Chaco Culture National Historical Park in the northwest corner of New Mexico is a lonesome but remarkable place worth visiting on your next road trip to the Desert Southwest. While Mesa Verde, Canyon de Chelly, and other sites in the region may get far more visitation, Chaco is regarded by many experts as the most significant – and puzzling – archeological site of all.
Inhabited for nearly four centuries, from about 850 to 1200 AD, Chaco was the commercial and ceremonial capital of the entire region. In its heyday, its resident population may have exceeded 5,000. At times its numbers swelled as visitors from outlying pueblos and nomadic tribes converged to intermingle and trade goods. There is archeological evidence that people traveled to Chaco from as far away as the Pacific Northwest and Central America.
Bygone visitors to Chaco surely marveled at its architecture. Clusters of architecturally impressive stone buildings, some over 100 feet high, rising from the canyon floor must have seemed like skyscrapers to travelers in those primitive times. The city featured at least 16 “great house” buildings, several of which stood four and five stories in height and contained hundreds of rooms. Many of the structures, built of intricately laid stone, seemed to have had ceremonial and astronomical significance, suggesting that Chaco may have been a regional center for science and worship as well as trade.
Abandoned for unknown reasons over 700 years ago and far in advance of the arrival of the first Europeans, Chaco crumbled. Rocked by earthquakes, battered by storms, baked by centuries of intense sun, and looted by passersby, the once-magnificent city sprawled in ruins when it was rediscovered by archeologists in the 1800s. Its historic and cultural significance recognized, Chaco Canyon was protected as a National Monument in 1907. The National Geographic Society sponsored extensive excavations there from 1921 to 1928. Despite over a million artifacts having been unearthed and cataloged, many questions remain about the primary purpose of this ancient city in the remote desert.
To this day, there is no paved road into Chaco. The preserve is located about 75 miles southeast of Farmington, the last dusty bit over a gravel road. Accommodations consist of a simple campground and modest visitor center. But the ruins themselves are truly fascinating to hike around and photograph. Highly recommended is the hike to the canyon rim above Pueblo Bonito, the largest of the great house ruins. From this vantage point is it possible to see the geometric layout of the scores of rooms and kivas that make up this architecturally remarkable building. Sit for a while and form your own conclusions about the lives of those who occupied Chaco Canyon over 800 years ago. For further information, click on www.nps.gov/chcu/.