Canada.
As a seven-time visitor, I can say it’s not recommended to just spend a day, but it is possible when that’s all the time available.
“If people don’t want to come back after a first visit,” a ranger told me while we were talking about the number of Chaco visitors who return. “They didn’t really understand what they saw while here.”
Despite its distance from the motels, it’s possible to set in motion a trip to capture the flavor, keep the kids entertained and depart with a learning experience that will leave the family yearning for more.
“There’s a canyon around here?” asked my companion as we bumped our way north on New Mexico 57, a two-lane dirt road coming into Chaco Canyon from the south.
Coming from the South
The landscape was rolling, but mostly flat. Every once in a while, a mound seems to rise for no purpose.
“These are likely unexcavated ancestral pueblos,” the ranger answered my question about the geologic anomalies. The pueblos are the former villages of the Chacoan people. These pueblos were built of stone and wood during a time most Europeans still lived in mud hovels.
On my last two trips to the park, the road from the south, New Mexico 57, a two-lane dirt road, had been graded and was easily passable with a passenger vehicle. The plume of dust rising behind my car was a predictor that a major car wash was in the works on the return home.
This trip, grazing cattle line the road, a bucolic scene until I couldn’t believe my eyes.
“Is that a bull on top of that hill?”
My companion strained her eyes to see.
“It is!” she exclaimed. “But it’s not moving.”
We slowed, and the rooster tail of dirt rising behind the car settled lower, and approaching the hill realized, it wasn’t a bull, but a statue. This was a new addition to the southern drive since my last trip two years ago. Stopping for photos and a laugh, we climbed a short rise to pass the artist’s roadside home.
It’s hard to even imagine a canyon ahead when on either road into the park, but gracefully, Fajada (Fa-YAY-duh) butte rises from the horizon. This beacon sits at a juncture of mesas and the canyon, astride the Chaco Wash. It served the Chacoans as a landmark and solar observatory.
Nearly to the top of the butte sit the three sun stones that mark the dagger of light, these one-ton monoliths were carved and carried to a point where they create the internationally-renown “dagger of light.” Not open to the public, the stones can be seen from the Fajada Butte overlook and the daggers in the visitor center video.
That mystery is the first of many to be unveiled during a day at this World Heritage Site.
About Chaco Culture
Chaco Culture National Historical Park is the home of 17 publicly-accessible pueblos, the “great houses” of the Ancestral Pueblos, often called the “Anasazi.” They range in size from the one-room alcove home in the cliff recesses of the Gallo Campground, to the more than 600-room breathtaking, four-story Pueblo Bonito.
Ten can be reached with a short walk from the parking areas, but six require hikes and one outlier is on tough four-wheel drive or mountain bike track.
In a one-day outing—with travel time to and from motels—plan on seeing two, possibly three of the pueblos. You will need to bring a picnic lunch; there is nowhere to eat in or around the park. The only in-park overnight accommodations are the Gallo Campground. Drinking water is available at the visitor center, and there are flush toilets at the visitor center and campground. Pit toilets are available on the tour-de-pueblos. Ice is now available in a visitor center vending machine, but at $1 per pound in 2016, it must be on the list of the country’s most expensive ice.
Your One Day at Chaco
With just one day to spend, much will be eaten by travel time if you’re not camping at the park. Here’s a family-friendly way to roughly time the trip, and not overtax everyone’s travel patience.
- 9:00 a.m. Visitor Center
- 10:00 a.m. Una Vida
- 10:40 a.m. Hungo Pavi
- 11:10 a.m. Chetro Ketl
- Noon. Pueblo Bonito
- 1:15 p.m. Lunch
- 2:00 p.m. Casa Rinconada Community
- 2:30 p.m. Leave for hotel
- Getting to the National Historical Park
- Safety Tips for Visiting Chaco
9:00 a.m. Visitor Center
Leave Gallup, Albuquerque, 7:00 a.m.; leave Farmington, 7:30 a.m.
Arrive early in the day and head to the visitor center to check in. There’s an on-demand 35-minute video, well worth the time, as an introduction to the park. Be sure to obtain the free park map and guide.
Check the bulletin boards throughout the park, the website or call ahead, to learn the schedule of ranger tours, these one-hour interpretive walks through pueblos are good educational targets for the whole family.
The National Park Service has a museum to display artifacts removed from Chaco Canyon by early 20th century Smithsonian Museum and National Geographic Society expeditions. Open in late 2016, the new museum will be displaying the historic collections from archeological digs to the public for the first time in a century.
Take a little time to enjoy the Western National Parks Association gift shop. It offers an extensive selection of books about the Native American cultures of the Four Corners region and the archeological discoveries in Chaco before digging was banned.
There are also inexpensive booklets describing walking tours around the easy-to-reach pueblos. Purchase the complete set, and have the kids read the content out loud at each of the walking tour markers.
10:00 a.m. Seeing the Pueblos – Una Vida at the Visitor Center
Times shown include estimated travel time from one pueblo to the next, and round-trip walking time to and from the parking area
Pueblos, which is Spanish for “villages,” are first visible right at the visitor center parking lot. Una Vida is a five-minute walk and is a great leg stretch to kick off the visit to the canyon. It’s a slight climb to the 160-room village, because much of it is still underground. The pueblo is located at the confluence of two washes, and has evidence of a water diversion system that brought water from the washes to the pueblo.
The visible walls are an introduction to the architectural styling of the pueblos—intentional designs that vary with the age of construction. Una Vida was started in the ninth century and completed around 1100 C.E.
Plan about 30 minutes round trip to explore; leave at 10:30 a.m.
10:40 a.m. Hungo Pavi
Following the one-lane, speed-enforced 35 m.p.h. (55 km/h), paved road, you’ll come to the first great house, Hungo Pavi.
The pueblo is estimated to hold around 140 rooms, but it is unexcavated, so the estimates are based on drawings of the D-shaped village and ground-penetrating radar. It stood three stories high, and the trail around the pueblo takes you to the second level. Plan 20 minutes to walk from the car and encircle this pueblo.
From the parking area, it’s a five-minute walk to Hungo Pavi’s trail. The path encircles the pueblo and provides a good look into the exposed portions of the building. On three occasions, I’ve see pot shards in areas worn away by wind and weather.
Leave 11:00 a.m.
11:10 a.m. Chetro Ketl
The Pueblo Bonito parking lot gives access to both the massive great house and the adjoining pueblo, Chetro Ketl.
The 400-room building also has the D-shape common to many of the Chacoan great houses. This building has a series of small and great kivas, as well as unique architectural features. Chetro Ketl is the only great house to have a balcony and colonnade.
In addition to the main structure, there is a smaller cliffside structure known as Talus Unit #1. The small structure had around 20 rooms and five kivas. Its purpose is not known, and its construction was concurrent with Chetro Ketl.
You’ll need at least 30 minutes with Chetro Ketl, possibly more.
Leave around 11:40 a.m. and walk to the parking lot for picnic lunch or Pueblo Bonito. There is an unshaded picnic table at the Pueblo Bonito parking lot, or if waiting for lunch until after touring Pueblo Bonito, there is a ramada-covered picnic area in the Pueblo Alto parking lot just to the right of Pueblo Bonito’s exit. I’d recommend waiting and using the shaded picnic area. There is no vehicle return access t
o Pueblo Bonito from the Pueblo Arroyo parking area.
Noon. Pueblo Bonito
This is the most interesting and longest time you’ll spend with a pueblo. Allow at least one hour.
At the trailhead, there is a chance to purchase the guidebook, if you didn’t buy it in the visitor center. It’s really recommended for a first-time visit.
The trail system at Pueblo Bonito takes you to the four-story rear of the village, and up onto a 1941 rock fall that smashed through the northeast corner of the building. From the Threatening Rock overlook.
The trail moves up and down the rocks and into Pueblo Bonito. On the right, you can look into two stabilized rooms and see the original plastering of the walls. Walking to the left takes you on a precarious walk between a number of the more than 20 kivas in the great house.
The tour ends with a chance to walk through more than dozen rooms, including the ability to enter a restored room to see what it would have been like living in the pueblo.
Watch your head in all doorways, the Chacoans were much shorter than most men and women today.
You’ll need to allow an hour at Pueblo Bonito
1:15 p.m. Lunch
Leaving the Pueblo Bonito parking lot, turn right to the parking lot for Pueblo del Arroyo. At the west end of the parking lot is a shaded picnic area and pit toilet. I’m not including Pueblo del Arroyo in this trip, because it’s a good 45 minute walk to enter the pueblo and explore all the open passages around the third-largest great house in “downtown Chaco.” This exploration would get the family back to hotels around 6:00 p.m. in a pretty exhausted condition.
2:00 p.m. Casa Rinconada Community
The last stop before heading home is the Casa Rinconada community. While there are several small “residential” pueblos in the area, the great kiva at Casa Rinconada is worth seeing to take in the size of the kiva.
Native Americans descended from the Ancestral Pueblos still come to Rinconada to perform ceremonies in the great kiva.
2:30 p.m. Heading for the Hotel
Leaving Chaco at 2:30 will return the family to Farmington around 4:30 p.m., Albuquerque and Gallup at around 5:00 p.m., a perfect one-day excursion to a place of amazing history and cultural significance.
Getting to Chaco Culture
From Farmington, it’s going to be a three-plus-hour round trip; from Gallup and Albuquerque, figure more than four hours round trip. This is why seeing a few of the pueblos, plus picnic lunch starts pushing the crabby kids limit. It’s a seven- to eight-hour day. It’s why my preference, and many others, are to make reservations and camp at least one night at the Gallo Campground.
From Farmington, connect to U.S. 550 to the Red Mesa Trading Post in Nageezi, and follow the signs on County Road 7950. County Road 7950 is gravel and dirt. From Gallup and Albuquerque, take Interstate 40 to Exit 53, N.M. 371 at Thoreau. Travel north to Crown Point and then take N.M. 57 into the park. At the abandoned Two Hills Trading Post, the road turns north and to a rough dirt surface. Drive carefully off paved surfaces.
The visitor center is 90 minutes from Farmington, in northwest New Mexico. Add an hour if starting the trip from Mesa Verde in Cortez, Colorado. It’s a good 2 hours from Gallup, New Mexico, along Interstate 40 in western New Mexico, and an hour further from Albuquerque.
Safely Visiting Chaco Culture National Historic Park
This is high desert, over 6,000 feet in elevation, so even though you’re always a few minutes from the car, take the following tips seriously:
- Wear comfortable shoes. Paths are gravel, and open toe sandals or flip-flops are not sturdy enough for the walks through the pueblos.
- Wear a hat and sun screen. The sun is brutal at this elevation.
- Drink plenty of water. A good rule is about one-half liter per hour per person. Soft drinks, alcohol or caffeine contributes to dehydration. 100 percent juice drinks are good for lunch or on occasion.
- Take time if you’re not use to high elevation hiking, even on the short hikes, many become winded.
- Be aware of heat-related conditions. Even with temperatures in the high 80s and 90s, the dry air and sun can be dangerous.
- Do not leave pets in the car. Period. They are not allowed on front-country trails, and should not be along for this tour, as it’s all front-country trails. If traveling with pets, someone is going to have to stay with the animal, as there are no shady places to secure them outside of the car.