October 7-8, 2014 - Chaco Canyon, New Mexico

Tuesday morning we headed south to visit Chaco Culture National Historic Park.  We are staying at Chaco Outlier Campsites which is about 19 miles south of Chaco Canyon.  Our 5th wheel is too big for the National Park campground and we were told the dirt road to the park is very rough.  Chaco Outlier is just dry camping in a pasture with very soft, sandy soil.  We found a spot close to the driveway that was on fairly firm ground.  We are concerned that if it rains the drive will be a slick, muddy mess and we would not be able to get out so we are keeping an eye on the sky – no cell phone, internet access or TV reception here!

After getting set up we drove the rough dirt road to Chaco Canyon – they were not kidding when they said it was rough and we are very glad we have the Jeep.  We went to the Visitor Center where we spoke to a Ranger about touring the Park and also watched a short video.  It was late in the afternoon so we decided to wait until tomorrow to visit any of the ruins.

Wednesday morning our refrigerator stopped working on gas so Rex spent some time working on it and after cleaning out the gas nozzle it started up again.  We then headed back down that rough dirt road to Chaco Canyon.   The Chaco Culture National Historical Park protects ruins of the Chacoan people who were here from the mid 800s to the 1100s.  Chaco Canyon contains evidence of 10,000 years of human occupation but it is best known for the ruins built by the Chacoans.   The Chacoan people built massive, multiple-story stone buildings (Great Houses) with hundreds of rooms.  Construction of some of these buildings spanned decades or even centuries.  The first ruin we visited was Una Vida which contained about 100 ground floor rooms and kivas, and a great kiva in an enclosed plaza.  Construction began about A.D. 850 and continued for over 250 years.  The site is largely unexcavated.

We climbed up to the cliff face behind Una Vida to view two petroglyph panels – we were able to get a fairly good picture of one of the panels.

 The next ruin was Hungo Pavi which was built starting in 990 A.D., beginning with a single-story block of rooms.  A second building phase began in the 1060s adding two or three additional stories and the enclosing plaza wall.   We hiked the ¼ mile trail around this ruin.

We hiked the ½ mile trail around Chetro Ketl, the second largest Chacoan great house in the park.  It covers more than 3 acres and contains a great kiva, elevated kivas and hundreds of rooms.

Chetro Ketl started as single-story room block in 1010 and building continued into the early 1100s.  As builders constructed second and third stories they created an elevated plaza that stands 12 feet above the valley floor.

This is the most excavated and best preserved site we have seen today.

Next to Chetro Ketl is another great house named Pueblo Bonita – the largest and most excavated site in the park.  We joined a ranger guided tour of Pueblo Bonita.  Pueblo Bonita is the most thoroughly investigated, visited, and celebrated cultural site in Chaco Canyon.  Planned and constructed in stages from 850 to 1150, this was the center of the Chacoan world.  This building embraced many roles including ceremony, administration, trading, storage, hospitality, communications, astronomy, and burial of the honored dead. More than 600 rooms towered four and five stories above the valley floor covering 3 acres. 

We are amazed at the architectural abilities of the Chacoan people.  This cross-section of the outside wall shows how they built their walls.  The core consists of roughly shaped pieces of sandstone laid in a mud mortar.  The core is then faced on both sides with carefully selected and shaped stones to create the veneer.  Several types of veneers were used, and styles changed over time.  After constructing these beautiful veneers they applied plaster to most of the walls, hiding the beautiful stonework.

Pueblo Bonito is by far the most excavated site at Chaco Canyon and we were able to go inside many of the rooms.  The doorways were very short and narrow even though the average height of the Chacoan people was 5’1” to 5’3”.

 The stonework is beautiful and we were amazed at how square and even everything was.  These rooms above us had a corner doorway.  Seven of these unusual types of doors are known in Pueblo Bonito.  The south-east facing doorway here appears to function as an astronomical marker.  When the sun rises on the morning of the winter solstice, sunlight passes through the opening and strikes the opposite room behind it.  Throughout the canyon, other architectural features, as well as modified landforms, correspond with astronomical events.  Chacoan knowledge of astronomy seems to have been an integral part of construction.

Another look at the beautiful stonework involved in the construction of these great houses.  It seems a shame to us to cover these beautiful walls with plaster but the Chacoans evidently had a good reason to cover them – probably to protect the walls from moisture and erosion.

We hiked the ¼ mile long Petroglyph Trail along the canyon wall between Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl.  It had clouded over during the afternoon and they were hard to see but we were able to pick out many of the thousands of petroglyphs and pictographs on the cliff.  We didn’t take any pictures as we knew they would not come out.  We really enjoyed our day at Chaco Canyon and plan to come back tomorrow to see Pueblo del Arroyo and Casa Riconada -  the remaining ruins along the park road.  We also plan to hike on a trail that goes on the cliffs above Pueblo Bonito where we will be able to get a great picture of the entire great house complex.


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