A handful of the Great Houses involve longer hikes of 2-7 miles, and two of those are on top of the canyon versus the bottom so you'll be scrambling up the cliffs.
Pueblo Alto Trail:
Includes Great Houses of Kin Kletso, New Alto and Pueblo Alto plus a prehistoric stairway and fantastic overlooks of Pueblo Bonito, Kin Kletso and Chetro Ketl from the top of the North Mesa. Can be done in a 5.1 mile loop, or shorter 3.2 or 2-mile RT hikes just to the overlooks. More on this in another tip.
Penasco Blanco Trail:
Includes Great Houses of Kin Kletso, Casa Chiquita, Penasco Blanco (unexcavated) and a stretch of the largest concentration of petroglyphs in the park. Penasco Blanco was constructed at the same time as Una Vida and Pueblo Bonito and they were positioned along a common 8-mile sightline. It's also the only great house that's oval in shape. The 7.2 mile RT trail is fairly flat but some slogging through soft sand and lack of shade can make it a bit of work.
South Mesa Trail:
Includes Casa Rinconada (on main loop road) and a climb up to the top of the South Mesa to the Great House of Tsin Kletzin (unexcavated) and panorama of the San Juan Basin. Can be done as a 3.6 mile loop or 2.6-mile RT out-and-back to Tsin Kletzin.
A flat, easy 3-miler to the unexcavated house of Wijiji; the most symmetrical of all the Great Houses and one of the last to be built. Because it's missing some characteristics common to almost all of the others (such as a great kiva and a garbage heap), there's a possibility that this house was never finished.
All of these are great ways to escape the main road, and the two from the top of the mesas provide perspectives of the canyon that you just can't get from the ground. Backcountry permits are required (free - pick up at Visitor Center) and be sure to take a lot of water!
This is a large Great House about 1/4 mile from Pueblo Bonito and linked to it by Petroglyph Trail. Although smaller than Pueblo Bonito, the complex's 500 rooms still covered 3 acres, had three stories, 15 small kivas and one very large one. Chetro Ketl is also roughly D-shaped and is notable for having a large, elevated plaza that rises 12 feet above the canyon floor. A small, almost detached section of 30 or so rooms and a couple of kivas breaks away on the eastern side. This complex is called the Talus Unit as it's close to the build-up of fallen rock (talus) at the base of the north canyon wall.
This Great House is also about 1/4 mile from Pueblo Bonito and was constructed over 200 years later. It had about 280 rooms and is unique for a large, round, triple-walled structure that could have been for ceremonial purposes although archeologists haven't found any of the usual clues. About half of this house is still unexcavated but your self-guided trail pamphlet will have a layout that maps out the placement of buried rooms and kivas.
The parking area here is also the trailhead for Penasco Blanco, Kin Kletso, Pueblo Alto and Tsin Kletsin. Only Kin Kletso (about 1/4 mile or so away) can be hiked to without a permit so make sure you have one if planning to go the distance.
If I had a quarter for every time I've said this...
Your first stop at every National Park should be the Visitor Center and Chaco is no exception. Here you can browse the exhibits and see a couple of films for an overview of the park's history, chat with the rangers about best trails, pick up brochures and permits, sign up for guided tours, and cruise the bookshop. There are also restrooms, drinking fountains and picnic tables shaded from the relentless canyon sun. It's small compared to many of the NPS park centers, and doesn't have food services but the rangers are terrific; ask lots of questions!
While the park is open from sunup to sundown, 365 days a year, the Visitor Center is only open 8 - 5 and is closed on major holidays.
See the excellent website for all the good stuff you need to know.
If you only have time to visit one Great House, this is the one!
Pueblo Bonito is the Mother Of All Great Houses: it is the largest, one of the oldest, and the most thoroughly studied. Covering 3 acres, it stood as high as 4-5 stories, contained an estimated 700-800 rooms, and at least 37 kivas. Its distinctive "D" shape is positioned with the curved, multi-storied side against the shelter of the northern cliffs, and the long, flat side facing south to collect solar heat in the winter. The enormous central plaza (that flat center section) is divided in two by a wall that's perfectly aligned to true north and had only one access point from the interior.
You would think that, with all of those rooms, this place would have housed several thousand people but one of the many mysteries surrounding this and other of the Great Houses is that they've found evidence of long-term, domestic occupation (remains of cooking fires, food preparation, general wear-and-tear, etc) in only a tiny fraction of the "cells". It appears more likely that many of the room were for storage and temporary quarters for large trading and/or ceremonial gatherings.
This is the most interesting of the Great Houses to explore as you're allowed to crawl around parts of the interior. It's also the best for providing fabulous photo-ops of connecting portals, intricate masonry and upper-level doorways against those blue, New Mexican skies. There's far too much interesting information to cover in a couple of paragraphs so I highly recommend signing up for one of the ranger-led tours (offered daily, April - Oct at 10 AM and 2 PM) for an in-depth overview of this fascinating ruin.
Note: In 1941, part of the ruin was destroyed by a huge chunk of sandstone - called Threatening Rock - separating from the north cliff wall. Photo 5 is a good example of what Threatening Rock looked like before it came tumbling down.
Richard Wetherill was a rancher who became a pioneer explorer of Southwest ruins after stumbling across the fantastic cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. Intrigued by accounts of a massive, deserted settlement in a harsh and barren corner of New Mexico, he convinced two wealthy sponsors from New York to foot the bill, and came to Chaco Canyon in 1896 as part of the Hyde Exploring Expedition. The effort netted many thousands of priceless artifacts - and also aroused the concern of professional archeologists.
The Antiquities Act of 1906 put an end to unauthorized excavation on all federal land (yay!) and Chaco was proclaimed a National Monument in 1907. Richard had filed a homestead claim in 1901 that included several of the Great Houses and, after his claim was relinquished, he stayed on in the canyon to operate a trading post with his wife, Marietta. He was shot and killed in 1910 during an argument with a local (reasons are sketchy) and he, Marietta and her uncle are buried in a small cemetery west of Pueblo Bonito. The cemetery (the fenced area in the photo) can be reached from the Pueblo del Arroyo parking area or from behind Pueblo Bonito (the ruin in the far distance).
If you only have time for one hike, this is the one!
Pueblo Alto Trail takes you to the top of the north mesa for stunning panoramas of the canyon and the San Juan Basin, and wonderful overlooks of Pueblo Bonito, Chetro Ketl and Kin Kletso. It also forks off to the complex of Pueblo Alto - a spread-out cluster of 4 ruins - and back along the rim past a prehistoric stairway, ancient stone circles and hand-hollowed basins.
Pueblo Alto (the largest ruin of the complex) is the only Great House that was built with one story, and its rooms are larger than usual. It also has a huge trash heap (midden) with enormous quantities of broken pottery and other artifacts; more than can be accounted for by the small number of people believed to have lived there. Scientists think it possible that, like other of the great houses with middens, it had a ceremonial purpose during ritual gatherings and so descendants of the Ancestors consider it sacred ground. The pueblo was backfilled to prevent deterioration after partial excavation in the 1970's.
To do this hike, pick up a permit and buy a copy of the Backcountry Trail Guide from the Visitor Center. Drive to the Pueblo del Arroyo parking area, follow the path past Kin Kletso, and look for the signs that lead to the north mesa wall. You'll scale the cliff via a hidden passage that was used by the Ancients many centuries ago. Once at the top, follow the map in the guide and the cairns marking the trail - the book details sites you should look for along the way.
The entire loop is 5.1 miles but if you're pressed for time, you can choose to do just the overlooks of the Great Houses below (2 miles RT) or just an out-and-back to the Pueblo Alto complex (3.2 miles RT). There is no shade and will be very hot in the summer - bring lots of water. DO THIS ONE - you'll be glad you did!!!
Again, I visited this place in 2001, so there are many others that have written more than I have, and have better photos.
The visitor's center is an important place to visit in this monument. There are a number of very subtle pieces of the ruins here. For example, the movie in the visitor's center took some hour and a half to describe all the different solar and lunar alignments that were tracked by the structures in the canyon and sculptures on the rocks around the canyon. Some of these places are not publicly accessible at all, and you can only rely on the photos and movie in the center to show these parts of the monument to you.
As an example, one of the solar clocks and star calendars tracks a star alignment that only happens once every 28 years. This level of intricacy of monitoring the stars with entire planned communities around astronomical locations is quite unique, and would have required decades of very careful study and planning.
However, it should be noted that the Visitor's Center is under reconstruction. There is currently a temporary visitor's center in operation.
One of the most fascinating things about the ruins is the masonry! Archeologists have determined 5 different types and they help identify the approximate years a structure was built or new blocks of rooms added to an older house.
The oldest ruins (such as parts of Bueblo Bonito) have walls of single stones roughly piled and mortared on top of one another. As the Chacoans began to construct taller Great Houses, more support was needed so they developed a triple-layered wall, tapering from base to top, of rubble fill sandwiched between thin exterior veneers. Three types of veneers evolved from large stones with a somewhat haphazard chinking of small, thin stones to a more defined pattern of large/small stone layering. A 5th form, called McElmo, is found in the newest buildings (such as Kin Kletso and New Alto) and is typified by thinner inner rubble layers and thicker exterior veneers of softer sandstone than used in previous periods.
This is a 1/4 mile trail that runs along the base of the north canyon wall between Chetro Ketl and Pueblo Bonito - a fun route between both Great Houses. You can pick up a guide at either end of the trail that explains 13 numbered sites including petroglyphs, pictographs, rubble from fallen buildings and graffiti - both old and, sadly, contemporary. Prehistoric etched and painted figures, animals and mysterious shapes are found on rock faces all over the Southwest and their uses could have been varied: to mark historical, solar or ceremonial events, record clan occupation, and/or just tell a story. Bring binoculars along to see petroglyphs located higher up on the canyon wall.
Six of Chaco's Great Houses are accessible with short walks from parking areas on the loop road. Construction on the oldest two (Una Vida and Pueblo Bonito) began around the mid-800's with newer additions added over the next three centuries. The other four (Hungo Pavi, Chetro Ketl, Pueblo del Arroyo and Casa Rinconada) were constructed after the turn of the first millennium with all new building in the canyon ceasing around 1150 AD.
A "Great House" is a catchall term for the very large stone buildings - with hundreds of rooms and kivas, and multiple floors - that appeared in this region during the height of the Chacoan Period. Several dozen were located within the canyon and at least 150 more were constructed along wide, carefully engineered and maintained roadways that radiated out of the canyon in all directions. Chaco Culture NHP contains thousands of archeological sites but only a fraction have been excavated; some have been gently explored and covered up again to preserve them from the harsh elements of the high desert.
All of the Great Houses have different and interesting characteristics and a few have trail guides you can download from the park website in advance. Printed trail guides (50 cents or so) are available at the Visitor Center or at the trailheads for each site.
There are six sites open to the public that are a very short distance from the loop road, Una Vida, located next to the Visitor Center, Hungo Pavi, Chetro Ketl, Pueblo Bonito, Pueblo del Arroyo, and Casa Rinconada. In addition, there are five other sites accessible by trail: the Pueblo Alto complex, Casa Chiquita, Tsin Kletsin, Peñasco Blanco, and Wijiji.
It is impossible to see them all in a day. Plan on staying several days at the park. The campground is located about a mile from the visitor center. I heard rumors that there are hot showers there now.
The Chacoans were skilled masons, that these pueblos still stand is a testament to their skills. Over time, their techniques evolved from simple walls one stone thick held together with a generous amount of mud mortar, to this more elegant style found at Pueblo Bonito
The trail to Peñasco Blanco is about 6 miles roundtrip, and well worth the effort. The trail passes by Pueblo del Arroyo, Kin Kletso, and Casa Chiquita. Beyond Casa Chiquita, there is a spur trail that passes by many petroglyphs carved into the canyon walls. After the spur rejoins the main trail, you continue walking along the Chaco Wash. Near the end of the trail, you cross the wash, and start up the other side of the canyon. Another short spur leads you to the most famous of the petroglyphs in the park, the so-called supernova petroglyphs. After returning to the trail, follow the cairns to Peñasco Blanco.
The primitive campgound at Chaco Canyon National Historic Park is operated by the National Park Service. There are 47 sites and vehicles up to 30 feet long can park here. The limited facilities include flush toilets, fire grates, and picnic tables.
The camping fee is $10 and visits are limited to seven days.