New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon

In New Mexico, visit a remote canyon to see the remains of a remarkable culture and explore a spiritual enigma.

With more than 600 rooms, Pueblo Bonito was the largest of the great houses in Chaco Canyon. (photo by National Park Service)

If you’re planning a visit to Chaco Canyon in northwestern New Mexico, you’re going to have to work to get there. Reaching the canyon—officially known as Chaco Culture National Historical Park—requires driving for nearly an hour on a road that will make your teeth rattle. But the effort is worth it, because Chaco Canyon is one of the most remarkable archaeological sites in North America.

Between 850 and 1250 CE, Chaco was the center of a culture whose influence dominated the Four Corners region. Its people are called the Ancestral Puebloans by archaeologists (the earlier term Anasazi is no longer used). Their most significant achievement was the building of “great houses,” which were multi-level, communal living places with hundreds of rooms, broad public plazas, and multiple underground rooms known as kivas.

These great houses are among the largest structures built in the Americas before the modern age. Chaco has dozens of them, most built in a single line next to the sandstone cliffs of one side of the canyon, and more than 200 more were constructed in the surrounding region.

The great houses of Chaco Canyon were some of the largest buildings constructed in the Americas before the modern age. (photo by Bob Sessions)

My husband and I visited Chaco in early summer, driving our little tear-drop camper that could accommodate both the road and the no-frills campground that’s the park’s only public accommodation. After setting up camp, we headed to the visitor center to learn more about the Ancestral Puebloans who lived here a thousand years ago.

Exhibits described how the great houses were built from meticulously fitted rock walls and mud mortar, with internal supports and roofs made of wood. While the stone was locally quarried, the wood came from as far away as the Chuska Mountains, which are 60 miles distant. It’s estimated that more than 240,000 trees were carried by hand into the canyon.

Many of these great houses also include solar, lunar, and other astronomical alignments, showing that their builders had considerable knowledge of the movements of the stars, moon, and sun.

The Ancestral Puebloans were skilled artisans on a smaller scale as well, creating beautiful jewelry and decorative objects made from raw turquoise imported from distant mines. Other items found in the canyon include conch shell trumpets, carved and painted wooden flutes, ceremonial staffs, and copper bells. The skeletal remains of macaws and storage containers that once held cacao show that they traded as far away as Mexico—cacao is used to make chocolate, and the tropical birds were likely valued because of their brilliantly colored feathers.

A display in the visitor center shows the layout of Pueblo Bonito, the largest of the great houses in Chaco Canyon. (photo by Bob Sessions)

A park ranger told us about some of the mysteries of the canyon, including why such large structures were built. “One theory is that this was a pilgrimage destination and a trading center with only a small resident population,” she said. “The outlying settlements would have provided food, construction materials, and trade goods in return for the chance to participate in Chaco ceremonies and rituals. The great houses might have housed the many pilgrims coming for events.”

Chaco’s elaborate road system is also puzzling. Despite having no wheeled vehicles or beasts of burden, the Ancestral Puebloans built 400 miles of roads that radiated out from the canyon. Up to 30 feet wide and bordered by low walls, the roads were labor-intensive to build and maintain. Some had unusual features that suggest they were constructed for ceremonial or ritual use, including parallel sets of roads separated by 50 feet and roads that led straight up the sides of cliffs.

The ranger also described how this is a living spiritual site for the native peoples of the Southwest, including the Pueblo tribes of New Mexico and Arizona as well as the Hopi, the Zuni, and the Navajo. “They each have their own stories and traditions relating to Chaco,” she said. “Members of these tribal nations return here frequently to do sacred ceremonies. They believe their ancestors still live here.”

Eager to explore the park’s treasures for ourselves, my husband and I left the visitor center and drove our car along the nine-mile road that leads through the valley. At first it was difficult to distinguish the sand-colored houses from the sandstone cliffs behind them, but as we drew closer we could see a chain of structures lining the canyon floor like medieval fortresses.

As we explored several of them on foot, the grandeur of the buildings became apparent, though they are much reduced from what they were in their prime. The most impressive is Pueblo Bonita, which with more than 600 rooms is the largest of the houses. It was built in stages over three centuries.

More artifacts have been found in Pueblo Bonita than in any other house in the canyon, including thousands of stone beads and pieces of pottery, ceremonial staffs, stone implements, bear and mountain lion claws, and 4,000 pieces of jet. A single room in Pueblo Bonito contained 50,000 pieces of turquoise, which is more than has been found in all other archaeological sites in the Southwest combined.

The walls of the great houses in Chaco Canyon were formed from meticulously fitted rocks and mud mortar. (photo by Bob Sessions)

Throughout our two-night stay in Chaco Canyon, I was struck by how silent the national park is. While some hardy travelers visit it on a day trip, as evening falls the only people in the canyon are those staying in the campground and the National Park staff, who have their own separate residential enclave. Each night the stars were incredible, showing us why this is designated as an International Dark Sky Park at the Gold Level.

On our last evening we hiked the trail that led to the great houses Kin Kletso and Casa Chiquita.  As we walked, the fading light brought out subtle colors in the canyon walls—soft peach, muted orange, and striations of purple. The quiet settled deeper around us, the immense silence of Chaco. I was suddenly glad that the road in was so rough, even though we’d have to endure it again the next morning. It was a small price to pay for having this vast, mysterious expanse nearly to ourselves.


If You Go: Chaco Culture National Historical Park is located 70 miles south of Farmington, New Mexico. It has a campground but no other lodging options. For more information see the park’s website.


Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of books that include Every Step Is Home, The Soul of the Family Tree, Near the Exit and Holy RoverHer website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.

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