First, you should know that Chaco Canyon is WAY out in the middle of nowhere. You drive through Farmington, New Mexico, and feel like you must be getting close, but no. Instead, you head south and drive through an Indian reservation on a road that has obviously not seen maintenance in years!
For about an hour you have to drive over ruts and through washes and you’re pretty certain that your car will fall completely apart into a pile of nuts and bolts, when finally you hit a paved road. That’s when you know you’re in the park, because the park service maintains that road.
We felt like ice cubes in a blender in our Suburban, so if you drive a small car, just take it really slow. Your GPS will get you there.
Chaco Culture Ntional Historic Park is definitely worth braving the bad roads!
There are no hotels in the vicinity, but there is a neat little campground. It has two honest-to-goodness restrooms, with flush toilets, but no showers. The campground is nestled at the base of two good-sized mesas, and there is a well-marked trail to climb them.
Chaco campground also has this old ruin and these awesome pictographs!
We pulled into the park pretty late, and found the campground, with it’s gigantic FULL- NO SITES AVAILABLE sign. What? So many people actually want to camp, that you have to reserve a campsite? Surely that sign was a mistake.
So we pulled into the campground anyway to have a chat with the camp host. I think he could sense our panic. We had a suburban full of camping equipment and hungry, tired kids, and the nearest hotel was a couple of hours away back over that horrible road. He very kindly and mercifully found a corner to squish us into.
He then informed us that fires weren’t allowed. What? I had spent so much time finding camping recipes and prepping our meals. We had no other way to cook them. How could fires not be allowed? More panic. There are no restaurants for miles!
Can you tell we’re not big campers?
Well, that same kind camp host generously lent us his propane camp stove. Boy, we would have been up a creek without a paddle without that wonderful camp host!
***Let this be a lesson to you! If you want to visit Chaco after seeing our glorious photos, be SURE to reserve a campsite well in advance and plan ahead for possible fire restrictions!
So we heated our tin foil dinners (and roasted marshmallows for s’mores) on the camp stove, had dinner, explored a little, then went to bed.
The campground provided these boxes of sand for pitching tents in. Unfortunately, our tent didn’t fit, ha, ha!
I woke up in the middle of the night and my 5-year-old was curled up in a ball in the corner of the ten where it hung over the edge of the sandbox, so I pulled her into my sleeping bag with me. That made it even harder to sleep. I mainly laid awake and prayed for the night to be over quickly so I could get up.
The sun finally rose around 5 am and I thankfully got up for a hike. My 9-year-old was also awake and went with me. We hiked to the top of the mesa and had fun talking and enjoying the sunrise.
Chaco is easy to explore in one day, especially if you get a pretty early start, like we did. The park has a 9-mile loop road, with parking pullouts near each of the sites. This map is helpful. Most sites are very accessible and very near the parking — no hiking involved unless you seek it out.
The sites are much larger and more interesting than I anticipated. This site, Una Vida, is right next to the visitors center, which sells informational booklets about each site for only $1 each. We found them very informative. The visitors center also has potable water and clean restrooms with flush toilets.
These pictographs are on the cliff right next to the site. There was cornmeal, sprinkled as an offering to the ancestors, all over the ground in front of it.
Hungo Pavi, just ten minutes down the road from the visitor’s center, doesn’t look all that special from the parking lot, but once you start walking through it, you see how expansive and fantastic it really is. The trails through it allow you to go inside some of the structures, but not all.
The round, underground structures are kiva’s, used mainly for worship. The would have had wooden rooves on them, supported by pilasters around the exterior walls. Each family in the community would have had a small kiva of their own, for personal use, and the large kivas would have been used by the community.
Our next stop was Chetro Ketl and Pueblo Bonito, two communities another 10 minutes down the loop road. All of these communities were probably built around the same time and would have associated with one another. There is evidence of old roads between the communities in this canyon and distant ones, too. Chetro Ketl and Pueblo Bonito are just a five-minute walk apart, and Pueblo Bonito is much, much larger. We joined a ranger-led tour at Pueblo Bonito, for a few minutes, but the littles weren’t very interested so we went our own way.
Located 4 1/2 miles from the Visitor Center on the 9-mile Canyon Loop Drive, Pueblo Bonito is the largest and best-preserved site in the canyon. The trail through Pueblo Bonito is 0.6 mile, roundtrip.
Planned and constructed in stages between AD 850 to AD 1150 by ancestral Puebloan peoples, this was the center of the Chacoan world. That world eventually covered a vast area of the present-day Southwest, including the San Juan Basin of New Mexico, and portions of Colorado, Utah, and Arizona. For over 300 years, Chacoan Culture united many diverse peoples within its sphere of influence.
Pueblo Del Arroyo
Casa Rinconada was our last stop along the loop road. This stop did require a bit of hiking, and the ruins are much more sparse and spread out. Just past Casa Rinconada there is a small pullout. It’s labeled and has an informational sign. Here you can see a staircase cut into the side of the cliff (look up and way back into the cliffs) by these ancient people.
Then you complete the loop road and drive back out of the park.
We spent about 6 hours touring Chaco, and we saw nearly everything very thoroughly. The only site that required much hiking was Casa Rinconadea. There are different back-country hikes you can take as well, but we felt like we saw everything we wanted to.
Be sure to bring plenty of food and water! We had a picnic outside of Pueblo Del Arroyo, just sitting on some logs in the rare and precious shade of a small tree.
Our favorite thing about Chaco is that we were able to get up close and personal with the ruins. There are a few places with ‘Do Not Enter’ signs, but for the most part you can walk right through the ruins. They are perfect for kids with imaginations! My kids spent the entire 2 hours we were at Pueblo Bonito pretending they were at Cair Paravel (from Narnia). They would have liked to spend hours more, but we had a schedule to keep.
Also in that area you will find:
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