There is a siren song drifting through this remote canyon called Chaco — a derivation of the Spanish word, chaca, meaning an open expanse of unexplored land. Within Chaco Canyon in northwest New Mexico are 12 pueblos — the Great Houses of a culture centered in the Four Corners region, a culture that flourished from the 9th to the 14th centuries..
Widespread community of farmers
You’ll find ruins of as many as 75 settlements scattered across a region stretching over thousands of square miles. These comprised an agricultural community of perhaps 5,000 or more people who grew corn, beans, and squash. Chaco was the spiritual and administrative center of an imperial empire. It’s where the leaders lived, where the Sunwatcher lived.
Timeline of pueblo building
The largest of the great houses, and the most thoroughly investigated, is Pueblo Bonito, a four-story structure with upwards of 600 rooms. Construction began around 850 CE and it was expanded until about 1150 CE. Others, like Una Vita and Peñasco Blanco, soon followed. Five of the 12 were built in the first quarter of the 12th century, seemingly in a boom of construction. Dates have been established through dendrochronology, a science now more than a century old. At Chaco, it involved dating vigas used in the pueblos by counting and comparing their annual growth rings.
Precision and artistry in building
One of the first things you learn about Chaco is the precision of its architecture. The Sunwatcher, or spiritual leader, advised builders who oriented each of the pueblos to cardinal directions and solar and lunar azimuths. Additionally, the architecture of the pueblos included windows, where the rising or setting sun or moon on key astronomical days would send light into a niche or mark on the opposite wall. Chacoans didn’t have clocks, but they apparently kept time as accurately as the cesium clocks in Boulder.
Keeping divergent people united
In the central plaza of Bonito, the Sunwatcher conducted a winter solstice ceremony. He and his acolytes knew the sky. They knew when the sun reached its farthest point south. People gathered in the plaza to reconcile differences, heal wounds, apologize, and repent. The ceremony brought the community together. Failure to do so meant the sun wouldn’t return, and people would freeze and starve. It was effective social control.
But the Sunwatcher could do nothing about the drought that set in and lasted for decades. Farms failed. People starved. The Chaco culture collapsed. People migrated to other places and built cliff dwellings where there was better land and more water. By 1300 CE, the canyon was virtually devoid of human life. All that remained were the deteriorating ruins.
“We have no idea why they built this”
In their lectures, park rangers tell this story. One concluded, “Basically, we know who these people were. And we can see what they did. But we have no idea why they built this.” That about sums up the story of Chaco Canyon.
Planning your visit
But, if you are drawn by siren songs, you must go and see for yourself. Chaco Culture National Historic Park is about 50 miles south of Farmington, New Mexico. At Nageezi, you turn south on a state highway that soon reverts to a dirt road, albeit one that is well-maintained. The park entrance fee per vehicle is $25 for seven days and only credit and debit cards are accepted. Buying passes online at recreation.gov is recommended.
Hotels are non-existent at Chaco, as are restaurants. The nearest are in Bloomfield and Counselor, and you’d spend far too much time traveling. The best solution is tenting at one of the 32 regular campsites or sites for RVs under 35 feet long. Rented on a first-come-first-serve basis, they fill up quickly, especially on weekends. Campsites cost $20 a night. You can make reservations at recreation.gov.
Loop road gives a quick overview
There is a loop road that takes you to all but a few of the pueblos, so, if you’re short on time, you could see them over a weekend. But you’d miss part of the adventure. Longer stays let you immerse yourself in the history and mystery that is Chaco Canyon. You can hike three miles round-trip to Wijiji and make the seven-mile round-trip to Peñasco Blanco, including a serpentine trail to the summit of the 200-foot-high bluff. These are surpassed only by the steep trail to the mesa where the Pueblo Alto Complex is. Pueblo Alto is thought to have been an astronomical observatory. On this hike, you’ll also encounter one of the Chacoan stairways, learning the story of a civilization with hundreds of miles of roads, including stairways, but not having the use of the wheel or the horse.
Chaco roads unlike any you’ve seen
Roads were 30-feet-wide and arrow-straight. When they encountered a hill, the Chacoans didn’t go around it but cut stairs to walk over it. Wherever they went, they walked. Whatever they needed, they carried on their shoulders. One road, called the Great North Road, runs 50 miles, ending near the pueblo in Aztec, New Mexico.
Unraveling the mystery
To quote Winston Churchill on another topic, Chaco is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. And the only way to understand these remarkable people, now lost in time, is to walk where they did and see what they saw. Then, perhaps the Chaco culture won’t be such a mystery.