Wednesday, June 18, 2014

All Roads Lead to Chaco

There is a magical place we love to visit in northwestern New Mexico - Chaco Cultural National Historical Park. We have been many times, most recently in April.

There is a rough 21 mile road leading to Chaco, but we saw several fifth wheel and campers that were able to make the drive. Our camper van Humphrey shook a lot, but we have made the trip to Chaco a number of times without incident. Map showing route off Hwy 550

The first 8 miles of the road is paved (CR 7900)
As you turn onto CR7950, the 13 mile dirt road becomes rougher
The washboard gets heavier as you progress toward the park
There is an arroyo that the Park Service suggests you do not
 drive through this wash if there is any standing water
Looking up the arroyo as we crossed over
The final 4 1/2 miles are really rough and rutted, but passable with care. 

The park is designated a World Heritage Site and an International Dark Sky Park. There are wonderful hikes among ancient ruins, amazing geology and the best night sky viewing we have ever seen.

Gallo Campground (inside the park) is the only place to camp. It is on a reservation system through You must make reservations at least three days prior to your visit. This is a campground where it is very wise to have reservations. You don't want to drive 21 miles EACH way on that rough road only to find out there are no campsites available (which is often the case, especially in the spring and fall). The campground cost is $15 per night or $105 for a week.

Our campsite at Gallo Campground.

The campground had single-night spots on Friday, but was full on Saturday. 
Gallo has 48 campsites with picnic tables and fire grates. There are also two group campsites. When we were there one group campsite had boy scouts and the other had a group of anthropology students from Arizona State University in Flagstaff. One section is for tents only. From March to October flush-able toilets are available and they are very clean, nice facilities with heat!.  In the winter season there are portable toilets. Although there is non-potable water in the campground, the only drinkable water is located at the visitor's center.

There are a number of really cool hikes right from the campground. Within less than 100 feet of our campsite was an actual ancient home site and many petroglyphs are on the rock walls surrounding the campground.

Ancient rock home adjacent to the campground

A stones throw from our campsite
Another petroglyph at the campground. Unfortunately, some of the best ones were
vandalized early in the park's history. So frustrating and sad. 
Since we had been to Chaco more than once, we didn't do the most popular hikes this time. It was nice to see some new sites. It was unusually cloudy and grey during our visit - so the pictures don't fully show the beauty of the scenery - but even with overcast skies the magic and sense of history was everywhere.

Chaco was a ceremonial and trading center for the region between 850 and 1150 AD. Even in ancient times, it was an unusual place with amazing star gazing. There are four major Chacoan roadways that all meet in the valley that is Chaco Canyon. The spirit and whispers of the past are everywhere. It is so easy to imagine the ancient gathering place. The major geologic feature in the canyon is Fajada Butte.

Fajada Butte is still today a sacred place for the Pueblo, Navajo and Hopi.
Ancient wall with Fajada Butte in the background
 Our first short hike started behind the Visitor's Center. We had never taken this hike before. Although short, there are wonderful ancient structures and petroglyphs.


Our next hike was to the sacred site called Wijiji. This Chacoan Great House was occupied between 1100 and 1150 AD. We started the hike from the campground. It was approximately 3 miles round trip and basically a level hike along a canyon with multi-colored cliffs hugging the path. It was overcast and it rained and misted us several times. I would guess that in the middle of summer this would be a hot hike, but the temps were perfect for us in April!

The architecture with alignments with the sun and stars especially for the
solstice and equinox are awe inspiring and I find very magical.
Look carefully as you hike - there are petroglyphs on many of the canyon walls

There are views of Fajada Butte from almost every direction
Overview of the campground from a mesa top. 
The next day we went on an amazing hike to New Alto and Pueblo Alto. The hikes begins at the Pueblo del Arroyo parking lot. The hike is 5.4 miles round trip. From the Kin Kletso Great House, you literally head straight up a mountain side and through a crevice. It was quite unsettling at first, but then the adventure of it all took over. As we walked along the mesa top, we saw Chacoan stairways, trails and ancient roads.

See the dark brown sign to the left of me? That is the trail sign and I am
actually on the beginning of the trail. 

Crevice entrance to the mesa top on the hike to New and Pueblo Alto
Kin Kletso Chacoan Great House from mesa top
Pueblo Bonito
We have walked throughout Pueblo Bonito on many visits. But, I felt such awe
at the grandeur of this complex when viewed from high above on the mesa.  

Looking down at the parking lot (Humphrey is second car from the left)
and Pueblo del Arroyo

New Alto. The view beyond this pueblo is of the great roadway. When you
stand at this site you can imagine ancient travelers heading to this magical gathering place

Really? This is the way down?

Heading back down through the crevice
We don't always go to the Ranger programs when we are staying at National Parks. But, Chaco Canyon is an International Dark Sky Park and the Ranger program includes telescopes - so we walked the approx. one and a half miles from the Campground to the Visitor Center.

Unfortunately, on this particular trip we didn't get the awesome sky views due to the cloud cover. But, the Ranger program was informative and fascinating! If we had been able to view the stars from the parks big telescopes - it would have been a show NOT to miss. Although this trip was overcast - the other times we have stayed at Chaco - we stayed up late into the night staring up at the blanket of stars in the dark, dark, inky black sky.

Don't miss the ranger show!
In the "you are only as old as you feel category" - one of our favorite activities is skipping. People don't skip enough. We only get a few shocked looks from time to time. That's okay! Life should be full of joyful abandonment. Don't you agree?


  1. Except for the drive in, it looks great.

  2. This is one of my dream destinations. That road looks a little scary for our big fifth wheel, but mayhap we'll stay outside the park and daytrip in. You're so lucky to live in an area so rich in history and natural beauty.

  3. Great writeup, headed there next week for a couple of days.


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