Chaco Culture National Historical Park offers visitors a glimpse of an ancient era
Post Independent Editor
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
CHACO CANYON, N.M. – Everyone on our tour of Pueblo Bonito had seen photos of the aligned doorways in this ancient Chaco Canyon ruin. Now, after spending an hour touring the massive pueblo ruin of 700 rooms, we were about to see this spot for ourselves.
In small groups, we stepped across the threshold of one room, made a turn and entered another room, and then stood back to see the aligned doorways. Quietly, people stepped aside so each person with a camera could photograph the doorways themselves.
I lingered a bit longer, savoring the cool, deep shade of the interior pueblo room. The space was empty, long ago scoured of any artifacts, but there were still details to observe: a tidy row of protruding vigas, the round tree trunk beams that held up the next floor, an ascending series of three window openings that may have illuminated a staircase, and the ever-present fine craftsmanship of the ancient stonemasons.
On a tour earlier in the day of Chetro Ketl, another greathouse about a quarter mile from Pueblo Bonito, our park ranger guide summarized the mystery that surrounds this place, noting, “There are no answers here, only questions.”
Some things about this place are known, but many of the details – the how and why of what is found here – remain elusive.
The great Chaco culture emerged around A.D. 850 with the construction of two greathouses, Pueblo Bonito and Una Vida, along the north side of Chaco Wash, which runs east to west in a remote area of northwestern New Mexico.
Ancient people were already living here and throughout the Four Corners area, raising maize, beans and squash. But around 850, something monumental is believed to have happened, and they began erecting sprawling, multi-story greathouses. Unlike the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde, these freestanding houses are out in the open in the wide floor of Chaco Wash.
The greathouses were made from sandstone collected locally, supported by ponderosa pine timbers harvested and carried from mountains more than 50 miles away. It is a feat that challenges the imagination.
From 900 to 1150, the Chaco people built nine more greathouses along a six-mile-long swath of the wash. At its peak, the Chaco Wash area had as many as 2,000 inhabitants.
Moreover, archaeologists have found more than 150 Chaco-style greathouses and 400 miles of engineered roads radiating out from the hub at Chaco across northwest New Mexico and southwest Colorado, from Gallup and Grants, N.M., to Cortez and Chimney Rock in Colorado.
But by 1250, the Chaco people left the area, migrating to the pueblos still occupied today along the Rio Grande River.
The ruins they left behind are fascinating remnants of a powerful and wealthy culture that controlled a vast area, traded for turquoise, shells, macaws and cacao, and developed sophisticated architectural craftsmanship that leaves us in awe today.
We gave ourselves four days for our trip to Chaco Culture National Historical Park, including travel time on the first and last days. It’s about an eight-hour drive from Glenwood Springs via Durango.
Note that the final 13 miles in to the park is on a gravel road that is extremely washboarded, so driving this stretch takes about 45 minutes. The road crosses a wash that should not be attempted when water is flowing.
Getting to Chaco is a commitment; staying in the park for two to four days makes the travel time worthwhile and gives the visitor the time to begin understanding the Chaco culture.
Once inside the park boundaries, a paved road runs to the Gallo campground (tent and camper sites, two restroom buildings with sinks and flush toilets) and to the visitor center. Beyond that, a nine-mile, one-way loop road leads to most of the ruins.
Of the 12 ruins in the park, six are within a very short walk, less than a half mile, of various parking lots along the loop. Some of these are accessible for wheelchairs and strollers.
The other six ruins lie along hikes ranging from a half mile to five miles round trip. Some routes are essentially flat and stay on the floor of the wash, while three more ambitious hikes climb a few hundred feet up onto the mesas on either side of the wash, offering broad views of the surrounding landscape.
In two and a half days, we went on two ranger-led ruin tours, visited three more ruins near the loop road, and biked and hiked to three more distant ruins.
We took mountain bikes along and left our car parked at the campground. We rode bikes out on the loop road and on dirt road extensions that got us closer to several ruins. Other people in our group brought road bikes. They enjoyed more zippy riding on the paved loop and navigated the dirt roads without too much difficulty.
The park’s visitor center was demolished last year and a new one is under construction. Meanwhile, the center and the park’s gift shop and bookstore are operating in a yurt. The park’s planetarium and museum won’t reopen for another one or two years.
In spite of the temporary park headquarters, Chaco boasts a knowledgeable staff of rangers, and their guided tours of Pueblo Bonito, Chetro Ketl and Hungo Pavi ruins are very worthwhile, as is the park’s night sky program, offered on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday evenings.
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