Chaco Canyon located in the Four Corners area of New Mexico is the remains of an ancient civilization that began in the mid 800’s. Over the next 300 years, ancestral Puebloans aka Anasazi constructed several communities including single story and multi story stone buildings using techniques that were unique for the times. Every construction was like a community, some having hundreds of rooms. The architecture alone is amazing, oriented to solar, lunar and cardinal directions. By the early 1100’s, Chaco Canyon was a ceremonial and economic hub. It was considered a central place binding regional tribes together for ceremonial get togethers as well as trade. By the late 1100’s the Chacoans shifted in focus to other regional areas such as Aztec, Mesa Verde and beyond. There is evidence that water once flowed through the arroyo near Pueblo del Arroyo which may indicate that climate change could also be a factor why they dispersed to other areas. It’s amazing to see these villages that were built so long ago still standing and here for all of us to witness. Within Chaco Canyon there are many communities with ruins spread out across the canyon. Some are built with such sophistication it makes one wonder how they gained the knowledge to design and construct such precise curved walls, round kivas and multiple stories of rooms. Where did they learn the masonry techniques which still stand today? Chaco has been on my bucket list for the longest time. Our first visit was in May of 2021 touring the many ruins, walking within the walls learning the history and getting goosebumps just thinking about it. Now we’ve returned a year later to hike along the Pueblo Alto trail which overlooks the canyon to get a birds eye view of the ruins below as well as the landscape of the canyon. The architecture is stunning and takes you back in time wondering how they did it.
There are two roads that lead to Chaco Canyon. Here are the directions how to get there from the South or the Northeast. Both routes are on rough dirt roads approximately 20+ miles that require a lot of patience. We have a 4 wheel drive but drove at a slow pace on average 25 mph. Once you are within the park the road is paved with a visitor center where you will need to pay a fee of $15 per person or $25 per vehicle. We have National Park Pass which is also accepted. There are restroom facilities as well as a gift shop on site.
The most popular and largest “great house” is Pueblo Bonito. Pueblo Bonito is believed to have had at least 4 stories with over 600 rooms and 40 kivas. This is the view from the mesa above along the Pueblo Alto Trail. This trail goes along the mesa overlooking the ruins below. If you take the loop it goes back to the Pueblo Alto ruins. We trail is listed at approximately 5 miles but with taking detours and many many pictures we walked 6 miles along this route. Make sure to have plenty of water, a hat and good hiking shoes.
Inside the big kiva within Pueblo Bonito.
Here are some pics within Pueblo Bonito . . .
Chetro Ketl is also one of the large great houses located farther east in the canyon. From above on the Pueblo Alto Trail you can see Chetro Ketl from all angles.
Here are some photos depicting the architecture within Chetro Ketl.
A window into Chetro Ketl.
Pueblo del Arroyo
Pueblo del Arroyo ruins are not located up against the mesas like Pueblo Bonita and Chetro Ketl. Instead they were built near an arroyo where water was most likely plentiful at the time. Now just a dry creek, it’s hard to see anything thriving in this desert canyon.
Pueblo del Arroyo is estimated to have been built around 1075, one of the the later constructed great houses.
There’s not a whole lot that remains of Casa Rinconada with the exception of this great kiva which is the largest excavated kiva in the canyon. Located on the south side of the canyon, you will most likely drive rather than walk to this site. We decided to stop and check it out on our way out of the park. The trail leads to a “small house” ruin, seemingly a lower class than that of Pueblo Bonito or Ketro Chetl.
As you can see there is not much left of Casa Rinconada.
This kiva has been filled with dirt over time.
A path leads up a hill to the Great Kiva which looks amazing compared to the ruins of Casa Rinconada.
Pueblo Alto Trail
The Pueblo Alto trail starts behind the Kin Kletso ruins which is a smaller construction. As we begin our descent up the mesa we have a nice view of Kin Kletso.
The trail marker has us navigate our way through this narrow crack in the rock. Put your camera away once you start or you might damage it in this tight space.
Once we are at the top we look out over Kin Kletso.
Here are some of the sights from above as we hiked the Pueblo Alto Trail.
The trail loops in a horseshoe up one side of the Mesa looping around to the other side.
Another tight crack to maneuver!
Coming out the other side!
The Jackson Staircase was discovered in 1877 by William Henry Jackson. The steps were carved into the rock by the Puebloan ancestors.
A crack of light.
A gift of pottery, flint and pretty stones left at the Pueblo Alto ruins. Below I’ve included some of the petroglyphs we saw along the trail on the rock between Chetro Ketl and Pueblo Bonito.
This scarlet hedgehog cactus is one of my favorite cactus, it’s so beautiful when in full bloom. And as we were leaving this raven landed on the pickup parked next to us to say goodbye! We’ve toured Chaco Canyon twice now but still have more to see. Maybe next year we will get back and see the rest of the ruins, such as Casa Chiquita, Penasco Blanco, Hungo Pavi, Tsin Kletsin and Una Vida. I hope you enjoyed Chaco Culture National Historic Park. It’s one of New Mexico’s wonderous treasures, and will defy your imagination!