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