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Chaco Culture National Historical Park

San Juan Co., New Mexico (May 1992)

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Pueblo Ruins

The Chetro Ketl Anasazi Great House

Chaco Culture Nat'l Park, New Mexico

We spent much of a day and drove more than four hundred miles without ever leaving the state of New Mexico. That morning we left Carlsbad in the far southeastern corner destined for Chaco Culture National Historical Park in the for northwest. We passed Roswell, looking for but never spotting any aliens, then up through Albuquerque and back into increasingly remote terrain including the final thirteen miles on a dirt road before arriving at the park. That's an ingenious device for protecting the greatest concentration of pre-Columbian pueblos in the United States from the crowds that would love them too much. Only about 40,000 people make it here during a typical year. That's not much more than a hundred visitors a day on average, spread throughout the vast acreage of the park.

Serious touring awaited along the Chaco Wash, the arroyo - or intermittent stream - that carved out the canyon. Here the Chacoan Anasazi built their pueblo great houses during the period 850 through 1150. They started first with Pueblo Bonito, Una Vida, and PeƱasco Blanco. These were followed by Chetro Ketl, Pueblo Alto, and Hungo Pavi. There were fifteen of these large structures by the time these skilled builders halted their construction under mysterious circumstances.

Canyon and Mesa

Campground With a View

What an amazing reward greeted us as we arrived, those remarkable Anasazi pueblos that have stood within Chaco Canyon for centuries. Later in the trip we would also visit Mesa Verde (see my Mesa Verde page), and we agreed that those ruins of Chaco Canyon were similarly impressive, quite larger and much more accessible than their more famous brethren. I'm still somewhat surprised that Mesa Verde gets most of the attention. We arrived late in the day and settled into the campground, preparing to visit the cultural sites the next morning. The grounds where we parked our RV provided spartan restooms with cold running water but that was about it. For the most part it was just us and nature. A massive thunderstorm rocked the campground overnight, with large forks of lightning silhouetting the sky and Fajada Butte in the distance. We awoke refreshed and began our tour.

Southwestern Mesa

Mesa View atop Chaco Canyon

Chaco Canyon served as the cultural center for these early Native Americans, connected by an extensive road infrastructure far-and-wide. There are various theories of archaeoastronomy here. It is believed by many that the structures may have been constructed intentionally to align with various solar and lunar cycles.

The Anasazi built widespread irrigation systems to provide sufficient water to the dry valley floor. They traded widely within and outside of their domain, with networks stretching for hundreds of miles. The pueblos of Chaco Canyon served as a central point of culture, ceremony, religion, astronomy, agriculture and trade for much of the territory of today's American Southwest. They dominated the landscape with structures that couldn't be rivaled in the United States until the nineteenth century. It is difficult to overestimate the importance and significance of Chaco Canyon.

Indian Petroglyph

Ancient Petroglyphs on a Chaco Canyon Wall

The Anasazi culture in the canyon began to decline after flourishing for nearly three hundred years. The reasons are not known precisely. One factor may have been a fifty-year drought that decimated the region. Evidence also suggests deforestation could have played a contributing role, with wood having to be transported across increasingly difficult distances towards the end of the period of occupation. First the resident abandoned habitations along the periphery, but this crept towards the canyon until even those hallowed grounds were left behind. Chaco is still considered sacred ground today by many of the Anasazi descendants, the modern Native American tribes of the desert Southwest.