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Visiting Chaco Culture National Historical Park

Ancient Puebloan dwellings
Ancient Puebloan dwellings
Photos by Dolev Schreiber

For those of you in the southwestern United States itching to get out of the city and into a simple night of solitude, you know that there are multiple destinations you can hit. After all, your towns, such as Las Vegas, for instance, are surrounded by beautiful desert. All you need to do is drive to the edge of town and start walking. The problem is that you might get the occasional four-wheeler zooming by and crazy high school kids partying by a huge bonfire. You can head to the national parks, but there you would be hoarded by tourists from all over which defeats the entire reason you got out of the city in the first place. There is one place you must try that you probably have never heard of before: Chaco.

Chaco Culture is a National Historical Park located in the northwestern-most corner of New Mexico. It is a small park with only a handful of hiking trails, but it recounts an impressive history. This is one of many sites in the southwest that Ancient Puebloans called home before they disappeared from history. Dozens of villages have been uncovered in the small surface area of the park, each dating back over 800 years.

At the entrance to the park is a well-maintained camping area, conforming beautifully to the surrounding environment. Its backdrop is the Chaco Canyon cliff, a sandstone formation whose natural orange color changes hues as the sun rises and sets. Next to it is the first ruins you cross, a "Great House" numbering about 150 rooms. It remains a mystery whether this was a meeting place for traders or a solitary village warn away over time. This mystery is prevalent throughout the park and in most Ancient Puebloan sites. Anthropologists are full of conjectures as to how these peoples lived, how long they had been there, where they had come from, and where they disappeared to. These unknowns, especially on a dark and starry night, make for a special experience at Chaco Canyon, especially when you are the only soul to ponder them for miles.

Less than 50,000 visitors per year make the trek to see this beautiful site, most of them arriving during the torturous summer months. Getting to Chaco requires time and attentive navigation skills. If arriving from Farmington, CO or Albuquerque, NM take the I-550 and follow signs to the park. A 13-mile well-maintained dirt road is associated with this journey (make sure to stop for a burrito at Cuba Café if you arrive from Albuquerque). If coming from Flagstaff, AZ, a 20-mile dirt road is involved. Both roads are well-maintained and suitable to all types of vehicles, however caution must be practiced if the road is wet. This site is by no means a secret and writing about it in this article will not affect the visitation numbers thanks to its isolation. Chances are that you will still get the solitude that you are looking for.