History Lesson at Chaco Canyon

First, some unfinished business from Bayfield, CO.  When we walked by the National Forest Service office there, we noticed an enormous Smoky the Bear tree stump carving.  Too good to let it pass without a photo.  It was beautiful – no info on how old it was.20140405_164248

Onward to Chaco Culture National Historical Park.  The Chacoan complex was a major center of Puebloan culture for about 300 years, beginning in the mid-800s.20140407_114704 Both Navaho and Hopi today are descendants of the early Chacoans. Many smaller pueblo villages are contained in the valley, most buried beneath centuries of sand and desert growth.20140407_112933 But, most of the attention is centered around the great houses, enormous pueblos with hundreds of rooms, perhaps home to up to 2000 inhabitants.20140408_135831 Pueblo Bonito is the largest and oldest of these – at least four stories high, with over 600 rooms. 20140407_14571120140407_144912 20140407_111021So much is unknown about the function and use of the various areas of the great houses.20140408_11052220140407_105003

That Chaco Canyon structures were built 1000-1200 years ago and are still standing to a large part, is mind-boggling. Repairs and some limited reinforcements are ongoing.20140408_140435 Pueblo Bonita, the largest of the Chaco great houses, was the largest structure in the United States until the 1880s, when it was surpassed by an apartment building in New York City.  Many of the structures have been weakened by excavation, and have been reburied.  Mounds throughout the Canyon area almost all buried pueblos.  There are dozens of them.20140408_105351

Chaco Culture National Historical Park was added to the list of Unesco World Heritage Sites in 1987, in recognition of its value to humanity.  One the big questions is why the area was abandoned after 300 years.  Drought is one thought – climate change and/or the lack of water to support the increasing population led to abandonment.

We decided in advance to ride our bikes around the Canyon, stopping at each overlook or site to explore.

The wind was blowing so hard I couldn't hold my camera steady to get a good shot of this elk watching us

The wind was blowing so hard I couldn’t hold my camera steady to get a good shot of this elk watching us

For two days, we suffered in the cold and wind – getting back to the Fireball each day, scraping red dust from our eyeballs. But, the last day, the wind disappeared, and we had a wonderful day to explore. One marvelous sight was an ancient Chacoan staircase built into the side of a cliff.20140407_121133

One of the highlights were all the petroglyphs and pictographs,20140408_115801 especially the famous pictograph of the Supernova that appeared in approximately 1250.20140408_123827 That same day, we saw dozens of nests of the cliff swallow, mud structures stuck high under rock ledges.20140408_123904

One thing about Chaco Canyon?  You REALLY have to want to go there to endure the drive.  Never have we been on such horrific roads – washboard doesn’t begin to explain the surface of the last five miles closest to the Park entrance.

This was a really good section of the road

This was a really good section of the road

On our way out, we encountered two guys in a rental RV who had gotten caught in the soft surface at the edge of the road, and buried their RV. 20140409_095638 After an hour of digging, pushing, and trying to tow it out, we finally had to throw in the towel.  The entire undercarriage of the RV was buried.

We left Chaco with many more questions than answers.  It was a wonderful way to spend three days, expanding our knowledge. We both have new book lists on reserve at our home library, based on titles we saw at the Visitor Center.

This was a difficult post for me to write – for these three days, I was like a sponge absorbing foreign material.  The scope of of this canyon, and all that we saw is too extraordinary for me to really comprehend, muchless represent or explain decently. If you get a chance to visit, do so (but don’t take your Mercedes or Corvette).



10 thoughts on “History Lesson at Chaco Canyon

  1. So exciting! Chaco Culture is on our list for our upcoming trip. I am very excited to see it – your photos make it look so fascinating! Good thing we didn’t rent a Corvette – just a regular sedan.


    • Hope you have at least two or three days planned there. Take in the Ranger hikes if you can. They also have a major telescope there which they use on specific evenings/programs. Now that I know that, I would sure try to time my next visit to a day when they are going to be using it. It would be amazing to view – we missed it by just a few nights. ;-(


  2. I am endlessly fascinated by the pueblo dwellers. Sure wish I could see through time and get a glimpse of what daily life was like there. And know for sure what made them leave those amazing homes.

    Just reading about it is overwhelming. I can’t imagine what it would feel like to see it in person.

    Thank you for your posts. They mean a lot to me.


    • Being out in the West, where everything is so large is a bit daunting at times. John and I spent lots of time speculating on Pueblo life – being in the Canyon and contemplating the scope of life here 1000 years ago makes me feel very naïve and stupid. Wish I had been more curious sooner. Better late than never, I suppose.

      I love your comments, Sharon. I still hope that we will meet sometime to saute some wild greens and mushrooms, and to share camping stories.

      Thanks for sharing with me



  3. I’ve heard and read a little about Chaco Canyon, but I had no idea how large the buildings were until your post. To say that it looks like an interesting place to visit would be a huge understatement!


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