Kiva at Chetro Ketl, Chaco

In The Footsteps Of The Ancient Puebloans In Chaco Canyon

Chaco Ruins encompass one of the largest concentration of large-scale ancient structures in the Four Corners area of the US Southwest. They were once home and ceremonial center to the Ancestral Puebloan people, ancestors of several modern Pueblo nations.

The canyon, its landscape and its ancient structures, are one of the archaeological sites in the Southwest my family visits often, in spite of its remoteness. Or possibly because of its remoteness.

A six-hour drive from our home, we often make it a weekend-trip, most often a long weekend. Over the years we camped there, and we stayed in different nearby towns (the closest two hours away), but every time we visited we spend a whole day exploring the structures.

At the end of 20-mile-long dirt roads from both directions, the archaeological site of Chaco Canyon is not easy to reach. Yet, we return year after year, and often see more visitors than we would expect in such a remote area. Walking along the paths through the sites, we walk in the footsteps of ancient people who once lived and built a civilization here.

Its monumental ceremonial and public buildings mark Chaco as an ancient ceremonial, political, and trade center. Chaco Culture National Historical Park preserves their ruins, the largest concentration of ancient pueblo structures in the area, while allowing visitors to enjoy them and learn about them.

Besides being a US National Park, the archaeological site is also a designated UNESCO Heritage site since 1987, recognized for its universal value.

Chaco Canyon structure
Structure in Chaco Canyon

Visiting Chaco Canyon

As I walk through its ancient structures, I think of the people who once called them home. I have a hard time imagining them survive and even thrive in this harsh desert.

Yet, they built a civilization here, lived and died here for a few centuries, before moving on to a more hospitable land. When they left, they abandoned their homes and ceremonial centers, leaving only clues for our present-day archaeologists to study and the rest of us to wonder about.

Driving to Chaco Canyon

Visiting Chaco is always an adventure. We drive through the high desert in the Navajo Reservation, feeling like we are in the middle of nowhere, with no settlements in sight.

Driving through this remote area, I always enjoy the colors of the desert. The surrounding rocks form swirls of color, from deep reds through coral, yellows and different shades of green. Still, as beautiful as the landscape is, it doesn’t seem possible to support life.

Yet, now and again, I notice tiny one-track roads leading off towards nowhere I can see. Far in the distance, at the end of these roads, I might sight a hogan, sign that people live here.

We almost miss the dirt road leading to Chaco. We’ve driven here so many time, yet it is always hard to remember where the turnoff is. From where we come in, no posted sign helps us.

Drive to Chaco
The dirt road to Chaco… driving in the middle of the desert…

The dirt road is deserted at first, as we expected. But after a few minutes of driving, we notice other cars ahead of us.

“We are not the only ones going to Chaco today,” I comment.

Although the road continues to a small Navajo settlement, we know these cars don’t belong to locals. They are cars and relatively new SUVs in good shape, not barely held-together trucks that locals drive.

Chaco Ruins, the Archaeological Site

When we enter the Park, our first stop is the Visitor Center, where we show our National Park’s pass. We also decide against taking another brochure, since we know the site well by now. But after the long drive here, we are not ready to get back in the car for the ride through the site, so we check the newest exhibits.

The sun is blinding as we step out from the visitor center. I forgot how bright it is here, with no shade other than the structures. Still, far from being hot, the weather is perfect for walking.

Una Vida

We take the short walk toUna Vida, one of the smaller great houses of Chaco Canyon. Unexcavated, the site sits on top of a small hill and offers a great view of the surrounding area.

The short, one-mile hike leading to it gives us an opportunity to stretch our legs and look at a few petroglyphs. Some portions are rocky and steep, but overall easy to pass.

After this short hike to the first set of ruins, we return to the parking lot, ready for the nine-mile loop road through the larger ancient settlement of Chaco.

Hungo Pavi

After about a mile we stop at our first great house, Hungo Pavi. This set of ruins comprised over 100 rooms, some of it reaching four stories height, a great kiva and an enclosed plaza.

Chacoan kiva at sunset
Chacoan kiva at sunset

Next Stop

Continuing on the loop road, our next stop is the parking lot for both Chetro Ketl and Pueblo Bonito, two of the largest sites. Usually we spend a lot of time here when we visit, and this time is no exception.

Chetro Ketl

Chetro Ketl
Walking behind the structures in Chetro Ketl

Since it’s closer, we walk over to Chetro Ketl first. The second largest Chacoan great house, it showcases some of the unique architectural features of the site.

Though it comprises a few kivas, its most distinctive feature is the elevated kiva, the only one in Chaco Canyon. We walk through and around it, then make our way to Pueblo Bonito.

The elevated kiva in Chaco
The elevated kiva at Chetro Ketl

The Petroglyph Trail

Instead of walking back to the car, we take the petroglyph trail between the two ruins. We stroll by the wall, trying to look at each petroglyph on it by the trail. Some are clear, but others are so eroded, we can only guess they are there.

Pueblo Bonito

A few minutes later we reachPueblo Bonito, the highlight of the site, the most famous of the Chacoan great houses. With over 650 rooms and 35 kivas, it is the most impressive structure in Chaco Canyon.

Built in stages between 850 and 1150 AD, Pueblo Bonito was the center of the world of the Ancestral Puebloan people. Their world covered much of the Southwest, where the Chacoan influence was felt through those times. People from other sites came here on pilgrimages; the Chacoan world, centered here, united a diverse population.

Since the weather is still nice, we walk outside through the kivas first. As it gets warmer, we head inside the larger structure.

Inside Pueblo Bonito
Inside Pueblo Bonito – looking up

As I walk through the rooms, I remember watching my kids playing hide-and-seek here when they were younger. The doorways through the perfectly aligned interconnected rooms were the right size for them.

Rooms inside Pueblo Bonito
Rooms inside Pueblo Bonito

A Hike to the Mesa Top

At the far side of the loop, we stop again. This parking lot leads to backcountry trails, and it is the first time I decided that I want to go to the top of the mesa. Since the kids are much older now, I don’t worry about them, and I am ready to explore something new.

We sign up at the trailhead and put the papers in our car window.

Klin Kletso

Klin Ketso, another great house, is a short half-mile walk on the trail. As we walk through the site, we find the trail that leads to the top of the mesa.

The Trail to the Top

We reach part of the trail leading through a narrow passage, between two tall rocks. It feels like a wind tunnel in there, a pleasant break from the constant sun.

Although this climb is great fun, I am out of shape and feel it. Huffing and puffing, I slow down. While trying to avoid admitting that I can’t keep up with the rest of my family, I pretend to stop in the shade of the rocks to cool down, not to catch my breath.

“Mom, do you need help?” my daughter asks, suddenly next to me. “I’ll carry your water bottle and your camera,” she offers. Surprised to see her, I smile. Only seconds ago she was far ahead.

While I appreciate the offer, I know that helping me is not the only reason she ran back. When I ask, she admits that she enjoys running up and down the narrow wind-tunnel. At ten, she’s light on her feet, like a mountain goat. She loves to run on rocks, where most people only stumble.

At the Overlook

I finally make it to the overlook of Pueblo Bonito. From up here, the Great House and ceremonial canter looks even more impressive than waking through it. We can see its distinctive D-shape, and its straight wall in a South-North direction.

Before heading back, we sit down and enjoy the view.

View of Pueblo Bonito
View of Pueblo Bonito from the mesa top

At the Casa Rinconada, Home of the Great Kiva

The sun sets by the time we stop at the great kiva at Casa Rinconada. Isolated from other structures, it is the largest kiva in Chaco Canyon, with a diameter of 64 feet. The short walk we take goes through the barren land. No structures, no trees, only small bushes add a little green to the area.

The kiva is spectacular, standing alone in the sunset. We sit around it as we imagine the ceremonies that took place in it centuries ago.

Great kiva at Chaco
The Great Kiva

The People of Chaco Canyon

As I sit at the side of the great kiva, I look around the landscape. Across the road, the structures look beautiful in the sunset. It is quiet now, since most visitors left already. I spot a tiny hare running across the field. The canyon seems deserted.

I can’t imagine the place filled with people, living their lives. Yet, at some point in time, they did.

Ancient people held ceremonies in the great kiva only at certain times of the year. But the other structures housed people living day-to-day lives, in this harsh environment.

Who Were the Ancient Chacoans?

Archaeologists used to call people who lived here the Chacoan Anasazi. The name originated from Navajo, meaning “the ancient ones”.

However, the ancient people of Chaco were the ancestors of the present-day Pueblo people, who still live in the Four Corners area. So, the name we use for the people who built the ancient structures in Chaco Canyon is Ancestral Puebloans.

Chaco in Ancient Times

The canyon was home to ancient people long before they built the first structures. The first evidence of people living here dates back 4000 years. But they built nothing lasting until 400-500 AD, when they erected the first pit houses. And around the end of this period, they started to built more centralized structures.

The area went through the biggest transformation in the 9th century, when they started building the great houses. These are such a distinctive feature of Chaco Canyon, archaeologists call it the Chacoan Phenomenon.

After the first great houses, the Chacoans built more, continuing the tradition for the next 250 years. They also built dams, canals and a road system. And they traded with other cultures from the Southwest and Mesoamerica.

But apparently few people lived here full time. Instead, they used Chaco as a a ceremonial center, as a place of pilgrimage. People from outlier communities, like Aztec, came for special events.

But by 1150 Chaco was losing its importance as a regional center.

Though many theories exist for why this happened, no one knows for sure. A long drought, overpopulation, depletion of the natural resources all had an impact. Or, maybe people simply needed to move on, this place being only a stop in their migration.

Where Did They Go?

The Chacoans didn’t disappear though. Many clans moved to other sites. They settled along the Hopi Mesas, Mesa Verde region, the Zuni Mountains, Mount Taylor and the Chuska Mountains, along the Rio Grande and around the Sierra Nacimiento Mountains.

Hopi clans trace their ancestry to Chaco. So do Pueblo people from Acoma, Zuni, Zia, Laguna, and others. They all have traditions and stories that talk about their clans migrating from Chaco. Even a few of the Navajo clans trace their origins back to Chaco.

All these nations consider Chaco Canyon a sacred place.

Back to the Present

Standing in the middle of this deserted city, the canyon is so still, I can hear the leaves rustling in the breeze. The walls of Pueblo Bonito glow red in the setting sun.

The deserted structures stand witness to an ancient burst of human activity. Chaco tells the story of human occupation, with both its good and bad parts.

We have a long way to go to get back to present-day civilization, so we need to leave.But I know we will be back. Every time we come, we find something new, or we see the same in a different light.

FAQ – Facts about Chaco Ruins In a Nutshell

  1. What is Chaco Canyon known for?

    Chaco Canyon I known for its extensive ancient ruins, especially its Great Houses, unique for the region that originated here. The ancient city in Chaco Canyon was once the most important cultural, religious, and political center of the Four Corners area of the US Southwest.

  2. What are the Chaco Ruins?

    The Chaco ruins comprise the largest concentration of ancient Pueblo sites in Chaco Canyon, best-known for their “great houses”. These great houses consist of large multi-story structures, and include several kivas. The largest and most famous of them is Pueblo Bonito.

  3. What is Chaco Culture National Park?

    A World Heritage Site, Chaco Culture National Park is a US National Park protecting Chaco Ruins, the largest concentration of ancient pueblos in the American Southwest.

  4. What does Chaco mean?

    According to the National Park Service site, Chaco is derived from the Spanish colonial word “Chaca”, meaning a large expanse of open and unexplored land. The name was first used by Spanish cartographer Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco on a map he drew of the area in 1778. Other explanations they cite have to do with misunderstood or mispronounced place name the Acoma used for Chaco. The Acoma name for the area is W’aasrba shak’a, meaning “place of greasewood”, which might have been shortened and mispronounced as chaca. The Hopi name for Chaco is Yupkoyvi, meaning “the place beyond the horizon.”

  5. Why are the ancient ruins of Chaco Canyon important?

    The Chaco ruins are the remains of an important cultural, religious, political, and astronomical center in the Southwest. Many of the buildings are aligned to showcase solar and lunar cycles and astronomical events. Besides this, a large concentration of ceremonial kivas prove the site’s cultural and religious importance.

  6. Who were the ancient people that lived in Chaco Canyon?

    Called Ancestral Puebloans, the people who lived in Chaco Canyon and built the structures we see there were the ancestors of the present-day Pueblo people (the Hopi, Zuni, Tewa, and several other nations).

  7. When did the Ancestral Puebloans live in Chaco?

    Though they lived in the area earlier, the timeframe known for the Ancestral Puebloans living in Chaco was between 900 and 1150. This was the time Chaco was the most important cultural, political, and religious center in the Four Corners.

  8. Where is Chaco Culture National Park?

    The ancient ruins of Chaco and Chaco Culture National Park are in the Navajo Nation, in the state of New Mexico, in the Four Corners region of the US Southwest.

  9. What are the closest towns to Chaco?

    The closest town to Chaco are Farmington (72 miles away) and Gallup (92 miles).

  10. How to get to Chaco Culture National Park?

    You can only reach Chaco Culture National Park through dirt roads.The easiest way to get there is from Hwy 57 (or Hwy 14). The turnoff is on Highway 9, 13 miles east of Highway 371. You’ll see an abandoned building at the turnoff, the former Seven Lakes Trading Post.You’ll drive 20 miles on a dirt road, but you don’t need for a four-wheel-drive. The GPS is also accurate from this direction.If you are driving in from any other direction, call the park and ask for road conditions. Some of the local roads might be not be passable by cars, especially after rain, though if you drive an SUV or truck you are fine. Also, the GPS could get you lost in this empty country, so be aware of this.

  11. Where to stay when visiting Chaco Canyon?

    The best way to experience Chaco Canyon is by camping in the National Park; the campground offers sites in the shadow of a cave dwelling. Besides staying in the proximity to the ruins, camping in the park offers the best views of the night sky, since Chaco is a Dark Sky Park. It also has a small observatory near the Visitor Center that might open during some nights. If you are not a camper, you can find hotels for every budget either in Farmington (72 miles away) or Gallup (91 miles).

Bibliography:

Besides learning about the ruins of Chaco in the park, during many trips to the site, my knowledge is also based on my readings over the years. The following are only a few of them:

  • Pueblo Bonito, Center of the Chacoan World, Edited by Neitzel, Jill E., Smithsonian Institute, 2003
  • Chaco. A Cultural Legacy. Chaco Culture National Historical Park, Strutin, Michal, Western National Parks Association, Tucson, Arizona, 1994.
  • Lister, Robert H and Florence C, Chaco Canyon. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1981; Fifth printing: 1997

Chaco pin
Chaco Culture National Historical Park
Chaco Culture National Park - View of Pueblo Bonito
Chaco Culture NP
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