Chaco Culture National Historical Park
by Lynne D. Escue
Once this was the center and apogee of a unique civilization:
finely crafted buildings rose to four and maybe five stories in
height; there were places appointed for ceremonies, trade and
astronomical observations, there were engineered roads and a communications
system. It was a place where people gathered, the destination
of many journeys, a triumph of labor and organization. And within
300 years it was abandoned and forgotten except in the oral histories
of the pueblo peoples of the Southwest.
To the Hopi clans it is Yupköyvi, one of the sites where
clans were instructed to gather in preparation for the journey
to their final destination. The dominant culture calls it Chaco
Canyon. Today the wind and the hawk speak more loudly than human
voices. Today the archaeologists and the archaeoastronomers and
the anthropologists and visitors look and wonder. Today there
are as many questions as answers.
Chaco Canyon is part of the Chaco Plateau, a 4,500 square mile
area drained by an intermittent stream running through Chaco Wash.
Chaco Plateau is part of the San Juan Basin, a major geographic
feature of Northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. To the north
stand the San Juan Mountains; the Chuska Mountains define its
western boundary; the Jemez Mountains its eastern border and to
the south it slopes gently to the Dutton Plateau.
During the Cretaceous Period, about 75 to 80 million years ago,
this plateau was part of the ever-changing coastline of a great
inland sea. Most of the rocks that make up the formations we see
in Chaco Canyon today belong to the Mesa Verde group. The oldest
exposed Mesa Verde suite rocks belong to the Menefee formation
and underlie the mesa walls which are composed of Cliff House
sandstone. Menefee sandstone is less erosion resistant than Cliff
House sandstone. The result of having a less stable sandstone
beneath a more resistant rock is that large slabs and boulders
of the Cliff House sandstone frequently break away and collapse
onto the canyon floor.
After driving 21 miles on a poorly maintained dirt road-only
the first five miles are paved-through a Spartan high desert landscape,
the casual visitor is apt to marvel that anyone would have chosen
such a desolate canyon to be a major cultural center or that so
many people visit it now. Nevertheless, Chaco Canyon is one of
America's top ten hidden parks. Some people come for the hiking,
some for the history, and some find it a spiritual experience
and return again and again.
This is no casual outing. Spend a day, spend a week and there
will still be more to see. If you plan to stay overnight, make
sure before coming that there's room in the Gallo Campground.
No lodging, food, gasoline or other services are available at
the park. For camping information it's recommended that you check
with the park by calling (505) 786-7014 before venturing out.
The Chaco Plateau is no wimp and this is not a place to be stranded.
Even if you're only visiting for the day, bring water, lunch,
hiking shoes and be prepared to walk.
Once you get there, the loop road is paved and there is a small
visitor's center and museum. The ruins of 12 great houses, an
equal number of great kivas and many small houses are scattered
in and around Chaco Canyon, partially excavated or almost untouched.
Once uncovered, the ancient sandstone walls become fragile and
require constant maintenance. Therefore, not all of the sites
are open to visitors.
Guided tours are offered several times daily; for campers and
late visitors there are evening talks by Park Service employees.
Or you can explore on your own.
Chaco Culture National Historical Park's attractions present
themselves in two different forms: there are the well known great
house ruins and great kivas such as Pueblo
Bonito and Casa
Rinconada and the accompanying small houses which are of equal
interest to archaeologists; and there is the rock art. Some can
be seen together; for example the largely unexcavated great house
Una Vida with its striking petroglyphs, and the petroglyphs along
the north cliff between Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl. The rest
of the petroglyphs and the supernova pictograph are a half-day's
hike by themselves.
However, the hiker who chooses to visit the petroglyphs and the
supernova pictograph can take in Casa Chiquita and Peñasco
Blanco at the same time. The path to the petroglyphs beyond
del Arroyo is wide and level, but once past these petroglyphs
it narrows, climbs in and out of several tiny rinconadas draining
into the canyon, then crosses the canyon floor and climbs sharply
upward. This part of the trail is not for the inexperienced. Some
minor climbing is required and the trail is poorly marked in places.
Anyone taking the petroglyph trail beyond Pueblo del Arroyo is
asked to fill out a free hiking permit.
There's plenty to see for non-hikers. "Downtown Chaco,"
comprising Chetro Ketl, Pueblo Alto, New Alto, Pueblo Bonito,
Kin Kletso, Pueblo del Arroyo and Casa Rinconada, can make a fascinating
excursion in itself, while those want a bit more exercise can
explore the two loop trails heading to the Pueblo Alto complex
and Tsin Kletsin respectively.
Copyright 2005 by Lynne D. Escue "Reproduction without permission prohibited."
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