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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 Pueblo 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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