It was Friday, November 17. The wife and I had just spent a glorious week in Sante Fe, New Mexico, seeing the sights and staying at one of the finest Bed and Breakfasts in the city. With a couple of days still left on our calendar, we were contemplating an additional stop on our way home in Arizona, when I asked the wife, “what about Chaco Canyon? We’ve always wanted to go there.”
In the past, we could never make a visit to Chaco Canyon work. Either bad timing, inclement weather, or triple-digit temperatures stood in the way. This time, however, the mid-November temperatures looked perfect, with lows in the 30s and highs in the 50s. The national historic park is only three hours from Sante Fe and would require topping off the fuel tank only once along the way. The only complication with the plan was the weekend weather forecast which called for an 80 percent chance of rain. In spite of this apparent conflict with the weather, however, we decided to go for it and brave the drive since the park was so close. There would never be a better time to visit Chaco Canyon than now.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Chaco National Historic Park is a must for anyone with an interest in archeology and ancient American cultures. Created in 1907, the park was designated a national monument before it became a national historical park in 1980. Within the park you’ll find a dozen great houses or palaces, the largest and most famous of which is the so-called Pueblo Bonita. At it’s zenith in the early 1100s, the structure, reached as high as four stories, and consisted of some 800 rooms and 36 kivas. As a matter of fact, Pueblo Bonito is the most thoroughly investigated and celebrated cultural site in the United States. In all, the park contains an amazing 4,000 archeological sites.
If you know anything about Chaco Canyon, you know that the park is remote. It lies in northwest New Mexico in the heart of tribal land at an elevation of 6,200 feet. Yes, Chaco National Historic Park is surrounded by paved highways, but to get to the park itself requires travel over unpaved county roads. To say the roads to Chaco Canyon are rough would be an understatement. As a matter of fact, the official Chaco National Historic Park website has this disclaimer: “Warning: Some of the local roads recommended by map publishers and services using GPS devised to access Chaco are unsafe for passenger cars. Please use our written directions below to avoid getting lost or stuck.”
Why are the dirt roads to and from Chaco so bad? Because the roads crisscross both tribal and county land. Road maintenance, when it occurs, is done infrequently. Because of this, passenger cars and large RVs like motorhomes and fifth wheels are not recommended by the National Park Service. For those who own a 4WD truck camper or van, however, the roads are more than accessible—when dry.
Basically, there are two ways to get to the Chaco National Historic Park: one route from the south, and one from the north (technically, there’s a third and much longer way via the small town of Pueblo Pintado, but few tourists actually take it). The route from the north, via Highway 550 and County Roads 7900 and 7950, is probably the route taken by most. This approach includes an 8 mile-long paved road (CR 7900) and a 13 mile-long dirt road (CR 7950). According to the official website, the last 4.5 miles before entering the park are “very rough” and they mean it. Yet, in spite of the road’s condition, the park actually recommends taking the northern route due to the dirt road’s shorter length. The approach from the south, between Navajo 9 and the park, consists of a winding, 20-mile dirt road ridiculously dubbed, “Highway 57” (Highway 14 on some maps). Aren’t highways supposed to be paved?
Getting to Chaco Canyon is an adventure, especially for the ill-prepared. The dirt roads leading to the park are a patchwork of deep ruts and teeth-rattling washboards. Proper stowage of gear and equipment inside your van or camper is a must. The drive to and from the park should be avoided during inclement weather. When wet, the dirt roads are like driving on melted butter. Inclement weather is when most travelers encounter problems. Some sections of Highway 57 are crowned with steep shoulders and staying centered can be a challenge when the surface is mired in slippery mud. A massive wash must be crossed on CR 7950. It goes without saying that crossing this or any wash for that matter when full of deep water should be avoided. Fortunately, the roads inside the national park are paved and are in perfect condition.
The Rig: We took the Truck Camper Adventure Rig on this trip. The rig consists of a 2013 Ram 3500, a SherpTek truck bed, and a 2020 Bundutec Roadrunner short-bed camper. With the exception of a set of Timbren SES bumpstops and Rancho 9000XL adjustable shocks, the suspension is stock. The Cooper Discoverer AT3-XLT had a good 30,000 miles on them and were and still are in excellent shape. We also carried a full compliment of emergency equipment and tools including a VIAIR 450P portable air compressor and a pair of MAXTRAX traction boards.
Day 1: We left Sante Fe mid-morning Friday and after a few stops along the way, arrived at the north entrance of Chaco National Historic Park at 1:23pm. Truthfully, the first part of CR 7950 wasn’t that bad. The road was bone dry and consisted mostly of washboarding and small sections with deep ruts. The key when driving over rutted surfaces is to take them nice and slow. Of course, negotiating washboard roads is a matter of personal preference. It depends on how deep the washboarding is and if you air down your tires, which we didn’t do. The fastest we drove on CR7950 was 30 mph with an average of about 20 mph. Without a doubt, the worst part of the drive was last 4.5 miles to the park. Along this stretch of CR7950 you’ll find a very rough surface with lots of deep ruts. You know you’re getting close to the park when the Fajada Butte comes into view. The drive over CR 7900 and CR7950 took approximately one hour.
You won’t find a gate guard at either entrance to the Chaco National Historic Park. Instead, check-in is accomplished at the visitor center, which for us was quick and easy. There were maybe three or four rigs in the parking lot, which is pretty typical for November. Inside, you’ll find the usual fare found in every US National Park visitor center, including t-shirts, stickers, books, and pamphlets. Large table-top 3D maps and a decent museum exhibit can also be found onsite, though we were disappointed with the number and variety of archeological artifacts on display. Yes, there are some artifacts, but not nearly enough. Instead, the thousands of artifacts collected from Chaco can be found in museums and educational institutions worldwide, including at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.
We spent the rest of Friday settling in at the Gallo Campground, the sole campground in the park. Like all national parks, dispersed camping is not allowed within the confines of the park. As you’d expect, the services are limited with a bathroom, potable water, trash dumpsters, and a dump station. The Gallo Campground offers camping in a rugged, high desert setting of fallen boulders and cliffs, surrounded by petroglyphs, cliff dwellings, and drawings. There are no trees, meaning there is no shade, you’ll need to provide your own. As for the Internet, we were shocked to find that we actually had a single unboosted bar of LTE while we were there. Using our Weboost Cell Booster we got a decent 2-3 bars. The Internet speed wasn’t that great, but it was better than nothing.
Gallo Campground’s 37 campsites can be reserved either online or at the visitor center. We had no trouble getting a walk-in tent site and this was on a Friday afternoon. There are only five RV sites large enough to accommodate travel trailers and fifth wheels, so a reservation for one of these would be a good idea. Fortunately, most of the 32 tent sites are large enough to accommodate a single truck camper or van. During our three-day visit, we stayed at two sites: Tent Site 17 and Tent Site 2, both of which were nice. Dry camping, unfortunately, means one or two campers will run a generator, which means you might need to deal with the noise and fumes like we did.
Day 2: We awoke early on Saturday to find the forecasted storm rolling in. By mid-morning it was raining steadily, but we didn’t let that put a damper on our short visit. Like we said earlier, the roads within the park are paved, including a large 9-mile-long, one-way loop directly leading to the best great houses in the park. This means we were able to see a good number of great houses and cliff-side steps from the comfort of our truck camper rig (at times, our rig got just as much attention as the great houses, with several stopping by to talk and look at the rig). With the rain, we visited only two great houses by foot—Una Vida and Pueblo Bonito—but we were not disappointed.
Without a doubt, the crown jewel of the park is Pueblo Bonito. The massive, four-story great house consists of 600 rooms and 32 kivas and four great kivas. From 850 to 1150 AD, the D-shaped palace was remodeled and enlarged at least seven times. Unfortunately, in 1941, a major rock slide destroyed about 30 rooms on the backside after unusually heavy rains. Fortunately, the Chacoans had recognized the threat and buttressed the backside with supporting masonry walls around 1040 AD. To the park’s credit, the main walking path around the pueblo actually uses some of the large boulders to provide a commanding view of the structure at ground level.
In the early 1100s, a vast road network connected Chaco Canyon with communities throughout the region and beyond. Items excavated inside Pueblo Bonito are stunning in their variety and attest to the far-reaching trade that was enjoyed by the Ancient Puebloans or the “Anasazi” as they are called by the Navajo and Hopi. Artifacts found inside the great house include remains of macaws, conch shell trumpets, seashells, and chocolate inside cylinder jars, most of which came from southern Mexico, a distance of some 2,300 miles. Other items like turquoise came from much closer sources, but were still hauled in from more than 600 miles away. The logs used to support the roofs, windows, and doorways in all of the great houses were hauled from the nearby forests.
What are kivas and what were the circular pits used for? Kivas were simply homes or pit-houses. This is where the Ancestral Puebloans actually lived. During Chaco’s prominence, the common Puebloan home consisted of one kiva and five storage rooms. The wealthier the owner, the larger number of storage rooms (storage rooms can be differentiated from regular rooms by the smaller size of the doors). Hence, the great houses found in Chaco Canyon were owned by the very wealthy while the commoners lived in smaller dwellings. Of course, kivas were used for more than just living. The larger kivas found at Pueblo Bonito and at nearby Casa Rinconada were public kivas and were used by a large number of people or community for rituals and other public ceremonies.
Day 3: We awoke to dry weather, yet the forecast called for another storm from around 1pm. We didn’t want to endure another day of rain and worsening roads, so we decided to head home after driving the loop again for a final round of pictures. The 20-mile-long drive on Highway 57 was an adventure to say the least. We were hoping the “highway” had enough time to dry out, yet that wasn’t the case. The elevated sections of the road were fine, yet the lower parts were still mired in deep mud, which often made driving a challenge. After successfully negotiating one of these first patches of mud, we quickly put the truck in 4WD. This subsequently saved our bacon on more than one occasion when traction was lacking and we needed to stay centered on road. In spite of a few hair-raising parts, which caused our rig to fishtail quite a bit, we were able to reach the solid pavement of Navajo 9 in about an hour.
Even with our limited time, we still had an enjoyable time at Chaco National Historic Park. It’s a terrific way to channel your inner Indiana Jones and explore roads less traveled. Sure, the ruins at Chaco aren’t as impressive at those found at Teotihuacan, Tikal, and Chichen Itza in Mexico, but the Chaco ruins are far more accessible, poor roads and bad weather notwithstanding. All things considered, getting to Chaco Canyon is still easier to reach than the aforementioned sites. It’s no worse than many forest roads we’ve driven on.
“Happiness begins when the pavement ends” is our motto. In this case, it’s very true. Chaco Canyon is a terrific place and well worth the time and effort to get to it. In an effort to preserve the Chaco ruins, some believe that the roads to the park are purposely kept in a state of disrepair to keep the number of tourists down. We didn’t ask any rangers that question, but that wouldn’t surprise us if this was true. Paving the main roads to the park would result in far more tourists and damage to the park and that, obviously, wouldn’t be a good thing.