Chaco Canyon stands alone as the most impressive pre-Columbian site in North America. This vast ruin was constructed by the mysterious Anasazi culture that flourished around 900-1150 AD. Why these huge stone structures are in an area of the Colorado Plateau within 20 miles of the continental divide at over 6000 feet with less than ten inches of precipitation a year is a further mystery. Despite over a century of archeological investigation, there’s much that is still unknown about this setting and the people who lived there.
Back in the 1990s when we were dashing around the country we visited Chaco for the day, not nearly long enough to get more than a glimpse of the ruins. I determined to return after retirement and spend enough time to really get to know the place. Day trips are all you can do without camping equipment- the nearest hotels are dozens of miles away. With an RV, you can camp right in the canyon, which gives you a completely different experience than the day trippers get.
There are two main reasons why Chaco Canyon National Historical Park only gets half a million visitors a year compared to 3 or 4 million for Yellowstone and Yosemite. One is its remote location in northwestern New Mexico, and the other is the entrance road: 17 miles of washboard. This drive is not for the faint of heart. Some choose to rattle along at 40 mph or so and get it over with as fast as possible; I prefer the deliberate approach, slowing down until the loose objects in my vehicle stop moving around so much. It’s an ordeal, either way, but the park rangers I talked to love it – it keeps the riffraff out.
This is a sacred site to the Hopi and Pueblo people, the direct descendants of the Anasazi, and they’re probably happy about the lack of easy access as well. Things have changed recently, and archeological work has shifted from invasive excavation to remote sensing and the study of Hopi and Pueblo oral traditions. Most of the structures in Chaco Canyon remain unexcavated.
Remember, you are miles from nowhere, so come prepared. There’s nothing to buy once you get to the park except books at the visitor’s center – no ice, no milk, no groceries of any kind. I don’t even remember seeing a vending machine. The campground is called Gallo Campground and is about a mile from the visitor’s center, and a bit farther than that from the main ruins. Don’t despair, though – there’s a tiny one-room ruin right in the campground. Rates are in keeping with the level of amenities – $10 a night, $5 for Senior Pass holders. Water is available at the visitor’s center and there’s a dump nearby, so bring groceries and you can stay a week or two. There’s a 35 foot limit, so there are no Class As. It’s all tents, popups, class Bs and truck campers. Generator use is limited to an hour at a time, so solar capability is a definite plus.
Chaco Canyon is about as isolated as you can get in the lower 48 as far as amenities go – there’s no cellphone coverage, no over-the-air TV, nothing out there. The campground host was most appreciative of me letting her use my satellite internet. We were there in April and had reasonable temperatures – it goes over 100 degrees in the summer and far below zero in the winter, as you would expect this high and far from the ocean, so try to hit the spring and fall windows of decent weather if you go.
The beauty of camping at Chaco is you have all the time in the world to explore the ruins, which are huge and sparsely populated during the week. There are half a dozen “great houses”, including the largest, Pueblo Bonito, which has over 650 rooms. In addition to the great houses, the landscape is littered with smaller structures – I found some just walking along the canyon rim. It’s hard to comprehend the worldview of the inhabitants, who showed a sophisticated knowledge of astronomy, including the solstices and the 16.8 year lunar excursion cycle. Building walls are aligned with the directions of significant astronomical phenomena. The Anasazi concept of “road” was completely different from ours and had ceremonial significance over and above the utilitarian value. They laid out roads which were perfectly aligned for dozens and even hundreds of miles, going straight up and down cliff faces.
Camping at Chaco allows you to see the valley at night, which is a completely different experience as the moonlight shines on the ruins, and the spirits of past inhabitants seem near. The elaborate culture necessary to support this highly organized and productive society in this marginal setting may never be completely known to us, but you can get a feeling for it as you look out over the valley and listen to the night wind.