Americans are often preoccupied with ancient cultures on faraway shores, but New Mexicans have the ruins of an ancient, advanced civilization, on par with the ancient Mayans or Aztecs, in their backyard.

Culturally and historically, Chaco Canyon is New Mexico’s crown jewel. The emergence of the powerful society in Chaco Canyon represents the culmination of thousands of years of habitation. Chacoan culture and traditions spread like tendrils throughout the region. In fact, despite abandoning the canyon centuries ago, the influence of the Ancestral Puebloans continues to resonate today in New Mexico’s agricultural techniques, artistic traditions, architecture, and cuisine.

Writing an article about Chaco Canyon is daunting. It’s like writing a short essay about the Ancient Egyptians. Short-form travel blogging is not conducive to delving deeply into over a century of archaeological research. However, I’ve avoided this subject for five years, relying on a variety of sources for solid content, including a fellow Weekly Alibi alumni with a penchant for archaeology in the west. His website is Western Digs.

Dirt Road Disclaimer

Chaco Canyon is one of the most inaccessible National Parks in the country. Although it is well-known, there is no easy way to get there and there are no amenities once you arrive. The closest town is 60 miles away. There’s a gas station on the main road, near where you turn off on Highway 550. That’s the last opportunity for gas, water, snacks, sunscreen and supplies.

Furthermore, there is no good road to Chaco Canyon. Bluntly, it feels like an Indiana Jones expedition the moment you turn off the main road. The jolting journey evolves from a deceivingly decent dirt road to not so good to face rattling off your skull for a couple of miles. Also, there’s a large wash on the way, which can become impassable during heavy storms. Don’t be daring, because there’s no cell phone reception either.

Chaco BeamsChaco masonryChaco WallsRamp on Fajada ButtePueblo Bonito kiva clusterChaco key doorPueblo Bonito

Ancestral Puebloans

Archaeologists have ample evidence that indigenous people have continuously occupied the Colorado Plateau for over 10,000 years, possibly much longer. It seems likely that the Ancestral Puebloans were related to one or more of the many groups that hunted and foraged in this region before settling down and planting crops. Farming was widespread by 400 A.D., with crops like maize, beans, and squash supplementing the supply of wild resources.

Initially, people lived in deep pit houses, which were essentially subterranean dug outs, with a wood or earthen roof/doorway. Over time, their agricultural skills blossomed. They developed sophisticated methods of irrigation, collecting and managing runoff water from cliffs with canals, and terraces. They also built low walls (check dams) to slow and divert the flow of water from seasonal arroyos and runoff to fields. These advancements, combined with a period of ample rainfall, provided the ideal environment for a population explosion and technological boom.

A Period of Plenty

Times were good in the 700s. There was ample water available, which meant good hunting and bountiful crops. The small villages in Chaco Canyon grew into large settlements, centered around large, stone houses, known as great houses, with hundreds of interconnected rooms and multiple kivas. They invested enormous resources into commerce, economics, and engineering and Chacoan cultural dominance spread in all directions. As a result, the inhabitants of the great houses accumulated enormous wealth, based on the storage bins full of turquoise, cacao and other trade goods imported from Mexico.

The population boom and plentiful food supply also facilitated the emergence of highly specialized skills, with Ancestral Puebloans mastering urban planning, engineering, astronomy, physics, and math. Between 850-1150 A.D., pueblos became dramatically larger and more elaborate, capable of housing multiple families behind the safety of thick, sturdy walls. In fact, each of the large complexes was essentially an independent village.

Building Boom

Over several generations, Chacoans built an immense, thriving urban enclave. Using simple stone tools to cut and shape sandstone blocks out of nearby cliffs, they figured out how to support the weight of the enormous stone edifices, some rising 4-5 stories tall. The structures ranged from 20 to 1,000 rooms, with kivas, terraces, and plazas.

The windows and doors were small, with no openings in the lowest rooms. People entered on the upper levels, using ladders that could be retracted if the community was under attack. They also built tall, thick walls, with millions of stones mortared with mud, covering both sides of the walls with plaster.

The levels of the great houses were stacked, with each floor set back from the floor below. The terraces created were used as outdoor living space. They built roofs to bear the enormous weight of the stone, using heavy wooden beams, covered by a mat of smaller poles and brush. Finally, they applied a coat of adobe 6-8 inches thick.

Overall, the buildings in Chaco Canyon were the largest structures in the United States until the late 1800s, which was several centuries after Chaco was abandoned. The largest pueblo, Pueblo Bonito, is estimated to have been 4-5 stories tall with approximately 600 rooms. Additionally, archaeologists have found ample evidence of public works and community infrastructure, like landscaping, enormous storage facilities, and extensive road systems.

Chaco Canyon | The “Capital”

If the Ancestral Puebloan’s civilization was presented as a symphony, Chaco Canyon was a crescendo. Based on scale alone, Chaco surpasses all other ruins in the region. Driving through the canyon towards Pueblo Bonito FEELS like approaching THE Capital, as you pass one large pueblo after another. It was like a prehistoric version of New York’s boroughs. Pueblo descendants say that Chaco was a special gathering place, where people and clans converged to share ceremonies, traditions, and knowledge. For those with a vivid imagination, it would have been an amazing sight back in its heyday, particularly after traveling through the bizarre landscape of the surrounding badlands.

The amount of research on Chaco is comparable to the study of the Mayans and Aztecs in central Mexico. There are an estimated 1.5 million artifacts and archival documents. However, we still don’t know if the pueblos throughout the canyon were residential or ceremonial. That is a point of ongoing debate. Regardless, it was certainly the largest community and most advanced community in the San Juan Basin, with impressive architecture and complex social and ceremonial structures. Ultimately, the culture and skills that emerged from Chaco Canyon dominated the region for 400 years, with their influence reverberating through the centuries to the modern day.

Great Houses

Chaco “great houses” are the largest, best preserved, and most complex prehistoric architectural structures in North America. The construction required complex planning, organization, and cooperation on a regional level for a sustained period of time. The builders quarried stone for construction, harvested wood in distant mountain forests for beams, and erected massive blocks of rooms.

Pueblo Bonito is among the most impressive of the great houses. The massive D-shaped structure housed between 600-800 rooms. The doors are one of the many remarkable design features. Sometimes the builders aligned the doors to give the impression that you can see all the way through the building.

The pueblo was multi-storied, with some sections reaching 4-5 stories. Some of the upper floors had balconies. Archaeologists tested the wood beams used, revealing logs hauled from the San Mateo Mountains and the Chuska Mountains, about 50 miles away. In total, they would have needed about 240,000 trees for each of the larger great houses. But there were no carts or livestock to haul timber?!?! Gives a whole new meaning to handmade, eh?

Though kivas were a part of Puebloan life prior to Chaco Canyon’s cultural renaissance, the great kivas associated with Chaco Canyon took these structures to a whole new level, with benches and fire pits meticulously arranged on the floor. There were three great kivas and thirty-two smaller kivas at Pueblo Bonito.

Chaco stairs
Chaco stairs

Cultural Expansion

Chacoan settlers established satellite communities throughout the San Juan Basin and beyond between 750-1150 A.D.. They expanded into the Virgin River valley of southeastern Nevada, north to the Great Salt Lake, northwestern and southeastern Colorado, and the Pecos and upper Canadian River valleys of New Mexico. They built communities like the great houses in Chaco, with similar features, materials, and designs, though on a much smaller scale.

Chaco had become the ceremonial, administrative, and economic center of the San Juan Basin by 1050. Its sphere of influence was extensive. A network of roads connected Chaco Canyon to more than 150 great houses throughout the region. They also built roads to significant landmarks, though archaeologists haven’t found evidence of travel or trade at those sites so the purpose is a mystery.

Chacoan Decline

Unfortunately, after over four centuries, the period of plenty waned. Evidence from archaeology and tree-ring dating indicate that there was a cycle of extreme, prolonged drought between 1130-1180. Construction projects in the canyon ceased, after being a priority for centuries.

Though we don’t know details about how the social, political, and cultural meltdown reverberated beyond Chaco, there is evidence that it was a period of upheaval and social turbulence. For example, archaeologists found skeletal remains showing signs of violent death throughout the Puebloan world. Mass graves suggest that there were massacres, with bones showing signs of blunt-force trauma, mutilation and burning. Additionally, family groups migrated in large numbers. They abandoned several outlier sites, establishing new villages on reliable waterways, like the Little Colorado, Puerco, Verde, San Francisco, Rio Grande, Pecos, upper Gila, and Salt rivers.

Chaco Canyon Culture National Historical Park

Mailing Address
PO Box 220
Nageezi, NM 87037
(505) 786-7014

Chaco Culture National Historical Park preserves a major center of ancestral Puebloan culture dating between 850 and 1250 CE. Chaco is a very special place. Remote and isolated, it offers few amenities. Come prepared.”

For a deeper connection with the canyon, explore Chaco through guided tours, hiking & biking trails, campfire talks, and night sky programs. The majority of the park and cultural sites are self-guided year-round. Six major sites are located along the 9-mile long Canyon Loop Drive. These sites include Una Vida, Hungo Pavi, Pueblo Bonito, Chetro Ketl, Pueblo del Arroyo, and Casa Rinconada.

Please keep in mind, there is no cell phone service other than inside the Visitor Center. However, the signal isn’t consistent across carriers and it isn’t strong enough to use the internet. The convenience store at the junction of Hwy 550 and County road 7900 is the last place to get gas, supplies, water or snacks.

Fees

The entrance pass is valid for 7 days. They encourage visitors to print the PDF receipt and display it on the windshield of your vehicle, especially when the visitor center is closed. They honor Interagency Annual, Military, Senior, Every Kid in a Park, and Access Passes, and sell Interagency Passes.

  • Vehicle Entrance Fee: $25.00 for 7 days
  • Motorcycle Entrance Fee: $20.00 for 7 days
  • Individual Entrance Fee: $15.00 for 7 days
  • Commercial Entrance Fees are charged per vehicle and are based on the capacity of the vehicle:
    • Sedan with 1-6 passengers: $25.00 plus $15.00 per person age 16 or older
    • Van with 7-15 passengers: $40.00
    • Mini Bus with 16-25 passengers: $40.00
    • Motor Coach with 26-46 passengers: $100
  • Non-Commercial Group Fees are charged per vehicle and are based on the capacity of the vehicle:
    • Vehicle seating capacity of 15 or less: $25.00
    • Vehicle seating capacity of 16 or more: $15.00 per person age 16 or older up to the commercial group fee rate. Interagency passes (e.g. Annual, Senior, or Access) may be used for entry as defined on the back of the pass.
Buy Your Pass Online

Whether you’re planning a single visit or coming back multiple times a year, enjoy the convenience of purchasing a Site Pass for Chaco Culture National Historical Park on Recreation.gov before you arrive. You have immediate access to your pass and can easily download it on your phone or tablet. The pass will also be emailed as a PDF to be printed out for display when you visit the Park. Learn more about your pass options, find the right

Pueblo Bonito
Pueblo Bonito

Permits & Reservations

The park issues permits for photography, filming and sound recording. Additionally, they require permits for after-hour access to areas normally closed to the visiting public.

Call the park for more information about special use permits, (505) 334-6174, ext. 228

Hours

Visitor Center
November 1 to April 30 – 8:00am to 4:00pm
May 1 to October 31 – 8:00am to 5:00pm

Loop Road and Archaeological Sites
November 1 to April 30 – 7:00am to 5:00pm
May 1 to October 31 – 7:00am to 9:00pm

This includes all great houses and parking areas accessed from park roads, back country trails, and outlier sites. The entrance gate to the loop road closes 30 minutes prior to the park closing. Park facilities are closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day and the Gallo campground is closed the day prior to Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.

Chaco Canyon

Downtown Chaco’s Great Houses

The Ancestral Puebloans built the great houses of Pueblo Bonito, Una Vida, and Peñasco Blanco during the middle and late 800s, followed by Hungo Pavi, Chetro Ketl, Pueblo Alto, and others. They planned these buildings meticulously, with structures aligning with solar, lunar, and cardinal directions. Sophisticated astronomical markers, communication features, water control devices, and formal earthen mounds surrounded the great houses, with direct lines of sight facilitating communication.

Trail maps are available in the Visitor Center.

Chaco Petroglyphs

Una Vida & Petroglyphs | 1 mile round trip, approx. 45 minutes

Upon arrival at Chaco, Una Vida is the first site that begs for exploration. Una Vida is a Chacoan “great house” in an L-shape, with 2-3 story buildings, a central plaza, and great kiva. Construction began in 850 A.D. continuing for 200 years. In total, there were about 100 ground floor rooms. Located immediately behind the Visitor Center, there’s a one-mile trail that leads to the site and its petroglyph panel.

Una Vida exists today in a near-natural state of preservation, free from major vandalism, and with only minor excavations and preservation repairs. A one-mile round trip (including petroglyphs) trail begins at the NE corner of the Visitor Center parking lot. Portions are rocky, steep, and slippery when wet. The trail through the site goes along the cliffs – look for petroglyphs carved in the sandstone. Petroglyphs relate to clan symbols, records of migrations, hunting, and important events.

Hungo Pavi | ¼ mile round trip, approx. ½ hour

Hungo Pavi is an unexcavated Chacoan great house (monumental public building) containing over 150 rooms, a great kiva, and an enclosed plaza. It is located two miles from the visitor center on the 9-mile loop drive. Archaeologists believe the pueblo was occupied from 1000 – 1250 A.D. Like Una Vida, Hungo Pavi is unexcavated. However, more of the structure is visible than Una Vida.

The ¼ mile trail forks as you approach the walls. Take the right fork to the corner to look back over the site and see the outline the typical Chacoan D-shape foundation. The center area was the plaza, site of most communal activities. The circular depression on the side of the plaza was the great kiva. You can download a pdf file of the Hungo Pavi trail guide here.

Pueblo Bonito

Chetro Ketl | ½ mile round trip, approx. 45 minutes

Located about 1/2 mile apart, some archaeologists refer to the combined complex of ruins, including Pueblo del Arroyo, as “Downtown Chaco.” Chetro Ketl was the second largest Chacoan great house, covering 3-acres, with 500 rooms and 16 kivas, including a great kiva and several elevated kivas. Similar to Pueblo Bonito in size and scope, Chetro Ketl has a D-shape foundation, with multi-story buildings, housing hundreds of interconnected rooms, and a great kiva located prominently in a large, central plaza. One unique feature at Chetro Ketl is the plaza. As the Chacoans built the second and third stories, they created an elevated plaza that stands 12 feet above the surrounding landscape. In total, they used about 50 million stones; cutting, shaping, and placing every stone by hand.

Archaeologists audited and analyzed the trees used at Chetro Ketl extensively, estimating that 16,000 Ponderosa pines were cut for this site alone. Based on wood samples, they believe the pines were brought to the site from the Zuni Mountains, 50 miles away.

Tip: Follow the trail along the cliffs between Chetro Ketl and Pueblo Bonito to look for petroglyphs.

Casa Rinconada and Small Villages | ½ mile round trip, approx. 30-45 minutes

The trail is graveled, climbing several short, steep rises. Park staff recommend assistance for people using wheelchairs. Located 6 miles from the visitor center on the 9-mile Canyon Loop Drive, the initial pueblos and small villages are a good introduction to basic Chacoan architecture and building styles. These communities served smaller groups of people; however, they co-existed with the extravagant public edifices, like Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl.

Pueblo del Arroyo | ¼ mile round trip, approx. 30-45 minutes

Chacoans planned and constructed Pueblo del Arroyo in two short stages from about 1025 – 1125 A.D. Located 5 1/2 miles from the Visitor Center on the 9-mile Canyon Loop Drive, Pueblo del Arroyo typifies the great pueblo architecture found throughout the Chacoan world, although a great kiva is noticeably absent.

Pueblo Bonito | ½ mile round trip, approx. 45 minutes- 1 hour

Pueblo Bonito is the most important site in the canyon. It is one of the largest, and oldest, of the great houses. This is the pueblo that you ALWAYS see in vacation photos. The Chacoans built Pueblo Bonito in stages between 850-1150 A.D. The 3-acre complex is the standard Chacoan D-shape. There are 36 kivas, 800+ interconnected rooms, two plazas, walls up to 3-feet thick, with sections of the building rising to 4-stories high. A section of the cliff collapsed on Pueblo Bonito in the 1940s, destroying a large section of the building and back walls.

Located 4 1/2 miles from the Visitor Center on the 9-mile Canyon Loop Drive, Pueblo Bonito served as a center for ceremonies, trading, storage, astronomy, and burial of the dead. Burial caches under the floors included artifacts like a necklace with two thousand turquoise squares, a turkey feather blanket, conch shell trumpets, quiver and arrows, ceremonial staffs, painted flutes, and turquoise mosaics, items typically interred with high status people. Archaeologists discovered that over a period of 330 years, nine of the burials at Pueblo Bonito shared a common strand of DNA passed only through the mother. This is consistent with the matriarchal traditions prevalent among Puebloans today. For more about the DNA findings, check out this article from Scientific American.

Kin Kletso

Sometimes called the “Yellow House” ruin, Kin Kletso is one of Chaco’s later structures. The term Yellow House refers to its lighter shade of sandstone compared to other sites at Chaco. Located about ½-mile west of Pueblo Bonito, archaeologists think the pueblo was built around 1125 A.D. Compared to other Great Houses, the layout is a bit different. It is a rectangle, with no plaza or great kiva. In total, there are 60 rooms and 5 kivas, one of which is a designated as a “tower kiva” (2 or more stories).

The pueblo is also a handy landmark at the foot of the Pueblo Alto Trail (in case you want the overhead view of Pueblo Bonito).

Four Additional Outliers:

  • Kin Klizhin (“black house”); famous for its impressive tower kiva, located on a wash that empties into the Chaco River just west of the park boundary. Download the brochure on Kin Klizhin (187kb pdf).
  • Pueblo Pintado (“painted town”) is perched on an impressive promontory overlooking the Chaco Wash 15 miles upstream from the main park units, near the modern Navajo community of Pueblo Pintado. Download the brochure on Pueblo Pintado(133kb pdf).
  • Kin Bineola (“house in which the wind whirls”). CLOSED. No public access.
  • Kin Ya’a (“towering house”). CLOSED. No public access.

Archaeology & Preservation

Archaeological explorations at Chaco Canyon began in the late 1800s. Richard Wetherill, a Colorado rancher, and George H. Pepper, an archaeology student from Harvard, began to dig at Pueblo Bonito. Since then, national organizations, like the Smithsonian Institution, the American Museum of Natural History and the National Geographic Society, have sponsored excavations at small and large sites throughout the Four Corners.

Chaco Collection

The Chaco Museum Collection is primarily an archaeological research collection documenting the full range of prehistoric and historic occupation of Chaco Canyon, from ca. 2900 BC to the mid-1900s. The emphasis is on the Ancestral Pueblo occupation of the Canyon, from about AD 1 – 1250, which is the cultural period the park was created to preserve. Furthermore, the museum collection is divided into two components: objects and archives, with over 1 million artifacts and archival records collected from over 120 sites in Chaco Canyon and the surrounding region over the last century.

Among the artifacts collected at Chaco, there is a treasure trove of ceramics, decorated with geometric designs, for bowls, canteens, cooking pots, ladles, pitchers, mugs, cacao from Central America, finger rings, shell necklaces, turquoise pendants, copper bells, wooden headdresses, whistles and flutes, stone knives and axes, ceremonial staffs, incense burners, sandals, cloth, feathered cloaks, parrot skeletons, metates for grinding corn, conch shell trumpets, arrows, and pottery in the shape of deer, birds, humans.

Artifacts from the museum collection can be seen in the park’s web exhibit and in Albuquerque at the University of New Mexico Maxwell Museum of Anthropology exhibit, People of the Southwest.

Threats to Chaco

When President Theodore Roosevelt passed the Antiquities Act of 1906, Chaco Canyon was one of the first sites protected as a national monument. Additionally, Chaco Canyon is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Chacoan region extended far beyond this center. Much of the Greater Chaco Region needs to be surveyed, because there are invariably structures, roads, and other findings that would provide additional insight into this vibrant culture. Unfortunately, the Greater Chacoan Region does not fall under the protection of the National Park Service or UNESCO, which means the historic treasures at Chaco are threatened by encroaching oil drilling and fracking.

Astronomy at Chaco Canyon

Petroglyphs found in Chaco Canyon and the surrounding area reflect an interest in lunar and solar cycles. For example, many buildings and walls are aligned with winter and summer solstices. Observing the celestial cycles provided the Ancestral Puebloans with guidance and insight in terms of agricultural and ceremonial events. Their Puebloan descendants carry on many of these traditions today.

Chaco Night Sky Program | International Dark Sky Park

Since 1991, Chaco Culture NHP has offered astronomy programs, emphasizing the practices of the Chacoan people a thousand years ago, as well as modern approaches to viewing the same night sky they viewed–in a remote environment with clear, dark skies, and free from urban light pollution. Additionally, the park constructed a permanent observatory at the visitor center in 1997, dedicating the Chaco Observatory in May, 1998. Finally, Chaco was officially designated an International Dark Sky Park on August 19, 2013. It is the 12th park to receive the designation worldwide and only the 4th unit of the U.S. National Park System.

April through October: The park presents the Evening Night Sky Programs on Friday and Saturday evenings at sunset. Staff begin the programs with presentations about archaeoastronomy, cultural history, and other topics. The presentation is followed by telescope viewing of celestial objects. Contact the park to verify times and dates.

Annual Events

Spring Equinox (March 21): Join park staff to observe the alignment of the building with the equinox sunrise at Casa Rinconada, a Chacoan great kiva.

Summer Solstice (June 21): Presented at Casa Rinconada, a Chacoan great kiva. Join park staff to observe the sunrise and the solstice marker of light inside the kiva.

Autumn Equinox (Sept 21): The park hold the autumnal program at sunrise at Casa Rinconada, a Chacoan great kiva. Join park staff to observe the alignment of the building with the equinox sunrise.

Winter Solstice (Dec 21): Observe a winter solstice alignment. Park at the Pueblo del Arroyo parking area and walk 1/8 of a mile to Kin Kletso. Experience the winter solstice sunrise at this Chacoan Great House.

For more details about these astronomy programs, see the official Park Service website.

Also, the Albuquerque Astronomical Society hosts star parties at Chaco. Check their website for a calendar of upcoming events.

Chaco Canyon Hiking Trails

Four back country hiking trails lead visitors to remote Chacoan sites, passing ancient roads, petroglyphs, stairways, and spectacular overlooks of the valley: Wijiji Trail, South Mesa Trail, Pueblo Alto Trail, and Peñasco Blanco Trail. These trails range from three miles round trip (Wijiji) to eight miles round trip (Peñasco Blanco).

Regardless which trail you choose, your route will provide a rare opportunity to experience the sweeping southwestern vistas and to see the impressive Chacoan Great Houses and roads. Furthermore, the experience will help you to understand the scope and extent of the Chacoan world. The trails are open from 7am until sunset. The park requires permits. However, permits are free at the Visitor Center and at the trailheads. There is no overnight backcountry camping.

Fajada Butte

Additional Sites In The Canyon

Fajada Butte

Fajada Butte (Banded Butte) rises 450-feet above the canyon floor rock at the southern entrance of Chaco Canyon. Although there is no water source on the butte, there are ruins of small cliff dwellings in the higher regions of the butte. Analysis of fragments of pottery found on Fajada show that these structures were used primarily in the late 13th centuries. However, the butte must have been relevant centuries earlier, because they built a 130-foot long ramp on one side of the butte in the 10th century. The magnitude of this building project, without an apparent utilitarian purpose, indicates that prominent landmark may have had considerable ceremonial importance for the Chacoan people.

Regardless, the ramp is an impressive example of public works and engineering. The ramp, which appears to take advantage of some natural ridgelines but is definitely at least partly artificial especially in its upper parts, has received oddly little attention in the literature despite being an impressive accomplishment that, judging from the pottery found on it, apparently dates to the tenth century just like the nearby community sites.

Sun Dagger

On top of Fajada Butte, there are three large sandstone slabs that lean up against the southern wall. At noon every day the sun shines between the stones and casts a dagger of light across spirals carved into the walls centuries ago. The Sun Dagger phenomenon was first noticed by artist Anna Sofaer in 1977 when she was a volunteer recording the petroglyphs on Fajada Butte.

Richard Wetherill Cemetery

Richard Wetherill, a local rancher with an affinity for ruins, was a controversial figure in the history of the Southwest. His family buried him at the historic cemetery at Chaco that bears his name. Wetherill led the first excavation of Pueblo Bonito between 1894 – 1900, spending much of his life exploring the Southwest, excavating sites, and selling artifacts. He discovered the Cliff Palace ruin at Mesa Verde, Kiet Seel ruin at Navajo National Monument, and he coined the term “Anasazi” for the Ancestral Puebloans.

Atlatl Cave

Atlatl Cave is actually an overhang, but it would have provided protection during inclement weather. Someone obviously used it, because they left their atlatl (a spear chucker) and rock art. Since they provide shelter from the elements, caves and dry overhangs are important sites for archeological research. The site closed to public visitation.

Gallo Campground

Gallo Campground, located one mile east of the Visitor Center, is open year-round. The campground is rugged, surrounded by high desert landscape, with petroglyphs, a cliff dwelling, and inscriptions. The campground has 49 individual campsites and two group sites. Of these, 41 individual sites and the two group sites are available by reservation. Camping is limited to 14 days. Closed for Thanksgiving, December 24th, 25th, 31st and January 1st. There is no shade.

Each site has a picnic table and fire grate (with a grill), but you should bring your own firewood or charcoal, because the park prohibits gathering wood and there is no firewood for sale in the park. Most sites include a tent pad and the campground has water and restrooms with flush toilets; however, there are no showers or hook-ups. Site #11 and both restrooms are handicap accessible. There is no gasoline, auto repair, food, or ice available in the park. Plan ahead and come prepared.

Each campsite costs $15.00 per night; however, Interagency Senior and Access pass holders pay $7.50 per site, per night. There is a limit of six people, two tents, and two vehicles at each campsite. Car camping is allowed. Group sites are a flat rate of $60/night. Check-out time is 11:00 AM. Visit www.recreation.gov or call (877) 444-6777.

RVs

The campground cannot accommodate trailers and RVs over 35 feet in length. There are no hook-ups. However, a dump station is located in the campground. They allow generators one hour at a time between 8AM-8PM. Sites 12-16 are for RV camping only.

Gallo Campground Group Sites

Two group campsites are available, each accommodating 10 to 30 people, with no more than 5 vehicles. The park limits group stays to seven days at a time. They require group campground reservations. Visit www.recreation.gov or call (877) 444-6777.

All groups making reservations must call and inform the Visitor Center of their stay, (505) 786-7014, ext 253. The group campsites are designed for tent camping and cannot accommodate RVs, pop-up trailers, etc. Picnic tables and a fire ring (with a grill) are provided at each site. The park does not allow wood gathering. Bring your own or purchase wood at the visitor center. There are restrooms with flush toilets, but no showers or hook-ups.

Pueblo BonitoChaco Canyon Weather

Located at 6,200 feet in elevation, the weather in Chaco Canyon is unpredictable and can be extreme. Summer highs are typically 80’s to mid-90’s. Thunderstorms can produce heavy localized downpours and dramatic drops in temperatures. Winter temperatures are below freezing most nights. Spring and Fall are great times to visit, with more moderate temperatures. However, unexpected storms can change things dramatically and wind is always a variable. Monitor local weather forecasts.

Carry a rain poncho and a jacket or sweater. Wear hiking boots and a wide-brimmed hat, and use sunscreen. Also, carry and drink extra water and eat lots of snacks.

Pets

Chaco Culture welcomes pets. However, please note the pet policy and safety concerns.

  • The park does not allow pets into the principal Chacoan sites (Pueblo Bonito, Chetro Ketl, Casa Rinconada, Pueblo del Arroyo, Hungo Pavi, and Una Vida) located along the Canyon Loop Drive.
  • Gallo Campground allows pets, but they must be on a leash.
  • The park allows pets on the backcountry hiking trails (Pueblo Alto, Peñasco Blanco, South Mesa, and Wijiji trails), but they have to be on a leash and under control at all times. Please carry out all pet waste.
  • Bubonic plague and Hantavirus exist in northern New Mexico. Rodents are the most common carriers. Stay away from burrows and nests and do not feed wildlife.
  • Please do not leave pets alone in locked vehicles. Even in the winter, the temperature in a vehicle can soar quickly.

Directions to Chaco Canyon

There are no paved roads to Chaco Canyon and the dirt roads are rough. Slow your roll to avoid expensive suspension repairs. The northern and southern routes include 13, 20, and 33 miles of dirt roads, respectively. The roads are infrequently maintained. Furthermore, they may become impassable during inclement weather. If you have an RV, and aren’t planning on camping in the park, you may want to leave the RV and drive a car into the park. Call the park for current road conditions. (505) 786-7014

From the North

Turn off US 550 at CR 7900, 3 miles southeast of Nageezi and approximately 50 miles west of Cuba (at mile 112.5). This route is clearly marked from US 550 to the park boundary (21 miles). The route includes 8 miles of paved road (CR 7900 & CR7950) and 13 miles of rough dirt road (CR7950). The 4 1/2 miles before entering the park are very rough.

From the South

Two routes access Chaco from Highway 9, which runs between Crownpoint, Pueblo Pintado, and Cuba. Both routes can vary from very rough to impassable. As bad as the other road may be in terms of washboard, these roads are worse. Not recommended for RVs. If you are traveling from the south, please call ahead for the latest conditions.

Via Hwy 57 (Hwy 14 on some maps): This turnoff is located on Highway 9, 13 miles east of Highway 371, at the former Seven Lakes Trading Post. (20 miles of dirt). Note that the signs directing you to turn off of Hwy 371 onto Highway 9 are missing. Go slow over cattle guards and watch for rocks and ruts.

Via Pueblo Pintado: At the community of Pueblo Pintado, turn north on Navajo 46 for 10 miles (rough dirt). Turn left on County Road 7900 for 7 miles (some rough dirt). Turn left on County Road 7950, and follow the signs to the park entrance (3 miles paved and 13 of rough dirt road).

Chaco doorwaysPDF Brochures About Chaco Canyon


Travel Resources

Aztec Chamber of Commerce
110 N. Ash
Aztec, New Mexico 87410
(505) 334-9551

Farmington Convention & Visitor Center
203 W. Main – Suite 401
Farmington, New Mexico 87401
(800) 448-1240

Bloomfield Chamber of Commerce
224 W. Broadway
Bloomfield, NM 87413
(800) 461-1245

Bureau of Land Management
1235 La Plata Highway, Suite A
Farmington, NM 87401
(505) 599-8900

Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness Area
Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness hoodoos

Chacoan Outliers

In addition to the outliers included within Chaco Canyon, there are several other outlying great houses that are open to the public. Some of these are at other National Park Service units, while others are owned and protected by other entities.

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