Chaco Canyon. A tiny isolated canyon that hosts one of the most tantalizing ruins in the country. Chaco has been near the top of my to-visit list since about the time I first saw the classic view of the semicircular Pueblo Bonito ruin from the rim. There were always warnings about getting there—a long, rough dirt road that not all vehicles could make; conflicting construction information about whether one should approach from the north or the south; and a hot, dusty landscape with no services that wouldn’t be fun to visit in the dead of summer.
But it wasn’t those factors that really prevented Kim and I from making the trip. In actuality, we added Chaco to more than one trip itinerary, but always decided that it made more sense to tackle other national park units instead. At least once, we had a trip planned just to Chaco but had to cancel or postpone for a reason I don’t recall.
Nonetheless, it was the only unvisited “big” park left in the region, so it was a bit annoying that we never made it there. In 2012, with my Mom facing her 70th birthday, I finally pulled the trigger. We’d go on a short national park road trip for her birthday, much like we had a decade earlier in celebrating her 60th in Yosemite and Sequoia.
So with huge expectations for this tiny, ruin-packed canyon, we arrived at Chaco for a long weekend of exploring ahead of us. As with many of my trips these days, I did little pre-planning. It was obvious the campground—the only place to stay within 80 miles of the park—would not be full, even with the long holiday weekend immediately preceding our trip. We stocked up on food and water, as there are no services in the park. And we brought copies of House of Rain: Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest by Craig Childs, who sent along an extra piece of advice for us via email prior to the trip.
We would not be disappointed.
The most amazing thing about Chaco Canyon is why it even exists. There aren’t any natural resources here. There’s barely any water, and trees only exist 70 miles away. Relatively few people lived here. Yet it became the major center of trade and culture in the Southwest. Mind-boggling roads were built radiating out from this tiny, isolated canyon. Interesting archeoastronomic alignments seem to exist in many of the buildings. Even the largest ruins, including the staggering Pueblo Bonito, weren’t fully occupied. It’s part of that mystery that really adds to the experience here—this was a grand place, no doubt about it, but why?
I won’t give away too many details about the park, but it really did live up to its billing. We both had a great time on a very memorable trip. I was really happy to bring my Mom here on such a special occasion, and it seemed like a great last road trip for my Forester.
- The Gallo Campground is sparse but nicely tucked into a small canyon. All told, it was one of my favorite campsites in the national parks, aided substantially by being less than half-filled. Ironically, everyone in our section of the campground arrived in Subarus.
- Reading House of Rain during our visit greatly improved our enjoyment of the area.
- If you love kivas, you’ll really love Chaco.
- Pick up a backcountry trail guide and get off the pavement. Make sure that you spend some time visiting the Pueblo Alta complex (and get that traditional shot of Chaco from above) and northwest along the wash.
- If you have any additional time, seek out a “Chacoan outlier” ruin on your drive to or from Chaco.
- Get up early and spend sunrise in Pueblo Bonito. There are some interesting plays of light.
- It’s truly amazing how many large ruins occupy this compact little canyon.
Places we visited
- Chaco Culture National Historic Park
- A few roadside attractions, including Twin Arrows, Indian Village, and Stewart’s Petrified Wood.