Chaco Canyon National Monument Things to Do

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    Kiva at Hungo Pavi
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Best Rated Things to Do in Chaco Canyon National Monument

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    Great Houses for Hikers

    by goodfish Updated Feb 26, 2015

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    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 - the only oval-shaped house - was constructed at the same time as Una Vida and Pueblo Bonito, and the three structures were situated along the same 8-mile sightline. This 7.2 mile RT trail is fairly flat but lack of shade and some slogging through soft sand can make it a sweaty bit of effort.

    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.

    Wijiji Trail:
    A flat, easy 3-miler to the unexcavated house of Wijiji; the most symmetrical of all the Great Houses, and dating later than many of the others. Because it's missing some characteristics common to almost all of the others as well (such as a great kiva and garbage heap), there's speculation that this one 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!

    South Gap from Pueblo Alto Trail New Alto ruin, Pueblo Alto Trail Kin Kletso from Pueblo Alto Trail
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    "Pretty House": Pueblo Bonito

    by goodfish Updated Oct 23, 2011

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    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.

    Pueblo Bonito from Pueblo Alto Trail Threatening Rock debris - Pueblo Bonito Upper level doorway, Pueblo Bonito Connecting portals, Pueblo Bonito Another threatening rock, Chaco NHP
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    Petroglyph Trail

    by goodfish Updated Feb 26, 2015

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    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 which explains 13 numbered sites including petroglyphs, pictographs, rubble from fallen buildings and graffiti both old and, sadly, contemporary. Prehistoric etched and painted human figures, animals and mysterious shapes are found on rock faces all over the Southwest and could have served any number of purposes: 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.

    Petroglyph, Chaco NHP Petroglyphs, Chaco NHP Petroglyph, Chaco NHP Petroglyphs, Chaco NHP
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    First things first

    by goodfish Updated Oct 23, 2011

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    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.

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    The Great Houses - Main Loop Road

    by goodfish Updated Dec 2, 2009

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    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.

    Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Culture NHP
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    Chetro Ketl

    by goodfish Updated Feb 26, 2015

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    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 sprawled over 3 acres, had three stories, 15 small kivas plus one very large one. Like its larger sister, Chetro Ketl is also roughly D-shaped but is notable for having a large, elevated plaza that rises 12 feet above the canyon floor. A small 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.

    Chetro Ketl, Chaco NHP Great Kiva, Chetro Ketl Chetro Ketl from Pueblo Alto Trail
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    Wetherill Cemetery

    by goodfish Updated Feb 26, 2015

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    Richard Wetherill was a rancher who became a pioneer explorer of Southwest ruins after stumbling across the fantastic cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde.: one of the mesas there is named for him. 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 which included several of the Great Houses but after that claim had to be 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 altercation with a local, and is buried along with Marietta and her uncle in a rough cemetery west of Pueblo Bonito. The graveyard (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).

    Wetherill Cemetery from Pueblo Alto Trail
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    Pueblo Del Arroyo

    by goodfish Updated Oct 23, 2011

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    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.

    Pueblo del Arroyo from Pueblo Alto Trail Pueblo Del Arroyo, Chaco NHP
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    Pueblo Alto Trail

    by goodfish Updated Oct 23, 2011

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    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!!!

    That's me out there Navigating the passage New Alto ruins from Pueblo Alto New Alto ruins Chetro Ketl from Pueblo Alto Trail
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    Things to know: masonry types

    by goodfish Updated Dec 8, 2009

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    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.

    Masonry detail, Chaco NHP Masonry detail, Chaco NHP
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    Pueblo Bonito--the big enchilada

    by atufft Updated Aug 6, 2014

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    Pueblo Bonito isn't the first stop on the loop road in the Canyon, it's actually about halfway through, but it's a must stop during a visit. Construction and habitation began here around 850 and continued in stages to at least 1150AD. The layout and organization of the hundreds of multi-story apartments and ceremonial kivas argues for a division of labor that ranged from the elite architectural leaders, construction foreman and journeyman artisans, to the bottom level basic labor of rock and earth supply and construction. This entire complex was built without assistance of mechanical or animal labor.

    A distinct lack of charcoal hearths seems to throw a monkey wrench in to the debate over actually habitation, with some archeologists apparently arguing that nobody really lived in Chaco as it was merely a ceremonial and trade center. There are indeed the largest collection of circular kiva ceremonial rooms of any pueblo town, and no doubt the largest trade fairs and religious events of the Southwest once occurred here. But, my own brief survey of the extensive ruins of hundreds of rooms, combined with my familiarity at other world sites, puts my estimate into the hundreds, if not thousands of regular inhabitants. These were not the mostly ruble of rock base walls seen today, but a complex of multistory apartments with hundreds of rooms. So, earthen hearths on the upper floors or roof top could simply have vanished and washed away with the floors. Also, extensive rudimentary encampments and housing for the workers that probably surrounded the urban core, made Pueblo Bonito a home for the only most powerful elites and their retainers, whose food service could have been delivered from hearths outside the complex.

    Contrary to romanticized communal notions of pueblo life, Chaco could not have been built and function without a hierarchy of haves and have nots, rich and poor, master and slave, and so on. The extensive trade network, the political power, precise architectural design, and economics of construction requires such division of labor several levels deep. In any case, there was plenty of room for elite families and their artisan support staff to live. Thus, I find it very hard to image builders carrying supplies from miles away, only to build a complex used only seasonally.

    From what I've seen in comparison, even within Chaco Canyon satellite villages, the quality of stone construction at Pueblo Bonito is better than anywhere else in the Southwest world. The draw of artistic talent to Chaco could have been enormous, as was the influence of Chaco artisans who traveled to supervise and disperse methods of construction to the satellite villages hundreds of miles away.

    Chaco has early pre-adobe buildings built of quarried stone locally available, that was carefully layered with mud mortar. Pueblo Bonito shows an impressive astronomically oriented and central Kiva plaza built up of rock and earth foundation base to a study flat plane for the entire surrounding village. Buildings have carefully trenched stone foundations, straight walls, and linteled doorways. The layers of stone are the most artful and beautifully accomplished anywhere in the Southwest, and originally, the insides, at least were plastered and painted. Pine logs were imported from quite a distance for construction of multiple stories, platforms, balconies, door and window lintels, etc.

    Pueblo Bonito was constructed at the base of a towering sandstone tower that collapsed onto the edge of the village during the 20th century.

    When I was there, I noticed some European visitors who were basically unimpressed, finding the level of development below that of Rome or Egypt, for example. But, the worn ruins in the southwest were nearly a complete society of their own. Rome stood on the development of Greece, who stood on the shoulders of Egypt and Sumeria. Chaco had none of this. Yet, it appears to have built, during what was the medieval period in European history, a sophisticated society and urban place when most of North America was still living a hunter gatherer lifestyle.

    Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Canyon Pueblo Bonito At Chaco Canyon Pueblo Bonito View from Pueblo Bonito
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    Pueblo Bonito - Chaco Canyon

    by MarkJochim Written Apr 6, 2003

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    Pueblo Bonito is a massive semi-circular "great house" that was used from 850 A.D. to around 1150. It encompasses many ceremonial kivas as interconnected cells.

    OPEN: Memorial Day-Labor Day, daily 8-6
    Labor Day-Memorial Day, daily 8-5

    ADMISSION: $8 per vehicle

    (Mark Jochim 6/1/93)

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    Chaco Canyon (Pueblo Bonito)

    by MarkJochim Written Apr 6, 2003

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    The builders of Pueblo Bonito knew when they started that they were going to build four or five stories but the walls weren't erected in a single operation. As the height for each story was reached, beams were built into the wall, and the ceiling covered to provide a platform from which to work while raising the walls another stage.

    Pueblo Bonito (Mark Jochim 6/1/93)

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    Chaco Canyon

    by MarkJochim Written Apr 6, 2003

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    Constructed over three acres of land around 850 A.D., Pueblo Bonito had five stories, 800 rooms and 40 kivas housing 1,200 Anasazi - ancestors of today's Pueblo Indians.

    The Chacoans were highly-skilled masons, building their cities of sandstone blocks mortared with mud, without metals tools or formal mathematical knowledge.

    Inside Pueblo Bonito (Astrid Nathan 6/1/93)

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    Campground at Chaco Canyon

    by MarkJochim Written Apr 6, 2003

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    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.

    Wall at Chetro Ketl (Mark Jochim 6/1/93)

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