There are certain National Park Units that you have to go out of your way to get to, but most of them are well worth the detour. Chaco Culture National Historical Park and World Heritage Site is one of those. Established in 1907, Chaco Culture was recognized as a World Heritage Site in 1987, so this year (2018) it is celebrating it’s 30th anniversary.
How to get to Chaco Canyon
Chaco Culture is remote. The nearest town is 60 miles away. Located in the northwest corner of New Mexico, you can access Chaco Culture from the north via Farmington (recommended access route), from the south via Gallup, or from the east.
We came from the east along highway 64 and it was gorgeous – we think one of the prettiest drives in the US. Around every corner it was prettier than ever. It took us out to Bloomfield where we went south to Chaco Culture and took the dirt road through the park.
Hint: Check with the National Park Service. Some of the roads close in inclement weather.
Chaco Canyon is full of history
The canyon was inhabited by ancestral Pueblo peoples from the mid-800’s until the mid-1200’s AD. It was the center for trade and a gathering place, with many roads linking the great houses of Chaco Culture to other villages. Chaco Culture was an economic center with a wide reach, until the population shifted to other locations like Mesa Verde, Aztec, and others. No one knows exactly why they left.
Still standing in the canyon today are the remains of “great houses”, the largest of which is Pueblo Bonito with over 600 rooms spread over 3 acres, once looming four stories above ground, built around two ceremonial plazas and housing hundreds of families.
It was cool to see structures over 900 years old and still intact. Also amazing to us was the engineering of these buildings – absolutely straight lines and perfect corners – all built using stone tools without the advantages of modern construction.
Take a Hike in Chaco Canyon
We hiked the Pueblo Alto Trail – a 5.4 mile walk above the canyon, providing a different perspective on the ancient buildings.
As you look down into the dwellings and how they spread out over the canyon floor, it gives you a better understanding of how vast these cities really were.
Most of the hike is on the top of the ridge, offering great vistas looking out over the valley and the ruins of the great houses below. It was a pretty cool hike too because at many points you can look back and see where you came from.
Hint: The ranger recommended we go clockwise. Good call! Be sure to take lots of water, a hat and sunscreen. It is the desert, so expect hot in summer.
There are lots of other hikes in the park and places to explore, including petroglyphs. We didn’t have time to do them all. We will surely return to this special place.
Other hidden gems
Along with Chaco Culture, New Mexico contains many hidden gems, all a bit out of the way, but all worth the drive.
- Aztec Ruins National Monument
- Bandelier National Monument
- Capulin Volcano National Monument
- Carlsbad Caverns National Park
- El Malpais National Monument
- El Morro National Monument
- Fort Union National Monument
- Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument
- Manhattan Project National Historic Park
- Pecos National Historic Park
- Petroglyph National Monument
- Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument
- Valles Caldera National Preserve
- White Sands National Monument
There are so many places to go in New Mexico – it really is the “land of enchantment”.