Before you visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico, here’s a list of everything you need to know – from access to biking to hiking to camping to soaking in the essence of Ancestral Puebloan culture on a journey into a canyon sacred for thousands of people between AD 850 and AD 1250.
Megan Kopp shares everything you need to know about Chaco National Historic Park before you go so you can fully appreciate this UNESCO World Heritage Site in New Mexico!
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Visit America’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites!
This post is part of a series on visiting the USA’s great UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Other World Heritage Sites nearby include Mesa Verde (Colorado), Carlsbad Caverns (New Mexico), and Taos Pueblo (New Mexico).
How to Get to Chaco Culture National Historical Park
To say that Chaco is remote is like saying that the Grand Canyon is deep. Chaco Culture National Historical Park has always been remote, isolated, and a little off the radar.
Created in 1907, the park didn’t even have a superintendent until 1923. Located in northwestern New Mexico, about 2 ½ hours from Albuquerque, the park can only be accessed by driving on rough dirt roads. There are no commercial services – food, fuel, or lodging – within the park. The closest services are 1½ hour away.
To get there, use a map. GPS is not reliable in this terrain and has been known to lead travelers off onto side roads that are impassable for passenger cars and RVs. Seriously. Access to the park is going to be your first adventure.
The best route – with the least amount of dirt road travel – is from the north, turning off US 550 at CR 7900, approximately three miles southeast of Nageezi and 50 miles (80 km) west of Cuba. The route is signed from US 550 to the park boundary, a distance of 21 miles (34 km).
Roads conditions vary greatly. It can be slick and muddy during rainy periods or bumpy and full of potholes during dry times. If the weather is or has been sketchy, call for current road conditions before venturing into the park (505-786-7014).
What Makes Chaco Culture National Historical Park Unique?
If access is that difficult, why would anyone want to go? First of all, Chaco Culture is not a single entity. Chaco has the largest, best-preserved, and most complex prehistoric architectural structures in North America. It was a center for ceremonies, the turquoise trade, and political activity for the prehistoric Four Corners area and includes an ancient urban ceremonial center that is unlike anything constructed before or since.
Secondly, visitors have the opportunity to wander through reconstructed and unexcavated great houses – built from the mid-9th to early 13th centuries by the Ancestral Puebloan people, formerly known as Anasazi.
These monumental complexes contain hundreds of rooms, where archaeologists have uncovered everything from macaw and parrot feathers to copper bells and seashells – all imported from Mexico over 600 miles (1,000 km) away.
Visitors can also investigate underground ritual spaces known as kivas, discover mysterious trash mounds made up of tens of thousands of pottery shards, and walk along engineered and constructed 30-foot (9 m) wide roads built almost a thousand years ago.
If that isn’t enough, add in archaeoastronomy. Say what? Archaeoastronomy is the study of how people have understood, related to, and used sky phenomena in their culture. Chacoan people had an amazingly strong connection with the night sky and seasonal cycles. Various structures in the park were intentionally built in such a way as to capture the sunlight or moonlight on particular days of the year.
For example, there are buildings that capture solstice markers of light on buildings during summer and winter, as well as spring and autumn equinoxes – to say nothing of the incredible Sun Dagger site on Fajada Butte, an extraordinary solar and lunar calendar (interpreted in visitor center displays and films).
The Best Things to Do in Chaco Culture National Historic Park
There are ruins to explore, hikes to walk, bike routes to pedal and the endless night sky to gaze upon in Chaco Canyon.
Start with the Visitor Centre, open daily from 8 am – 5 pm from May to October; 8 am – 4 pm November to April. Wander the displays for an overview of the park and its key sites. Take time to watch the films playing in the theatre. It will help you appreciate the incredible depth and complexity of the Chaco Culture you are about to witness over the next few days.
Be sure to pick up self-guided trail brochures before heading out. Most of the park and cultural sites are self-guided year-round. Six major sites are located along the Canyon Loop Drive. These included: Una Vida, Hungo Pavi, Pueblo Bonito, Chetro Ketl, Pueblo del Arroyo, and Casa Rinconada.
Without a doubt, all of the sites offer something of value and are worth a visit, but Pueblo Bonito and Casa Rinconada stand out as being the most memorable from our trips. We visited Pueblo Bonito several times – the first on a guided tour with a park ranger and a second time on our own when we could explore at leisure.
Both are excellent options because a guided tour provides more information than what is available in brochures and exploring on your own allows you time to watch the shadows move on the walls as the sun crosses the sky. You can’t help but feel the spirit of the place.
Pueblo Bonito – Spanish for “beautiful town” – is the biggest of all Chacoan great houses. It has an astonishing 32 kivas, 3 great kivas (larger than normal kivas), and over 700 rooms. At one time this beautiful town rose four stories high.
It was one of the first great houses to be built in the canyon, starting around AD 850. When viewed from the overlook trail above, the structure’s D-shape is obvious. What isn’t obvious is its alignment with cardinal directions. Its southern wall, for example, is aligned east/west. On the spring and fall equinoxes, the Sun rises and sets in perfect alignment with this wall. So much more to learn about this beautiful place.
Casa Rinconada is not a house as the name might suggest; rather, it was a great kiva set apart on the top of a low ridge directly across from Pueblo Bonito. This massive ceremonial structure has an inner diameter of 63 feet (19 m).
Two masonry vaults or chambers below the floor were used as foot drums to punctuate the ceremonies held within. The kiva also includes a 39-foot long (12 m) underground passage on the north side. Imagine the spectacle of a shaman or religious leader entering unseen in the darkness.
Although the roof is long gone, our daughter played her fiddle softly on one side of the kiva and we could hear it perfectly on the other – such are the acoustics of this amazing structure even centuries later.
Canyon Loop Drive
Although it is a popular driving tour, you’ll get even more out of your visit if you hop on and off your bicycles as we did. The 9-mile (14.5 km) long loop is a one-way and almost level, and it is a paved slice of perfection.
Rather than be ruined by great house overload, break up your exploration of the highest concentration of structures in what is called downtown Chaco by exploring a few and then biking back to camp, or parking your bike at one of the bike racks and stretching your legs on a short climb up to an overlook.
There are three additional biking opportunities within the park – Wijiji Trail, Casa Chiquita (on a portion of the PeñascoBlanco Trail), and Kin Klizhin.
Wijiji requires a free permit which you can get from the Visitor Centre, the campground host, or at the trailhead. It’s a 3-mile (5 km), mostly level roundtrip that takes one to two hours. The ruin at the end of the trail was built around AD 1110 and consists of 225 rooms arranged about two kivas.
The coolest thing about Wijiji is its connection with the winter solstice. Standing at the northwest corner of Wijiji you can see a distant notch on the horizon. On the morning of the winter solstice, the sun rises precisely at the southern edge of the notch.
The two-mile roundtrip ride into Casita Chiquita also requires a free permit. This smaller great house was built into the surrounding hillside around AD 1060. The kiva is raised above ground level.
Kin Klizhin is the longest ride at 24 miles (38 km) roundtrip – which probably why we never did it. The route follows a narrow dirt road with minimal elevation gains and if you love to ride, you’ll be one of the few visitors that get to see this remote great house. It is considered an outlier of the canyon core structures.
Hiking Chaco’s Backcountry
If you left your bike behind, no worries – there are plenty of hiking options within the park. You can pick up a trail guide booklet from the Visitor Centre bookstore for minimal cost and explore one four backcountry hiking trails in Chaco Culture National Historical Park. These include Wijiji (mentioned above), South Mesa Trail, Pueblo Alto Trail, and Peñasco Blanco Trail.
We hiked the 8-mile (11 km) return Peñasco Blanco Trail for three reasons: 1) to visit a great house in solitude; 2) to view the rock art panels and the famed “Supernova” pictograph, and 3) for bragging rights – kidding! – no, it was just because it was a full-day adventure immersed in the canyon.
A short detour on the Petroglyph trail offers the chance to view prehistoric and historic rock art, but the highlight of the trip was the painted rock art at the end of the trail. The faded red ochre painting depicts an exploding star in the Crab Nebula in AD 1054. It boggles the minds when you realize how these astute ancient astronomers carefully recorded this sighting for us to wonder about so many centuries later.
While there are no lodging facilities within the park, there is camping at Gallo Campground – and I highly recommend you spend at least a night or two.
Located one mile east of the Visitor Centre, the campground is open year-round. It’s tucked beneath the low cliff of Gallo Wash which holds a cliff dwelling and petroglyphs – inscribed rock art. It’s a somewhat primitive campground with little shade and no hookups – but trust me, you’ll be happy you stayed here long enough to soak up at least one sunset and one sunrise.
Where Else Can I Find Chacoan Culture?
In the 1100s and 1200s, new construction in the canyon slowed down and its influence began to wane. Other areas became small outliers of Chacoan culture. Additional Ancestral Puebloan sites can be found across the San Juan Basin in New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah.
If you haven’t had your fill in the canyon, many of these outlying great houses are open to the public. A few include Aztec Ruins National Monument in Aztec, NM; Salmon Ruin in Bloomfield, NM; White House at Canyon de Chelly National Monument near Chinle, AZ; Far View House at Mesa Verde National Park near Cortez, CO; and Edge of the Cedars State Park in Blanding, UT.
5 Things to Pack for Your Trip to Chaco Culture NHP
The Lonely Planet Southwest USA guidebook. It can be kind of a pain to find the major guidebooks once you get here, or you’ll find them overpriced. I always like to pick mine up ahead of time.
An Unlocked Cell Phone so that you can use a local sim card while here to help navigate public transportation and when you’re on the road. (For people without American cell phone plans).
Backup Charging Bank for your cell phone since you’ll be using it as a camera, GPS, and general travel genie.
A Great Day Bag so you can carry what you need with you (like your camera, snacks, water, sunscreen, cash, etc). My current favorite is the Pacsafe Citysafe, which is especially great for traveling because it has many anti-theft features designed to deter pickpockets. It also transitions to a night bag more easily and won’t embarrass you if you go to dinner directly after sightseeing all day.
Don’t Forget About Travel Insurance!
Before you leave for New Mexico make sure you have a valid Travel Insurance Policy because accidents happen on the road. I pay for World Nomads, and I happily recommend them. It’s especially important to get travel insurance if you’ll be hanging enjoying time in the beautiful outdoors.
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