NEW MEXICO: Chaco Culture National Historical Park

My 14th ~ New Mexico

Chaco Culture

Up until about a week ago, I had never heard of Chaco Culture National Historical Park. When I ask if anyone had suggestions to add to our itinerary, this was brought up, in fact, more than once.

When I learned that it was a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I became determined to somehow make it fit, even if it meant going a couple hours out of our way.

Since we would need to travel down a rough dirt road to get there from the south, we decided to leave Ellie Mae tethered to her spot at Red Rock Park and continue forth in our trusty Subaru, Jethro.

The roads there were good until the last 20 miles and then they were more challenging and we were glad to not be in the RV.

Dirt road in from the south

Chaco Culture

In case you are like me, and not familiar with this historical site, I’ll try to give a brief intro to why it is being preserved and designated a UNESCO site.

UNESCO designation

” From 850-1150, Chaco Canyon served as a major center of ancestral Puebloan culture. Remarkable for its monu­mental buildings, distinctive architecture, astronomy, artistic achievements, it served as a hub of ceremony, trade, and administration for the Four Corners Area­ unlike anything before or since.” ~nps

“Native people made this high desert valley the center of their world. They created monumental architecture and developed far-reaching commerce and a complex social organization. The Chaco people began building here on a grand scale in the mid-800’s. Using masonry techniques unique for the time, they continued to expand their massive, multi-story stone buildings for over 300 years. From the start, they planned their buildings to have hundreds of rooms.”~ Park brochure

Our stop at the visitors center yielded a map, suggestions and a 20 minute movie detailing some of the history of the area. There was also what had potential for being an interesting museum. Tim labeled it the “Museum that almost was”.

Display showing layout of Pueblo Bonito (empty cases in background)

Evidently they built the museum and then were denied getting the relics for the display cases because the humidity and environment was not controlled to strict enough standards.

This letter was posted on the glass of several empty cases.

letter explaining all the empty cases

I asked the ranger how they were progressing on getting the items for the cases and he said  “It could be soon, or after I die”. I inquired about his health, and evidently he has no plans on expiring soon, so it may be a long, long time.

We visited several of the recommended great houses while driving the nine mile loop through the park.

Map of park

Una Vida

Located right behind the visitors center. This unexcavated house has the best views of the landscape. The time frame is 850-1250.

Una Vida

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Hungo Pavi

Near natural drainage and springs, this is the most easily accessed from the road.

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Pueblo Bonito

This was the crown jewel. This is the largest great house, composed of over 600 rooms and 40 kivas. It reached four stories in places.

Pueblo Bonito

Plaque at entrance

Looking down into the pueblo from lookout platform

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  • The recommended way into the park is from the north which offers up regular roads.
  • The dirt road from the south can become unpassable after a rainstorm.
  • There are no services inside the park so be sure to gas up ahead of time, also bring plenty of water and snacks or picnic.
  • The park is at 6200 feet in elevation. Winters are cold and summers hot.

GRATITUDE MOMENT: I think this will be a huge win for some people and ho hum for others. We talked to one man who described it as, “the largest, best preserved ancient architectural site in North America”. Another called it his “favorite site to visit in all of the USA”. A woman we spoke with thought it comparable to Machu Picchu. I am thankful that we visited and saw it for ourselves, but I can not rave about it in the same way others have. I do have great respect that this is a sacred site for Native Americans, but can not put it in the same league as Machu Picchu. Extraordinary? Interesting? Most definitely, and if you are going to be passing this way, you too may find it to be a complete WOW.

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About Tim and Joanne Joseph

Hi and welcome! We are Tim and Joanne Joseph and we have just embarked on our latest adventure. We hope you will join us!
This entry was posted in National Parks, New Mexico, RV Life, United States and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to NEW MEXICO: Chaco Culture National Historical Park

  1. Chaco was a WOW for me – but then, I’ve never been to Machu Picchu! I’m glad you made it there.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. S. Stewart says:

    I love this post!
    My daughter moved to New Mexico last year and this something that would be awesome to go do with her and my grandbabies…. thank you! I looks amazing.


  3. A coupla things. We left New Mexico about 8 years ago. That letter, or a version of it was posted there back then. And, at 6,200 feet — which is most of New Mexico once you reach level, remember the air is thinner. Take breaks and rest when you get tired.


    • Ray, our cabin is at 6000 feet, so I thought I would have no problems, but found myself dragging a bit yesterday exploring out in the hot sun. I’m not so sure the Chaco museum will be getting their artifacts anytime soon. ☹️


  4. Another one to add to my list, so thanks for that. I’ve not been to Machu Picchu and probably wno’t be, but Chaco we can do. 🙂



  5. emjayb says:

    The thing I liked a lot about Chaco when I was there in 1978 or 1979 was that it was relatively undeveloped and unstaffed compared to Mesa Verde. We were pretty much able to roam at will to explore the area. At that time it had not been declared a UNESCO site and i do not remember there being much of a visitor center, so even with the empty cases, there has been progress. And I don’t remember that there was a paved road into it then.


    • You really got to experience it more authentically. Lucky you!! What an awesome experience to be able to roam wherever you wished. I do understand why they have to set some boundaries now though to protect it from being vandalized or damaged.


  6. joliesattic says:

    I just love the obscure places.


  7. roadtrippingagain says:

    Wow, I will definitely add that to our list. Thanks for going out of your way. I have never heard of that place either.


  8. Tim Harlow says:

    Chaco Canyon is best experienced over several days, and I recommend hiking into the interior of the park to see more. Why? A quick tour of the structures near the visitors center allow one to see the architecture and the buildings, but it to experience the place.

    In your post you observed the elevation and the harsh climate. But to “get” this place, one must spend time there. Experience that harshness, although for health reasons, I recommend the cooler months. After spending several days there hiking around in February 2004, I could feel the spiritual presence of the ancient people who built the place. Seeing how they incorporated the natural elements into their designs and spiritual practices was awe inspiring for me.

    I don’t know if the rangers shared this with you all or not, but here are some interesting facts about Chaco. It was built totally on the north, south, east and west grid. And, using radar and sonic imaging, one can see major roads (ancient ones) that connected Chaco with similar sites in northern Mexico and other places. We know very little about these ancient peoples, but they shared a fascination with the sun, moon and stars with the Maya. Did they trade? Who knows. But digging into the history offers many mysteries.

    Anyway, thanks for the great post. It reminded me of that trip in 2004 that I took right after my Dad died. Chaco was one of his favorite places and I had to experience it first-hand.


  9. Marsi says:

    We visited Chaco Canyon last fall, and my husband is now obsessed with going back. More accurately, his obsession started when he stole away my half-read copy of House of Rain by Craig Childs, and just grew as we spent more time in the Southwest.

    I laughed at the kind word you used to describe the roads into the park: “challenging”. It took us an hour to drive 10 miles of that washboard, and we imagined our 2015 Subaru would fall apart from the shaking! The up side to that terribly uncomfortable road, and the extremes of heat and cold in the area, is that the park isn’t overrun with visitors like so many other national park units. That’s so important, considering the historical value of this sacred place.


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