Chaco Canyon Culture National Historic Park

Chaco Canyon Rocks My World

Even though it’s not as well known as other parks in the Southwest, and barely on the radar of many outdoor adventurers, Chaco Canyon Culture National Historic Park has to be my absolute favorite National Park (I know I said that about Zion, but forgive me. I hadn’t visited Chao yet). UNESCO designated it a World Heritage Site in 1987, so it’s safe to say I’m in pretty good company.

Everything about this remote park captivated me, from the bizarre location for a half-century old ancient empire to the pottery shards that littered every single ruin and trail. I could write pages and pages on this fascinating location (And in fact, I am. The Chaco Canyon area is the setting for my next YA paranormal thriller, sequel to Valley of the Broken).

Since I could wax lyrical about the wonders of Chaco all day, I’ll limit myself to my top three favorite experiences.

The Night Sky

The Chacoan people built  their massive empire along the meridians of celestial seasons and events. It is therefore only fitting that the park now offers extensive nightly astronomy programs, in conjunction with the Albuquerque Astronomical Society. Not only that, on August 19, 2013 Chaco Culture became the world's newest international Dark Sky Park, allowing visitors to view the stars without any discernable light pollution. Over 99% of the park is designated as a "natural darkness zone," which means no permanent outdoor lighting exists. If you leave your lantern or headlight on for too long past sunset, a friendly park ranger will pay you a visit and remind you to protect this experience. Stargazers will stand in awe of the panoramas in Chaco.

The Old School Feel

Nothing makes me crankier than being crammed in a National Park with thousands of visitors. My kids are sick of hearing about how parks used to be (i.e. quiet, peaceful, nearly deserted), but Chaco Canyon made me absolutely giddy with it’s emptiness. On the 5.4 mile loop hike to Pueblo Alto ruins, my family saw fewerthan ten other hikers once we were on the trail. With no other adventurers crowding us on remote pathways, my kids were able to take their time to observe their surroundings more closely. They found pottery shards, lithic debitage, and prehistoric shrimp burrows, exciting discoveries I know they wouldn’t have had the leisure to find with hundreds of other visitors walking the same trail. Once we arrived at Pueblo Alto, we spent nearly an hour there looking from the high point of the canyon over the vast network of roads the Chacoan people created to unite their multiple communities and exploring the ruins of the pueblo itself. During that hour we saw not one other visitor. The lonely setting was the perfect landscape in which to consider a vanished culture and breathe in the smallness of our existence in the history of the world.

The Remarkable Ruins

As a former Colorado kid and current resident, I’ve visited Mesa Verde National Park multiple times. The ruins in Southwestern part of my state are definitely impressive. Multiply their size by about five times, and you’ll have an inkling of the Chaco Canyon great houses, especially the impressive Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl. Comparable to historic sites in many European countries, ruins of this size, complexity and preservation do not exist anywhere else in the United States. For example, the D-shaped Pueblo Bonito, the largest of the great houses, contains more than 600 rooms, many of them four or five stories high. Built sometime between A.D. 800-900, the entire complex of buildings and the surrounding wall cover an area of three acres. While some of the walls and buildings in the great houses have collapsed, many have been rebuilt in Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl. The meticulous stonework of the towering buildings is something that has to be seen in order to grasp the advanced nature of the Chacoan culture. It is truly awe-inspiring.

A visit to Chaco Canyon demands a moderate level of roughing it. The only way to travel to the park is over extremely rough roads that become impassable in even light rain.The nearest town is over 60 miles away so all food and supplies should be packed in since the visitor’s center has only water and a few bars of novelty chocolate. Camping is the only lodging provided in the park and the barren (yet beautiful) campsites are completely at the mercy of the elements.

While few people have heard of Chaco Canyon and some visitors may balk at its remote location, rugged roads, and lack of park services a visit to this National Treasure is definitely worth suffering through the primitive conditions. Walking the pathways of the great houses is a life-changing glimpse into one of the mightiest ancient cultures of North America.