Secrets of the Ancients

Jul 12, 2005
Outside Magazine
Chaco Canyon

Time Travel: Chaco House Ruins    Photo: courtesy, New Mexico Tourism

Much of New Mexico's vivid character seems to come in the middle of nowhere, but nothing in the state feels quite as nowhere as Chaco Canyon. Stretching through the San Juan Basin, about 100 miles northwest of Albuquerque, this lonely valley, a beneficiary of nine inches of rain per year, seems an unlikely place in which to base a major civilization. But a thousand years ago, this nowhere was a bigger somewhere than anywhere in the Southwest.

Between 850 and 1250, the Chacoans, ancestors of the Hopi and of Pueblo peoples like the Zuni, constructed a dozen "great houses"—multistory stone dwellings unlike anything on the continent before them, the largest comprising more than 600 rooms—and scores of smaller structures throughout the canyon and the surrounding mesas. Archaeologists, astronomers, and the metaphysically inclined have yet to get to the bottom of why this spot was chosen, or to explain the buildings' eerily accurate alignments along paths of celestial importance. So they still come, over bouncy dirt roads (the route from Nageezi, northeast of the park, is easiest—four-wheel drive usually isn't needed), to tread lightly among these ancient, expertly constructed walls, which have stood for centuries with the help of the dry climate. Six of the major structures can be accessed easily from the main driving loop, but having ventured all the way here, you'll want to pick up a free permit at the visitor center and hike some of the 20 miles of backcountry trails to overlooks and more remote sites, such as the massive, ninth-century Peñasco Blanco.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park—one of three UNESCO World Heritage Sites in New Mexico, along with Taos Pueblo and Carlsbad Caverns—can be done as a day trip, even with some backcountry exploration, but leaving before dusk to get to a hotel would feel sacrilegious. To get the whole, timeless experience, you'll want to be here for a day and a night, which means after-dark astronomy lectures and camping under the stars as coyotes yelp on the cliffs above you.

BONUS: In Cuba, about 90 minutes from the park on Highway 550, you'll find some of the state's best carne adovada (pork in red-chile sauce) and stuffed sopaipillas. El Bruno's (505-289-9429) happens to have held the first Guinness World Record for longest burrito—7,856 feet in all, with almost two tons of pinto beans. (No pressure: It's been eaten.)

DETAILS: The 48-site campground is the only place to stay in or anywhere near the park; claim your spot early, on a weekday if you can. Park admission is $8 per car; camping, $10 per site (505-786-7014,