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.
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. 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. But, most of the attention is centered around the great houses, enormous pueblos with hundreds of rooms, perhaps home to up to 2000 inhabitants. Pueblo Bonito is the largest and oldest of these – at least four stories high, with over 600 rooms. So much is unknown about the function and use of the various areas of the great houses.
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. 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.
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.
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.
One of the highlights were all the petroglyphs and pictographs, especially the famous pictograph of the Supernova that appeared in approximately 1250. That same day, we saw dozens of nests of the cliff swallow, mud structures stuck high under rock ledges.
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.
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. 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).