Chaco Canyon is a gift from our ancestors. We are able to intimately imagine what their life in between 850 and 1250 AD might have looked like. And we can marvel at the mysteries behind the fall of their civilization.
Chaco Canyon was a thriving cultural center of the ancestral Pueblo Peoples who lived in what is now Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. Chaco Canyon was a meeting place for ceremonies, trade, and political activity. The scale and sophistication of the architecture and clear complexity of the social organization of the people who lived there indicate an equally sophisticated and complex community.
For example, Pueblo Bonito is a D-shaped structure that had somewhere between 600-800 rooms with some sections reaching as high as four stories. Some of the upper floors contained balconies. The Great Houses include round rooms, called Kivas, that were used as homes, gathering spaces, and ceremonial spaces. The buildings, made from sandstone with pine beams, and the layout of the community are unrivaled for the time in terms of size and complexity.
The trade items found at the site indicate a highly organized society that was connected to far flung communities in the region. For example, there is evidence of cacao imported from Mesoamerica. Drinking vessels that may have come from the Mayan empire, and the remains of the scarlet macaw, a bird native to an area of Mexico 1,000 miles away have all been found at Pueblo Bonito. The turquoise minded around Chaco Canyon has been found as far south as the Yucatan Peninsula.
Amazingly, the presence of large-scale grain storage indicates a fairly egalitarian society where, likely, there was no single ruler but members of the community made decisions for the community.
The astronomical markers, including architectural designs that allow the sun to rise into a particular window at solstice, and spiritual practices are still seen and practiced among the Pueblo ancestors of the ancestral Puebloans.
The population at Chaco Canyon grew over the course of six centuries putting great demands on the environment surrounding it, perhaps living at the far reaches of what the environment could support. In about 1200 AD, construction began to slow at the Canyon and Chaco’s role as the center of the wider Puebloan community started to dim while other centers, such as at Mesa Verde, Aztec, and in the Chuska Mountains flourished. The end of construction coincided with the start of a 50-year drought in the San Juan Basin. Life at Chaco was tough in good times; the unforgiving high-desert environment required savvy agriculture and careful use of resources. There is evidence of dams, canals, and basins. The drought surely strained strained resources and, perhaps, tested the strength of the community. The remarkable thing is that may of the house doors and kivas (the center of the home) were burned down around the same time. Some archeologists have surmised that means that the ancient Puebloans accepted their fate and made a rational decision to move elsewhere.
Despite the connection to present-day Puebloans, Chaco continues to befuddle researchers. In my opinion,the racist beginnings of anthropology and the mis-treatment of Native populations by researchers, anthropologists, and white people generally, the present-day Pueblo peoples have every right to withhold their traditions and practices and storytelling from researchers. Hopefully, one day, there can be greater equity between researcher and researched. Perhaps until then, the mysteries of Chaco Canyon will live on in stories told by present-day Puebloans.
If you go:
What to do:
Allow for several hours to wander through the park and walk among the ruins. Check out the petroglyphs, too!!
The amazing thing about visiting Chaco Canyon is how close you can get to the ruins. You can crawl through small passageways, you can see where people ate and slept. The desert landscape is still uninhabited as far as the eye can see. It is not a stretch to imagine looking out over that same desert but in 1200.
The roads to Chaco Canyon are unpaved but graded. If you go in the rainy or snowy seasons, allow for extra time and consider bringing chains for your vehicle.
What to bring:
Bring sunscreen and lots of water. There is no protection from the sun and it is at a high elevation which, if you are unaccustomed, can make your body work extra hard. There is a visitors center, but no spot to get food, so pack a lunch or have lunch before setting off for Chaco. In the high desert, I would plan to bring a liter a mile for any hiking I did and about a liter for every two hours otherwise. Don’t skim.
Who should go:
This rugged, middle-of-no-where, rural site might be best for those, like me, with a love of archeology and anthropology or those who have a real appreciation for the high-desert landscape.
Make a trip out of it:
New Mexico is filled with beautiful spots for the intrepid traveler! So, if you are an anthropology/archaeology nerd like me, here is a trip for you…
Start off in Albuquerque. If you can, rent a car that has four-wheel drive.
Head to the Petroglyphs National Monument in Albuquerque. The petroglyphs are spread out throughout the city, so pick one or two that aligns with your hiking interests.
Grab a beer at Bow and Arrow–the first and only brewery owned by a Native woman. And the beer is damn good, too.
It is about an hour and a half drive to Acoma Pueblo from Albuquerque. You can take a 1.5 hour walking tour the Acoma Pueblo (you cannot visit solo) and learn about the history and present day of the Acoma Puebloans. It is incredible and the views from the Pueblo are never ending!
You could stay in Acoma at the tribally-owned hotel and casino or continue on to camp at Chaco Canyon.
Spend a full day at Chaco Canyon. Or more if you have the time! If you happen to be around on the second Friday night of the month, head next to the Crownpoint Rug auction at the Crownpoint Elementary School to score a handmade rug from a Native weaver!
Keep heading north and check out Bisti/ De-Na-Zin Wilderness, 45,000 acres of rippling sandstone formations, hoodoos, and petrified wood. In Diné, “De- Na-Zin” refers to the standing crane petroglyphs that can be found throughout. Take the De-Na-Zin trailhead in and walk along the washes, glimpsing the cliffs and hoodoos. The BLM allows dispersed camping, though there are no developed campsites.
You can check out the Aztec Ruins or the Salmon Ruins up near Farmington, if you have time. You can haul it back to Albuquerque, or if you wish, fly out of Farmington.
How to protect Chaco Canyon:
The Federal Government is looking to begin fracking around Chaco Canyon. The land is a “checkerboard” of Tribal, state, and federal land. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has approved more than 400 new fracking wells WITHOUT sufficient Tribal consultation or consideration for health or water resources. This site is one of the WORLD’S most sacred treasure and a remarkable archeological sites. The activism has worked and the fracking is on hold. But,
What you can do? Read more about it. Call your Senator and tell him or her to uphold (and extend) the ban. If you aren’t already, register to vote. Your vote is your voice in protecting our environment, heritage, and national treasures.