Chaco Canyon and its long lost civilization


On the North West corner of New Mexico, a few miles from the border of Colorado and Arizona stands the Chaco Culture National Historic Park.

The recommended access route to the park is from the north, via Highway 550. The access road is well marked, however out of the 25 miles of road getting to the entrance of park, only 10 are paved. I would not recommend the south route (33 miles of rough dirt road). Both routes have sections that may be impassable in inclement weather. You can call 505-786-7014 ext.221 for road conditions.


Chaco Canyon National Monument became Chaco Culture National Historical Park in 1980 and a World Heritage Site in 1987.

When starting the visit, it seems unlikely that Chaco Canyon, with its long winters, short growing season, and marginal rainfall, could have become a hub of regional cultures. But 1,100 to 1,200 years ago, native people made this high desert valley the center of their world. They created monumental architecture and developed far-reaching commerce and complex social organization.


Chaco people began to build in the canyon on a grand scale in the mid-800s. Using masonry techniques unique for the time, they continued to expand their massive, multi-story stone buildings for over 300 years. From the start, they planned their buildings to have hundred of rooms. Construction of some great houses spanned decades or even centuries. Each one is different, but all share features distinct to Chacoan architecture.


What lay at the heart of this great social experiment? There was no written language known, so it is believed, according to oral traditions, people converged at Chaco because it was a sacred place, and several Navajo and Pueblo clans and ceremonies originated here. That said, a lot of questions are still hanging and continuing research may, one day, bring answers to these questions. By the late 1100s, reorganization of the Chacoan world led to a shift in focus to other regional centers. Chaco’s influence could be seen in places like Aztec, Mesa Verde, the Chuska Mountains, and other centers to the north, south, and west.


While visiting the park, you can see the monumental work that has been done so far, and still left to be done. There are 100s of sites that have not been excavated yet, and when looking at the topography you can imagine most likely that a cast system was in place with the larger pueblo sites on one side of the river and the smaller ones on the other side.

A few things of importance while visiting this unique park:

  • There is an entry fee of $16 for a car with 2 passengers.
  • Hiking trails require a free permit, available at the visitor center or trailheads.
  • Camping and fires are not permitted in the backcountry. There is a campground at the entrance of the park. Space is limited.
  • The park staff was very friendly and knowledgeable.
  • Remember access to the entrance of the park can be difficult in inclement weather.

If you are interested in learning more about the Chaco culture, these are a couple of books that were recommended by the park staff.

    • The People of Chaco by Kendrick Frazier

  • In Search of Chaco: New Approaches to an Archaeological Enigma by David Grant Noble, David M. Brugge, W. James Judge, John W. Kantner and Leigh Kuwanwisiwma.




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