Chaco National Park

How To Visit Chaco Canyon: A Complete Guide To The Ancient Structures

Preserving the largest concentration of large-scale ancient structures in the Four Corners built by the Ancestral Puebloans, Chaco Canyon is one of the most studied archaeological sites in the U.S. Southwest. Along with Aztec Ruins and several smaller Chacoan sites, the ancient ruins in Chaco Canyon are a designated UNESCO Heritage site since 1987, recognized for their universal value.

Its monumental ceremonial and public buildings feature a distinct architecture that marks Chaco as an ancient ceremonial, political, and trade center. Chaco Culture National Historical Park preserves these ruins, while allowing visitors to enjoy and learn about them.

Fortunately, as well-known as it is, Chaco’s fame doesn’t translate into being overcrowded. Yet. Although over the years I have noticed a growth in the number of visitors.

The site is one of my family’s favorites in the Southwest; we revisit the ancient structures year after year, yet I still seem to learn something new every time we go. We also see changes in the park, some we like, others not so much…

Chaco Canyon structure
Rooms in a great house in Chaco Canyon

Getting To Chaco Canyon

The ruins in Chaco Canyon are still some of the least visited ones showcased in national parks. The reason for this is their remoteness. Laying in the middle of the Navajo Nation, reachable only by dirt roads, Chaco is far from any tourist route.

You need to drive about 20 miles on a dirt road to reach Chaco Culture National Historical Park from either direction. You don’t need a four-wheel drive to get through it, but a high-clearance vehicle is helpful. However, most cars can make it in good weather, as long as they can handle large potholes. I wouldn’t recommend it for low-clearance luxury cars though. They would most likely bottom out in several places.

The road from the northeast is usually in better shape, though during our latest visit a couple who drove through in a compact car told us it was almost impassable for them in some areas. The east side where we came from seemed better in comparison, though they made it in and out with their car in one piece.

We drive an SUV into Chaco most of the time, although we drove in a compact car (a VW Jetta) about twenty years ago.

So you know you have to be dedicated to see the site before setting off on this adventure.

Because visiting Chaco is always an adventure.

However, even with the dusty, often rough dirt road experience, the way to Chaco has a magical element to it. Especially at sunrise and sunset, when the desert colors are at their best.

Drive to Chaco
Part of the dirt road to Chaco… in one of the best area.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park

After the long dirt road, it always surprises me that the loop within the National Park is paved. After all, people who made it there, already drove over twenty miles on dirt. However, the smooth pavement offers a nice change.

Stop At The Visitor Center

The best way to start your visit is to stop at the Visitor Center. Chances are, by this time, you also might need a restroom break. At least I always do. The Visitor Center has traditional flush toilets, something you won’t find in the rest of the park, although you’ll find no-flush toilets in at every parking stop along the loop.

Along with traditional flush toilets, you can find water refill stations for your water bottle.

But the best part of the Visitor Center is the new museum and the film they play about the archaeological site.

The museum is missing most artifacts at this time (in September 2023). However, it still has several exhibits that explain the natural and human history of the canyon. In the center, an interactive replica of Chaco Canyon with all its major buildings offers facts about them in a highlighted question-and-answer format.

You shouldn’t leave without watching the short movie about Chaco. Told from several perspectives, including members of the Hopi nation, descendants of the people who built Chaco, the film gives you a new perspective, a deeper understanding of the archaeological site.

Rangers in the Visitor Center are happy to answer any questions and offer additional insight into the area. And, if you are there at the right time, you might meet archaeologists working at the site. You can get all the information here, including some about ranger talks and guided tours of Pueblo Bonito, the largest and best preserved structure at the site.

Una Vida, The Site Near The Visitor Center

View from Una Vida with Fajada Butte in the distance
View from Una Vida with Fajada Butte in the distance

One of the Great Houses of Chaco Canyon, Una Vida, is easy to reach from the Visitor Center.

According to the interpretive sign on the trail, building this site started in 850 AD and it continued for about 250 years. It had about 100 rooms and kivas in an enclosed plaza.

However, you wouldn’t know this by looking at it, since it is only partially excavated. Centuries of dust and dirt covered the site, giving you an opportunity to see it in its natural state.

You can reach it by an easy, one-mile long round-trip trail starts near the Visitor Center. Though not much to look at as an archaeological site, it offers a gorgeous view of Bajada Butte and its surroundings.

A vertical, steep offshoot of the trail leads to several well-preserved petroglyphs.

After returning to the Visitor Center, get in your car to drive the nine-mile loop road leading to the larger sites.

Hungo Pavi

Hungo Pavi. the back wall
The back wall of Hungo Pavi

About a mile into the road, the first stop is the trailhead to Hungo Pavi. Another Chacoan Great House, occupied between AD 1000 – 1250s, it is a set of ancient buildings comprising 100 rooms, some of them four stories high, and a great kiva in an enclosed plaza.

The short trail leads through several structures and kivas, and continues behind the largest structure, offering shade from the sun.

Next Stop Along The Loop

The next parking lot offers access to both Chetro Ketl and Pueblo Bonito, two of the largest sites in Chaco Canyon. You can start with either one, but we generally opt to start with Chetro Ketl, take the Petroglyph Trail to Pueblo Bonito, and return to the parking lot from there. It is a large circle loop trail this way.

Chetro Ketl

Chetro Ketl
Room in Chetro Ketl

One of the largest Chacoan great house, Chetro Ketl, showcases some of the unique architectural features of the site.

It had about 400 rooms, some of them four stories high, spread over three acres. Half of it was enclosed in an enclosed plaza, lined with rooms to the north, east, and west.

The great house is a D-shaped structure, with its longest wall (on the north) running parallel to the canyon wall.

Besides all the rooms, Chetro Ketl has twenty kivas. One of them is a great kiva, a few other large ones, and one elevated, or tower kiva.

The half-mile-long trail through Chetro Ketl takes you through some of these rooms and around the great house’s perimeter.

The Petroglyph Trail

Along the Petroglyphs Trail
Petroglyph along the trail

The Petroglyph Trail, running along the canyon walls, connects Chetro Ketl and Pueblo Bonito. This quarter-mile trail is always our choice of visiting the two sites.

However, you can return to the parking lot and take the other trail to Pueblo Bonito, if you prefer. A short trail to one of the better petroglyphs runs from the parking lot, if you need to return to the car in between the site visits.

You’ll find many petroglyphs all along the wall, from eroded to sharp and clear others. Over the years, I noticed the best time to see them is in the mornings or afternoons, when the sun hits them on an angle. The midday sun washes them out.

Pueblo Bonito

exploring the rooms inside Pueblo Bonito
Exploring the rooms inside Pueblo Bonito

The highlight of any Chaco Canyon visit, Pueblo Bonito, is the most famous of the Chacoan great houses. Built between AD 828 and 1126, it is the most thoroughly investigated site in the canyon.

With over 650 rooms and 35 kivas, it was the center of the world for the Ancestral Pueblo people. It had many roles, including ceremonial, administrative, and astronomical center, trading, storage, hospitality, communications, and burial of the honored dead. A small portion also served as living quarters.

The famous great house is divided into two sections by a perfectly aligned north to south wall running through the central plaza. Two Great Kivas sit on the two sides of this wall, in a symmetrical pattern. Besides the Great Kivas, over thirty other kivas and ceremonial centers pepper the large central courtyard.

Besides the kivas, the highlight of your visit is most likely the multi-story structure you can walk into, explore its separate, interconnected rooms, inside and out.

Considering it is the largest site, you will most likely spend the longest time here. If you end up here during midday, the shaded rooms inside the structure offer respite from the harsh high desert sun.

The trail through Pueblo Bonito is only a quarter of a mile long, but exploring the structure adds time to the visit – and makes it a lot more fun. Doorways are low though and some are narrow, but anyone can fit through. Of course, kids will have the most fun in there, but everyone can enjoy these rooms.

You’ll also find a corner window in one room, built so the sun can shine through during the solstices.

Kin Kletso And The Sites On The Mesa Top

Though not part of the nine-mile loop, if you continue along the road without crossing the bridge over Chaco Wash, you end up in another parking lot. From here, several trails lead to the more remote sites in the park.

To hike to these sites, you need a permit or at least to sign in at the trailhead, showing how many hikers are in your party. Depending on how much time you have, and how much hiking you plan on doing, you can skip this area, and continue along the loop to the next stop, Casa Rinconada.

However, if you plan on spending a full day at Chaco, you have time to explore some ruins in this area.

Kin Kletso

Chaco. Kin Kletso morning
Kin Kletso in the morning light

A compact, rectangular unit, Kin Kletso is smaller than the previous great houses. Built later in the Chacoan timeline, between 1120-1130, it lacks most of the features like the great kivas and enclosed plaza like the earlier great houses of Chaco.

You can walk around the building, then look for the trail leading to the mesa top – if you signed in and can do the hike.

Mesa Top Trails

View of Kin Kletso from the trail to the mesa top of Chaco Canyon
View of Kin Kletso from the trail to the mesa top

To get to the mesa top, you’ll follow the trail that starts with a vertical climb through boulders and a narrow opening between the canyon walls. Though not an easy hike, it’s not impossible to do – and can be fun in some areas – especially for younger people.

At the end of this climb, you reach the mesa top that offers some of the best views of Chaco Canyon, Klin Kletso, and at the end of another half-mile trail, of Pueblo Bonito.

The hike is worth it for the views of Pueblo Bonito, but the trail leads farther up to several other sites.

Pueblo Alto and New Alto

New Alto, one of the mesa top Chacoan sites
New Alto

Another Chacoan great house, built on the mesa top, Pueblo Alto housed a smaller number of people. However, archaeologists believe it hosted larger groups who traveled to Chaco for ceremonies.

Following the trail on the mesa top towards Pueblo Alto and New Alto, you’ll pass near a Chacoan road and a stairway.

The sites themselves are not as spectacular as the ones below in the canyon. The highlight of this side-trip is the actual hike up to and on the mesa top.

Pueblo del Arroyo

Pueblo del Arroyo
Pueblo del Arroyo

Before getting back onto the nine-mile loop trail, you can explore Pueblo del Arroyo, from the same parking lot you took the hike from.

Another Chacoan Great House, Pueblo del Arroyo, sits on the edge of the riverbed. Occupied between 1075 and 1250, it has all the features of the other great houses in the canyon: enclosed walls with kivas within, and multi-story high rooms.

However, the interesting part of this site is the arroyo, the riverbed on its edge. Though I haven’t seen water in it (yet) during any of our visits, a seasonal river still flows in it, making it greener than the surrounding area.

The trail through Pueblo del Arroyo is 1/4 mile long round-trip.

Past Pueblo del Arroyo, you make your way back on the other side of the one-way loop.

Casa Rinconada and the Largest Great Kiva in Chaco

The Great Kiva at Chaco
The Great Kiva

The Casa Rinconada Chacoan Great House featuring the Great Kiva is the next stop along the loop. The trail leads forks and leads to either the house structure or the Great Kiva. The largest kiva in Chaco Canyon, the Great Kiva, has a diameter of 64 feet.

A kiva is a large, circular structure, used by the Pueblo people for ceremonies and political gatherings. Great kivas differ from ordinary kivas not only by size – they are generally much larger – but also by several distinctive floor features. They have “foot drums” and artifacts like large serving bowls that reflect communal feasting. (definition from Crow Canyon Archaeological Center’s website).

After walking to the Great Kiva, you can take the connecting trail to the Casa Rinconada great house. Or just enjoy it from afar, especially if you are there at sunset.

Learn About The People Of Chaco Canyon

Since you are exploring the structures they built so long ago, it is natural to learn about the people who once lived in Chaco Canyon.

Although, I’m sure if you make the trip, you know about them – and the site – beforehand, and it’s the reason you are there. But if not, the best way to learn about the people who built these structures and lived here for an extended period is at the Visitor Center.

The Museum offers a great overview of the landscape and its people. But I found the short film they play answers even more questions, since it looks at the history of Chaco not only from an archaeological perspective, but from the perspective of the descendants of those who built it.

The Chacoans didn’t “mysteriously disappear”

For many years, archaeologists were guessing why the people of Chaco left the city they built. Yes, a long drought and depletion of resources influenced their timing. But they never intended to stay there forever.

It wasn’t until archaeologists and anthropologists started working with the descendants of the people of Chaco that a clearer picture emerged.

According to the Hopi, one of their descendant nations, Chaco was only a stop on their migration to the center they were seeking.

I loved the analogy of the clouds they used. One of them said that people are meant to move like the clouds. Clouds never stay too long in one place, and it is the same with the people.

Sometimes, if they find the right place, they may build cities and stay for longer, even a few centuries, like the huge thunderclouds that can linger above a landscape for a while. But eventually they move on.

That’s what happened to the Chacoans, they say. It was time for them to move on. Different clans went in different directions, and those who became the Hopi, moved onto the Hopi mesas.

Still, Chaco is a sacred land for them all. It’s part of their history. But they don’t mind sharing it with the rest of the world. After all, places should be experienced by anyone who walks through. However, we, all visitors, need to respect their history, should treat the site as sacred.

The National Park System acknowledges this, and the latest signs reflect it. All the trailheads have signs designating them as Sacred Sites, asking visitors to treat them with respect.

Who Were the Chacoans?

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

The Navajo, whose tribal land surrounds Chaco, migrated into the area long after Chaco was abandoned. Since they didn’t know who built the structures, they called them “the ancient ones”, Anasazi, a name archaeologists adopted.

Eventually, they found out that the ancient people of Chaco were the ancestors of the present-day Pueblo people. To reflect this, and honor the relationship, the name we use for the people who built the ancient structures in Chaco Canyon is Ancestral Puebloans.

How ancient people built a civilization in Chaco

Chaco Canyon was a good place to settle in ancient times. In the middle of a high desert where not much grows, Chaco Wash offered enough water for the survival of large groups.

The first evidence of people living here dates back 4000 years, although they built nothing lasting until 400-500 AD. That’s when the first pit houses originate from. Around the end of this period, they also built more centralized structures.

However, it was the 9th when the area went through the biggest growth and transformation. This is when they started building the Great Houses, the remains of which we see today. They are such a distinctive feature of Chaco Canyon, archaeologists call it the Chacoan Phenomenon.

They continued the tradition of building these Great Houses for the next 250 years. During this time, they also built dams, canals, and a road system. They established trade routes with other cultures from the Southwest and Mesoamerica.

They built outlier communities, like Aztec, and even farther, Chimney Rock, among others. People from these outlier communities came to Chaco for special events and ceremonies, establishing the site as a cultural, political, and ceremonial center.

But this only lasted til around 1150, when Chaco started losing its importance as a center, and eventually its people left.

Where Did The Chacoans Go?

Different clans from Chaco moved in different directions.

In the Museum of the Visitor Center you’ll find an exhibit of Chaco’s name and its meaning for all the modern Pueblo nations, and several Navajo clans, that trace their lineage back to Chaco. If you count, you’ll find 26 of them. They live throughout the Four Corners, in the regions surrounding Chaco in all directions.

In the stories of most of these nations, Chaco was an important stop along their migration. These are the stories of the Hopi, Zuni, Acoma, Tewa, Laguna. For others, it is simply the place of their ancestors.

Some of these nations, specifically the Hopi that I know of, still hold pilgrimages to Chaco to continue their connection with their ancestors.

Honoring these histories should be part of each visitor’s journey through Chaco. We might enjoy the ancient structures, but it is the history behind it that gives them meaning. Adding an understanding of the history their descendants tell makes our experience richer.

Dark Skies In Chaco

Chaco Culture National Historical Park is an International Dark Sky Park, with its own observatory, built in 1998. The park offers night sky programs from April through October, that start with staff presentations on archaeoastronomy, cultural history, and other topics, followed by telescope viewing of celestial objects.

If you really want to enjoy the night sky in Chaco, you can camp at the site – in the summer months.

Practical Tips For Visiting Chaco

Where to stay

Besides camping, you won’t find other lodging in the park. The closest towns are at least an hour away, so you need to plan accordingly.

You’ll find a selection of hotels in Aztec (69 miles away), Farmington (74 miles away), or Gallup (94 miles away).

Though it is the farthest, we often use Gallup as a starting point – at least when we visit Chaco on a weekend. Gallup also seems to have the largest selection of hotels for all budgets. We also found that highway driving for part of the way makes up the distance.

Bring your own food

No matter where you spend the night, you need to bring your own food when visiting Chaco. The park has no restaurant or grocery store, so make sure you have enough food. The visitor center has a store, but you’ll only find snacks there. You can fill up your water bottle at the refill station in the Visitor Center, but bring enough to get there.

Hiking in Chaco

Remember that you are in the high desert, where the sun can be extremely strong, especially in the summer. You will also find little shade at the structures, and none on the trails, so plan accordingly. While exploring any of the ruins, make sure you carry water and wear a hat and sunscreen.

Wear comfortable shoes, no matter how long you plan on hiking.

Other Tips

For best views and pleasant temperatures, consider staying until sunset, even if you have a long drive back.

If it’s your first time here, consider joining a guided tour, offered from May to October. Check the park’s website for times and availability.

FAQ – Facts about Chaco Ruins In a Nutshell

  1. What is Chaco Canyon known for?

    Chaco Canyon is known for its extensive ancient ruins, especially its Great Houses, unique to 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 comprise 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 the 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 village 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 proves 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 nations and several others.

  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 towns 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, from two different directions.
    You’ll drive 20 miles on a dirt road, most of it passable even by car in good weather. It always helps to drive a high-clearance vehicle, though.

  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

Though some of the information might be outdated in the older editions, you can find newer editions of the same, reflecting more recent studies. Though I don’t own the newer editions, I have read most of the additions to them.


About Chaco’s outlier sites:

Aztec Ruins

Chimney Rock

Edge of the Cedars

Escalante Pueblo in Canyons of the Ancients

and other Ancient Ruins in the Four Corners area


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

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