Far off in the desolate desert of northwest New Mexico, lie the intriguing ruins of an advanced civilization. A thousand years ago, Chaco Canyon was the power center of the Anasazi (aka Ancestral Puebloan) culture. Here, thousands of people built enormous great houses, engineered roads and dams, and watched the stars. Then they left.Kin Kletso, one of the great houses at Chaco Canyon
Today, Chaco Canyon is a World Heritage Site, and an isolated national park, accessible by miles of dirt road. Let's hope they keep it that way, because the lack of visitors makes the site atmospheric. You can wander through the massive ruins in peace, and almost imagine it back in its heyday...
No place north of Mexico contains so spectacular an array of prehistoric ruins concentrated in so small an area, as a ten mile stretch of Chaco Canyon."
~ Archaeologist Alden Hayes
History of Chaco Canyon
As far back as 5,000 BC, prehistoric hunters roamed this area in search of game. About 700 AD, people started to build permanent settlements here, and in the 900s, Chaco really took off.
This is when Chacoans began building great houses - enormous buildings up to 4 stories high, with as many as 800 rooms. Through the 900s and 1000s, massive building projects continued. They used 200,000 ponderosa pine trees, all of which had to be cut and carried by hand from many miles away. There were no horses or wheels at the time, just people power.
Then it all came to a halt. By the mid 1100s, the canyon stood deserted.Aerial view of the largest great house, Pueblo Bonito
What happened at Chaco Canyon?
The great houses
The most prominent ruins at Chaco are the great houses. The largest of these is Pueblo Bonito, which had about 800 rooms.
No other apartment house of comparable size was known in North America or in the Old World until the Spanish Flats were erected in 1882 in New York City."
~ Neil Judd, in National Geographic, 1920
Why did they build these enormous structures? Early archaeologists assumed they were fully inhabited, though that now seems unlikely. Whatever the reasons, the size and fine stonework of these great houses was unprecedented.
Outliers and roadsMap of Chaco outliers and roads
At its peak, 2,000 to 6,000 people lived in Chaco Canyon. This is just the tip of the iceberg, though. They also had over 100 outlier communities, spread across the 33,000 square mile San Juan Basin. These smaller towns were set in a wide variety of environments, which gave the residents of Chaco access to a range of resources, like trees, salt and turquoise. (They were big on turquoise jewelry!)
The outliers were connected to Chaco by an extensive road network, unlike any others in prehistoric North America. More than 400 miles of broad, engineered roads have been found. They lead straight as an arrow, sometimes cutting through hills, or using ramps to climb steep cliffs.
Why did they need more than footpaths? With no wheeled transport, why did they need roads 30 ft wide, enough for 3 lanes of cars?
Their trails are remarkable, extending as they do in a straight line... These deeply worn paths, even on the rocks, pass without swerving to right or left, over valley, plain, or ascent of mesa - as though the trail was older than the mesas." ~ US Army's Wheeler Survey, 1879
Dams and irrigation
In the desert, water is precious and critical for life to survive and flourish. The people of Chaco were able to collect water from the large drainage areas on the surrounding mesas, so it could be used for drinking and irrigation.
Major dams up to 120 feet long and 20 feet thick collected water. A sophisticated system of head gates and canals (often lined with stone slabs and masonry) channeled the water where it was needed in town, and irrigated tens of thousands of fields.
Geography and astronomyDoes this show the supernova of 1054?
There were certainly sun watchers at Chaco. Pueblo Bonito great house was built carefully aligned with the cardinal directions. A spiral petroglyph functioned as a unique solar calendar. On the summer solstice, a dagger of light appears right through the center of the spiral. At winter solstice, two beams of light frame the spiral on left and right.
Another intriguing possibility is that Chacoan astronomers recorded the Crab Nebula supernova of 1054. This exploding star was 5 times brighter than anything else in the night sky - in fact, it was so bright you could see it in daylight.
The abandonment of the cityDoorways at Chaco Canyon
About 250 years after the Anasazi began building great houses here, they abandoned their city. The same happened at outlier communities. One of the persistent mysteries of the southwest is why?
Archaeologists have different theories. There is no evidence that the abandonment was due to disease, and little sign of violence (though war is a controversial theory).
We do know there was a multi-decade drought at this time. Two earlier prolonged droughts had little impact on the Chaco building spree. Why was this time different?
Perhaps the drought was seen as a sign that it was time to go. Perhaps prophecies or religious leaders told the people it was time to move on. Probably we will never know the full story.
Whatever the reasons, they packed their belongings, and left their grand buildings behind. Their descendants now live at the Hopi mesas in Arizona, and the pueblos along the Rio Grande in New Mexico.
Excellent book about Chaco Canyon
People of Chaco - Kendrick Frazier. People of Chaco delves into many fascinating details about Chaco Canyon's history, discoveries there, and various theories about it. Armchair archaeologists will find it engrossing, and if you're thinking of visiting Chaco, this is a must read.
Chaco Canyon travel tips
- Where it is - Chaco Canyon National Historical Park is in the northwest corner of the state of New Mexico.
- How to get there - The closest large airport is Albuquerque (airport code ABQ). Getting to Chaco requires driving on some dirt roads.
NOTE: Follow the driving directions here, not your GPS, which may route you onto tiny, impassable roads.
- Where to stay - There are no hotels in the park, but you can camp here with a tent or a small RV.
For hotels, a couple of options are to stay in Farmington or Grants. Farmington is closer to the "good" road into Chaco, though it's further from Albuquerque. Grants is closer to ABQ, but the road from there to Chaco is rougher and sometimes impassable. If you're into timeshare vacations, there are also numerous timeshare resorts in New Mexico, so you can fit a visit here into your vacation.
Ancient stairway up the mesa
- When to go - Spring and fall are usually the nicest times to visit, with moderate temperatures. Summer tends to be quite warm with some rain.
- Weather - Summer highs are in the mid-80s (F), and July and August can get monsoon thunderstorms in the afternoon. Winters are cold, with some snow. See weather averages
- What to take- Bring a cooler with plenty of water, lunch and snacks, so you can spend the full day here. Fill up with gas in the nearest town before you head to the ruins. Convertible hiking pants are a great choice for touring at Chaco, so that as the temperature rises and falls during the day, you can quickly convert these from long pants to shorts, and back again.
- What else to know? - If you're up for a hike, take the Pueblo Alto trail, that leads up onto the mesa behind Pueblo Bonito. You get great views of the valley from above, as well as unique sights like an ancient stairway. Park personnel can give you detailed trail info. It's a 5.4 miles loop - highly recommended!
- For more information - See Chaco Culture National Historical Park
Have you been to Chaco Canyon, or would you like to visit this cool archaeological site? Leave a comment, and let us know what you think!