Chaco Canyon – In the Footsteps of the Ancient Ones

Chaco - In the Footsteps of the Ancients

As I walk through the ancient structures in Chaco Canyon, I think of the people who once called them home. It is hard to imagine them surviving in the harsh desert, let alone thriving.  Yet, they built a civilization here, lived and died here for a few centuries, before moving on to a slightly more hospitable land. They left behind their ceremonial center and homes, for our present-day archaeologists to study and the ret of us to wonder about them.

Chaco Culture National Park is one of the most famous archaeological sites in the Southwestern US,  and it is also a World Heritage site. It preserve structures built centuries ago, witness to human history.

Watching the road and the surrounding high desert through a window of a Chacoan structure

Getting There

Visiting Chaco is always an adventure. We drive through the high desert in the Navajo Reservation. Most of the area seems deserted, and we have the opportunity to enjoy the colors of the desert. The surrounding rocks form a swirl of color, from deep reds through coral, yellow and even green. Still, as beautiful as the landscape is, it doesn’t seem possible to support life.
Yet, again and again, we notice tiny one-track roads leading off towards nowhere that we can see. An occasional hogan stands witness that people live here.
We almost miss the dirt road leading to Chaco.  We’ve been there so many time, yet it is always hard to remember where exactly the turn-off is.  
The dirt road seems deserted, as we expected. 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 are not locals. These are cars, in good shapes, not barely-held-together trucks that locals drive.
Chaco is getting more visitors. It is a long weekend, so it is not a total surprise. Still, I am sure it won’t get crowded, like most other National Parks.

The Site

As we enter the site, we stop at the Visitor Center. We show our National Park’s pass, and decide against taking another brochure, we know the site well by now.  Not quite ready to get back in the car, 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, it is comfortable to walk.
We decide to take the short walk to Una Vida.  It is a first, we haven’t done it before. On top of a small hill, though far from impressive, the site offers a great view of the surrounding area.
Leaving the parking lot, we set of on the nine-mile loop trail that goes through the real Chaco.
After about a mile we stop at our first big house, Hungo Pavi. This set of ruins consisted of over 100 rooms, some of it reaching four stories height. We walk through it, stopping in the shade of its back wall.  The kids are way ahead of us, but we stop at the great kiva, or ceremonial center.
 Chetro Ketl and Pueblo Bonito
Our next stop is the parking lot for both Chetro Ketl and Pueblo Bonito.  We usually spend a lot of time here, and this time is no exception.
We walk over to Chetro Ketl first. Not quite as large as Pueblo Bonito, it is still impressive. Its most distinctive feature is the elevated kiva, different from the other ones in Chaco.  We walk through and around it, then make our way to Pueblo Bonito.


Kiva at Chetro Ketl, Chaco
The elevated kiva at Chetro Ketl
Instead of walking back to the car, we take the petroglyph trail between the two ruins.  We walk slow, trying to look at each petroglyphs on the wall by the trail.  Some are clear, but others are so eroded, we can barely tell they are there. 
A few minutes later we reach Pueblo Bonito, the highlight of the site. With over 650 rooms and 35 kivas, it is the most impressive structure in the park.  Since it is pleasant still outside, we walk outside through the kivas first. As it starts getting warmer, we head inside the larger structure.
Inside Pueblo Bonito, Chaco
Room Inside Pueblo Bonito
As I walk through the rooms, I remember my kids, playing hide and-seek here when they were younger. The doorways through the interconnected rooms were the perfect size for them.

A Hike to the Mesa Top

At the far side of the loop, we stop again.  This parking lot leads to back country trails, and it is the first time I decide that I want to go to the top of the mesa.  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 trail head and put the papers in our car window.   Klin-Ketso, another great house, is a short half-mile walk on the trail.  We explore the site, and find the trail that leads to the top of the mesa.
The most fun part of the trail goes through a narrow passage, between two tall rocks. Huffing and puffing, I slow down as I climb the rocks. I am out of shape, but I don’t want to admit it. I decide to blame it on the heat, and pretend to stop in the shade of the two rocks to cool down, not to catch my breath.
The “wind tunnel” on the trail to the mesa top.
“Mom, do you need help?” I hear my daughter. “I’ll carry your water bottle and your camera if you want,” she offers.  She was way ahead of me.
I appreciate the offer, but I have a feeling that helping me is not the only reason she ran back. She admits that she enjoys going up and down the narrow wind-tunnel. At age ten, she’s a mountain goat, loves to run on rocks, where most people only stumble.
We make it to the overlook of Pueblo Bonito.  From up here, the site looks even more impressive.  We can see its distinctive D-shape, and its straight wall in South-North direction.  
Before heading back, we sit down and enjoy the view for a long time. 
Chaco - Pueblo Bonito
View of Pueblo Bonito from the mesa top

Casa Rinconada, the Great Kiva

The sun is setting by the time we stop at Casa Rinconada, the great kiva.  Isolated from other structures, it is the largest kiva in Chaco Canyon, with a diameter of 64 feet.  The short walk to it takes us through 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 spend some time sitting around it, as we imagine the ceremonies that took place in it centuries ago.

The People of Chaco

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, most visitors left already, I only spot a tiny hare running across the field not far from us. The canyon is quiet, deserted.
It is hard to imagine the place filled with people, living their lives.  They 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.  
Yet, they did.  The canyon was home to ancient people long before the first structures were built. The first evidence of people living here date back 4000 years. Yet, they didn’t build anything lasting until 400-500 AD, when they erected the he first pit houses. Around the end of this period they started building more centralized structures.  
The biggest transformation happened around the 9th century though. The great houses, like Pueblo Bonito, started to emerge.  This is so distinctive to Chaco, archaeologists call it the Chacoan Phenomenon. The population of the area designed the area as a whole, a city or ceremonial center, or both. 

Who Were the Chacoans?

Archaeologists call people who lived here the Chacoan Anasazi. They were part of an ancient Puebloan civilization.
After the first great houses, the Chacoans built more for the next 250 years. They traded with other cultures around the Southwest and the Mesoamericas. They built dams, canals and a road system.  
Evidence suggest that very few people lived here full time. But Chaco became the center of the world for many more. Most of them traveled here on a pilgrimage during certain times of the year, for special events. 
But by 1150 Chaco was starting to loose its importance as a regional center. 
There are many theories as why this happened. A lot of factors came in consideration. Drought was one of them. Overpopulation, depletion of the natural resources is probably more important.

Where Did They Go?

The Chacoans didn’t disappear.  Many clans moved to other sites. They settled along the Hopi Mesas, Mesa Verde region, the Zuni Mountains, Mount Taylor and the Chuska Mountains, and along the Rio Grande
Hopi clans trace their ancestry to Chaco. Pueblo people from Acoma, Zuni, Zia, Laguna, and others have traditions and stories that talk about their clans migrating from Chaco.  The Navajo also trace the origins of some of their clans back to Chaco. 
All these nations consider Chaco sacred. 

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 part of the story of human history, with its good and bad parts.

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

Further reading:

Chaco. A Cultural Legacy, text by Michael Strutin; Photography by George H. H. Huey. Published by the Western National Parks Association, Tucson, AZ


Author: EmeseRéka

I am a writer, translator, traveler, stay-at-home mother. I grew up in beautiful Transylvania, where I studied linguistics, among other things. After college I hopped on a plane across the Atlantic and landed in New York, where I met a fellow explorer. We still travel the world together, dragging our three children along most of the time. I love to explore out-of-the-way and little-known places, while connecting with locals. I write stories and articles for over a dozen publications.

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