Chaco Culture National Historical Park

Farmington, NM

We have been staying in the San Juan County Fairgrounds (McGee Park) for a few days now waiting for area dirt roads to dry out from recent rains.  We couldn’t find a decent RV park in the area, so the fairgrounds seems to be the only option.  They have hundreds of RV spots, most with water and 30 amp power, some with 50 amp power.  Since it is off season, the place was almost empty.  We were able to just pull up next to a line of hook-ups instead of backing in.

The main reason we came to this area was to visit Chaco Culture Historic Park, a large group of ruins occupied by Puebloan people for over 300 years.  The site is about 65 miles south of Farmington but there are no towns closer to it.  The park can be a challenge to get to as part of the route there is on a dirt road that is rarely maintained.  It rained the day before we arrived and we heard that the road was pretty muddy so we waited three days to let it dry out.  We watched the weather forecast and selected the best day for our visit.  Since it is such a long drive, we were up and in the Jeep before 7:30!  Oh, and it was just a bit chilly as we drove off.

The first 45 miles of the trip is on US-550, a nice four land highway.  Just past the dot on the map called Nageezi we turned south on CR 7900, a two lane paved road, for eight miles.  A left turn put us on CR 7950 heading into Chaco. After three miles the pavement ends but the road is maintained by the county and is in very good shape.

Maintained part of CR 7950

After eight miles we came to a sign that said “End of County Maintenance.”  That is where we knew the challenging section of the trip would begin.  There is a four mile section of the road that receives little or no maintenance, so it can be pretty rough.  Our blog friend Suzanne (Take to the Highway) visited here a few months ago and found the road in very poor shape.

Even the short wheel base Tracker can't navigate this obstacle course!

Photo borrowed from Suzanne’s blog

We found the road to be in passable shape, with evidence of some drainage grading along each side.

After a heavy rain the road is impassable, as it goes right through a wash.

After four miles we came to smooth pavement as the road entered the park.

The difficult road conditions and long distances from towns appear to limit the number of visitors to Chaco.  It is not to often that you find the parking area empty at a visitors center!

Speaking with a ranger in the visitor center we were informed that we picked the best day in four years for our visit as someone had done some maintenance on the road the previous day.  After the rains earlier in the week the road was impassible and workers who live in Farmington had to stay overnight in the park.

The park is in a canyon with a nine mile loop road going near most of the many ruin sites.  After spending a little time in the visitor center, we quickly drove out the loop road into the park to join a ranger led tour.  Our tour was through Pueblo Bonito, the largest and best known great house in the park.  A volunteer guide named Andy took a small group of us through the site.

Between AD 900 and 1150, Chaco Canyon was a major center of culture for the Ancient Pueblo Peoples. Chacoans quarried sandstone blocks and hauled timber from great distances, assembling fifteen major complexes that remained the largest buildings in North America until the 19th century.

Pueblo Bonito covering almost two acres and comprising at least 650 rooms. In parts of the complex the structure was four stories high.  In January 1941, a section of the canyon wall known as Threatening Rock collapsed as a result of a rock fall, destroying some of the structure’s rear wall and a number of rooms. The builders of Pueblo Bonito appear to have been well aware of this threat, but chose to build beneath the fractured stone anyway.

Collapsed rock against the side walls of Pueblo Bonito

Inside the Great Kiva at Pueblo Bonito

Some of the high walls need a little help to stay upright

Corner windows are unusual. This one aligns with the solstices

Pueblo Bonito below the canyon wall

Doorways through internal rooms are aligned

A paved path leads from Pueblo Bonito to nearby Chetro Keti.  Along the way the side of the canyon contains a great deal of rock art and a number of areas where the residents sharpened rocks for tools.

Chetro Ketl bears the typical ‘D’ shape of many other central complexes. Begun between 1020 and 1050, its 450–550 rooms shared one great kiva. Experts estimate that it took 29,135 man-hours to erect Chetro Ketl alone.  One archaeologist estimated that it took the wood of 5,000 trees and 50 million stone blocks.

Long wall of Chetro Keti

Many of the windows were filled in when the inhabitants move away around 1150.  In the window pictured below note the small, round plugs in the wooden logs used to support the wall above the window.  The plugs are from drilling wood samples as part of a process called dendrochronology, or tree dating, which is used to establish the age of the wood.  The process is used extensively in establishing the age of puebloan ruins.

View through a window in Chetro Keti

Another view of Chetro Keti

Kin Kletso (“Yellow House”) was a medium-sized complex located a half mile west of Pueblo Bonito.  It contains 55 rooms, four ground-floor kivas, and a two-story cylindrical tower that may have functioned as a kiva or religious center.

We parked in the lot for Kin Kletso to access the trailhead for a loop hike called the Pueblo Alto Loop, located behind the ruins.

Pueblo Alto Loop Trailhead

This five mile loop trail goes steeply up the cliff on to the mesa above many of the ruins.  The first part of the hike is a bit difficult.

So where’s the trail?

We’re going up through that crack in the rocks

Nice view of Kin Kletso from up on the mesa

After hiking about a mile along the top of the cliff we came to the overlook for Pueblo Bonito.

Lunch with a view

As the population of the pueblo grew in the 10th century some moved outside the canyon and constructed new communities.  Thirty such outliers spread across 65,000 square miles are connected to the central canyon and to one another by a web of six Chacoan road systems. Extending up to 60 miles in generally straight routes, they appear to have been extensively surveyed and engineered.  Their depressed and scraped roadbeds reach 30 feet wide with rocks or low walls delimit their edges. When necessary, the roads deploy steep stone stairways and rock ramps to surmount cliffs and other obstacles

Small piece of a roadway

To get up and down the cliffs Chacoans built ramps or steps into the rock.  About halfway around the loop trail we came across a great example of a set of steps.

Steeps are just to the right of the dark area in the center

A little closer view

OK, now you can see the steps

A view from the side shows how steep they are

As we continued around the loop the trail went through a split in the rocks that led down to a lower level above the canyon.

Looking back at the split we just passed through

Snack with a view

View of Chetro Keli with Pueblo Bonito in the distance

The opening heading back down to the trailhead

As you come back down through the crack in the rocks the Kin Kletso ruins appear below.

After a long day of hiking and exploring we exited the park and found the initial part of the dirt road in even better shape than it was when we drove it earlier this morning.

About a mile up the dirt road we came to the reason for the improvement in the road.

Although a bit difficult to get to, a visit to Chaco is well worth the effort.  We would have liked to spend another day there as there are a few areas we didn’t see but the long drive from Farmington prevented that.

Next up is a repeat visit to one of our favorite places, Bluff, UT.  Our doggie buddy Cody is going to meet us there to join in some hiking.  Oh, and David and Karen will probably come with him.

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21 Responses to Chaco Culture National Historical Park

  1. exploRVistas says:

    Excellent find, John and Pam! Love out of the way places like that.

  2. pmbweaver says:

    Good think you put the time up on FB or I would still be saying that I think your batteries stopped working….lol
    You would think that they could do something to permanently fix that road. What a wonderful place to visit.

    I love the rock art. I wonder why they drew the figures with such large hands. How interesting about drilling the wood. I always wonder how they know how old these structures are.

    The view of Kin Kletso from above is super. I will say it again…how did they build these? I am just in awe. Example…those steps. Now how would you chisel those out without falling? What a great find for sure.

  3. Debbie L says:

    Wow, what a day it was!!! Not only the “rough” trip there, but the hiking looked SUPER challenging! What an amazing park there! No place to boondock, though? It definitely looked like a place to spend more than one day visiting! Thanks for the great history and photos!

  4. Yep, we have to visit Chaco–thanks for the great photos! And enjoy Bluff, one of our favorite places.

  5. Mary says:

    I went there about 20 years ago, and have wanted to go back. What a great place it is.

  6. Fascinating place. Have always wanted to go there, but the road kept us away. You sure timed it right!

  7. Susan Bank says:

    What a fabulous place, made even better by it’s isolation. Thanks for showing these ruins to us. The only thing I missed in this post is a picture of the nimble hiker using the “staircase”.

  8. Jeff says:

    We came in from the southwest on the ranch roads, longer dirt road in but in good shape. We took a tent to spend a night under the stars. So worth it, but it was too hot for your hike. The views you show from above sure add perspective that we missed, gotta go back!

  9. Laurel says:

    Wow, you sure lucked out with the road being in such good shape! I remember driving it 20 years ago and it took more than an hour to drive the final eight miles—the potholes were atrocious! We really want to return—that Pueblo Alto Loop trail is wonderful. Great photos of the trail and views!

  10. Nancy says:

    WOW! Great looking ruins! The views are incredible.
    And of course… lunch and snack with a view is always my fave!

  11. Gerri & Mike says:

    What an fantastic place!! The Puebloan people were quite amazing…..I love history!!
    Although the road was rough it was well worth the trip!!

  12. Shannon says:

    The running board on our pickup vibrated off while driving that road when we last went with our 5ver. Was nice to stay there with a tour of the night skies with the telescope that is there.

  13. Suzanne says:

    aaaahh, the post I’ve been waiting to read. So fun to see it from your perspective! I am curious if the road was in good enough condition after grading that it would be suitable for an RV? I doubt it, but it looks so smooth! You guys certainly lucked out all the way around! Glad you had such a beautiful visit. (“Snack” with a View made me snicker!)

  14. Jodee Gravel says:

    Oh I love this so much! Wonderful pics of the ruins, and the history is awesome. I must see this amazing place. That slot drop (that is not a trail) is very impressive :-)))))

  15. Awesome! Boy you sure lucked out on the road condition! I feel sorry for Suzanne’s Tracker!

  16. Sherry says:

    Leave it to you to have the charmed life that picks the very best day to go to one of my absolutely favorite places. This is a great post on it. Such wonderful memories for me in your photos. We have those same window and door pictures. We were tent campers when we were there and camped at Chaco. We spent several days. What a great experience. Are there no boondocking spots nearby? That road in looks terrific compared to what we experienced. Sure hope we can back there. We’ll write and ask you if it’s a good day to go.

  17. geogypsy2u says:

    You so scored. This huge complex has been on my list over 10 years, since I worked at Mesa Verde. But the road horror stories kept me away. Those are some crazy trails. Did you try the stone steps? I’d love to camp there a few days to really explore it. Like Sherry, I’ll check with you first on the road conditions.

  18. Jim and Barb says:

    You guys find the coolest places! Now we have another one to add to our “must see” list.

  19. Gay says:

    The history and pictures you shared are wonderful! What an awesome find! Love the slots and crevices to squeeze through!

  20. colibabas says:

    What an incredible area! Doubt we would ever try that road in our truck so thanks for the tour. I swear you guys were a couple of billy goats in a past life.

  21. Cecilia says:

    Wow, they really worked on that road to Chaco …! Isn’t Chaco just absolutely worth being visited! We loved it. Thanks for sharing.

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