If you haven’t heard of Chaco Canyon, you should look it up. I mean it. Right now.
It’s an amazing place, situated in an isolated canyon in New Mexico, which once hosted the heart of the Ancestral Puebloan world.
The Ancestral Pueblos were a culture that existed over a very large span of time and space in what is now known as the four corners region of the United States. They are most famous for building and then leaving behind the spectacular cliff dwellings I spend my days in here at Mesa Verde National Park. But many would argue their most important settlement was the one they built at Chaco Canyon.
I had been meaning to get to Chaco since I had first learned about it in my early days as a resident of the American Southwest at Canyonlands. But a long dirt road with a bad reputation kept me away, as I feared my low clearance sedan would not make the trip. Plus, one major disadvantage to living in a small park community is that everyone has different days off, so it can be difficult to find travel buddies for an overnight excursion.
But two weeks ago the stars aligned so that three of us rangers’ work and personal schedules actually matched. And better yet, one of my coworkers/neighbors/amazing friends even had a vehicle with clearance! Horrah!
So straight after work we loaded up and headed south to the desolate canyon we so often mention to visitors but had never visited ourselves.
Thick grey clouds hung low in the sky during the first part of our drive, and our fear of rain came true just as we left Aztec and headed towards that long, and now muddy, dirt road. The rain did not relent as we left the pavement, and we alternated between strained silence and screams of stress as we continuously lost traction on what had become a slippery clay mess. When the road wasn’t soupy and clinging to our tires, it was washboarded and bumpy, making for a slow advance. Tired from a full week of work, nervous about the darkness and gnarly road, and delirious about it all, we found ourselves belting out extended ahhhhhs in order to laugh at the goat-like vibrations in our voices. That helped ease the tension, and when Stephanie started mimicking the song of a humpback whale, I knew we were going to be okay.
Eventually we got to a large sign telling us we were approaching a wash. “DO NOT CROSS IF WASH IS RUNNING,” it warned. We looked at each other in dismay. Just ahead a small river had formed across the road. We got out of the car and poked around. Eventually, we stuck our toes into the flow and Stephanie even had the courage to walk out to the center. The water was only a few centimeters deep, and if the current was weak enough for Stephanie to walk across, surely our jeep would make it. (On a side note: we did not make the decision to send Stephanie into the wash until we had examined the water from several angles and for quite a while. Generally, when traveling in arid areas during times of rain, it’s best to do as signs advise and err on the side of caution. Flash floods are dangerous, powerful, and not fun at all when they wipe your car/bike/friend away.)
I held my breath as Kaitlyn, our hero/driver (you can read her version of the story here) hit the gas, and yelled obnoxiously as we crossed. We made it. And only a few miles later did we cross the cattle guard onto a delightfully chip sealed road that meant we had entered the park. *insert sigh of monumental relief here*
The next morning we awoke to find, much to our delight, that there was a beautiful pueblo tucked into an alcove in the campground just behind our tent. We breakfasted under a blue sky, our muddied car and quickly drying tent the only remaining clue of our very wet night. Chaco Canyon is supposed to have one of the best night sky views in the country, maybe even the world. I silently cursed the wispy white clouds above us. Where were you last night?!? I sneered. Thanks to your friends cumulonimbus, I didn’t get a single twinkle!
Ah well, time to see what this place was all about.
We stopped in at the visitor center, picked up our junior ranger books (I always do the junior ranger program when I visit a new national park. Not only is it fun, you really do learn so much more in just a little time.), and headed straight to the main attraction: Pueblo Bonito.
The largest structure at Chaco Canyon, Pueblo Bonito was the cultural center of the region, and once contained somewhere around 650 rooms. Much to our luck, a free ranger-guided tour was being given that morning, and our timing was just right to hop on. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable, if not a little too talkative – our 1 to 1 ½ hour advertised tour time rounded up to a solid 2, and those last thirty minutes were pretty brutal under the heat of a now high, baking sun. Still, the site was incredible. Although Chaco Canyon predates Mesa Verde, the masonry construction was much finer. Our guide told us the builders of Chaco Canyon quarried their rock four miles from the construction site – that 8 mile round-trip hike is especially long without the use of pack animals or the wheel.
After our tour we took a short hike out to the grave of Richard Wetherill – a rancher from Mancos who, with his brothers, is given credit for discovering and publicizing the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. Although he was not formally trained, he eventually became somewhat of an archaeologist himself and went on to excavate and examine many, many more Ancestral Puebloan sites – including those at Chaco Canyon, where he was eventually shot and killed. Apparently he was somewhat of derisive figure, and a lot of controversy continues to exist concerning the nature of his work and character today.
After a lunch closely stalked by a pair of adorable but persistent antelope squirrels, we headed out for a hike that promised to take us to the top of the sheer cliff walls that anchored the canyon and a view of Pueblo Bonito and Chaco as a whole from above. A steep ascent through a rocky crack in the cliff provided the only respite from the searing sun. The views were magnificent, but the heat kept our ambitions at bay, and with that long dirt road still ahead of us, we decided that that hike would be the last of the day.
We had one more stop to make before we could head home. We took refuge on the air conditioned couches of the visitor center and finished our junior ranger books. The ranger swore us in and we pinned our badges to our shirts. Real rangers don’t have to do a formal pledge, but it sure is fun. It was nearly four o’clock before we drove towards the exit and past the sacred Fajada Butte. Anthropologists still wonder today about the choice of seemingly bleak location for this thriving community center. But many natives say it had something to do with Fajada, that this butte in particular was special or sacred in some way.
As we drove past I bowed my head at the giant rock. Special, sacred – absolutely. If you’ve never heard of Chaco, you should look it up.
I mean it.