Visit Chaco, A Famous Archeological Site in the Southwest

Standing on the mesa top, overlooking Pueblo Bonito, I can't help but wonder about the place we came so far to visit. The structures we are looking at were built thousands of years ago. They were home to southwestern people, in this area that was their ceremonial and cultural center between A.D. 850 and A.D. 1250.

Chaco is a unique place, a famous archaeological site, today part of the Chaco Culture National Park. Truly "in the middle of nowhere", in the high deserts of the Southwest, it is so remote, the road to it is still dirt to this day. If you are there during midday, it seems harsh and oppressive. Yet, within the canyon wall, most visitors feel the need to explore more and keep coming back.

It is not difficult to explore Chaco Canyon, though there are so many structures, you can spend a whole day walking through them.

Right from the visitor center's parking lot you can take a short trail to a small ruin called Una Vida, the highlights of which are a few well-preserved petroglyphs.

Hungo Pavi is the first stop on the 9-mile loop drive within the park, about two miles from the Visitor Center. It is one of the Great Houses, with about 150 rooms and a great kiva.

Chetro Ketl is the next site, about two more miles down the road. It is a much bigger great house, with more rooms, but its greatest features are the great kiva, and another, elevated kiva, and its tall, straight back wall.

The most important site in the Canyon, Pueblo Bonito is the greatest structure. The trail to it starts in the same parking lot as Chetro Ketl. The two sites are also connected with t trail that leads through more petroglyphs. It has a distinctive D-shape, four or five stories high, more than 650 rooms and 35 kivas (round rooms serving as ceremonial and cultural centers). The trail through this site is about 0.6 miles roundtrip, exploring kivas and the enclosed rooms. When visiting, you can play hide-and-seek in the rooms even to this day.

Casa Rinconada is the next stop on the loop. This site's best feature is the Great Kiva, with a possible summer solstice marker on its interior wall. You can explore Casa Rinconada in a relatively short time.

The last stop on the loop is Pueblo del Arroyo. Though it lacks a great kiva, it is also a great house, with a three-wall kiva.

Other than archaeological sites, the park has a great number of backcountry trails, some of them leading to other ruins farther from the center of Chaco; Others lead up to the mesa, overlooking the great structures. The trail up to the mesa-top is a barely visible trail on the rock wall through a very narrow tunnel. You need to sign-in if you decide to take any backcountry trails.

Being so far from present-day civilization, Chaco Canyon has a great campground surrounded by a cliff dwelling, petroglyphs, and boulders of Gallo Wash. Numerous hiking trails lead up the cliffs. When camping, you have the opportunity to enjoy night sky programs and evening campfire talks.

Being literally in the middle of nowhere, the skies at Chaco are spectacular, and the park is one of only four international Dark Skies Park. Astronomers are well aware of it, that's why the park is also home to an observatory, right by the visitor center.

Emese Fromm is a freelance writer and translator who has been living in the Southwest for over twenty years. During this time she has visited the National Parks and archaeological sites in the area.