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Chaco Canyon - Home of Ancestral Puebloans

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Chaco Culture National ParkPreserving one of America's most significant cultural and historic areas, the Chaco Culture National Historical Park is remarkable for its distinctive architecture, numerous ruins, and ancient roads. The remote and isolated park park is located in northwestern New Mexico, between Albuquerque and Farmington, in a relatively inaccessible valley cut by the Chaco Wash.


Once home to the Ancient Puebloans, Chaco Canyon was a major center of ancestral Puebloan culture between 850 and 1250 A.D.


By 1000 A.D. the Chaco culture had firmly established a spiritual, political and economic center serving the Four Corners area. It is estimated that the region was called home to as many as 5,000 people living in approximately 75 settlements scattered throughout the canyon.

In addition to its remarkable public and ceremonial buildings the Ancient Puebloans built numerous roads, ramps, dams, and mounds, which required a great deal of well organized and skillful planning, designing, resource gathering, and construction. The distinctive architecture combines a number of designs, astronomical alignments, geometry, landscaping, and engineering to create an ancient urban center that continues to amaze archeologists and visitors a thousand years later.

Archeological evidence suggests that the Ancient Puebloans had been occupying the area as early as 1200 B.C. when they survived as nomadic hunters and gatherers, hunting with wood clubs, hunting sticks and spears..  Some three centuries later, they began to make more permanent homes in caves and pit houses where they  constructed numerous woven baskets that were covered with mud and baked to make water proof containers. Archaeologists identify these first people as Basket makers.

About 700 A.D. the Ancient Puebloans began cultivating crops, such as corn and squash, and building permanent dwellings.  These small, one-storied, masonry structures were the beginning of what would become the great pueblos of the southwest.

Some two centuries later, as their population grew, the communities expanded into larger, more closely compacted pueblos. It was around this time that the Pueblo Bonito complex was built, beginning with one curved row of rooms near the north wall.  Continuing to refine their building techniques, the use of thick masonry walls and the generous use of mud mortar allowed walls to rise to more than four stories in height.

More pueblos, including Chetro Ketl, Una Vida, Penasco Blanco, Hungo Pavi, and Kin Bineola were started at about this time. Some large buildings show signs of being planned from the start, in contrast to the usual Ancient Puebloans custom of adding rooms as needed. For the next two centuries, more and more of these large pueblos with oversized rooms began to be built throughout the region.  Eventually, there were an estimated 75 villages in the area, tied together by an extensive system of roads.


From the twelfth to the thirteenth centuries, many of the pueblos in Chaco Canyon were abandoned when a long cycle of drought began in the San Juan Basin.  The Ancient Puebloans were at their height of civilization when the lack of rainfall led to food storages.  Even though they had designed an extensive system of dams and irrigation methods, the dry climate and overtaxed fields could no longer support the immense population.  As famine spread throughout the area, the people began to leave, joining other pueblos in the south and east near the Little Colorado and the Rio Grande Rivers.


Some archaeologists now believe that other factors, such as religious upheaval, internal political conflicts, and warfare may have also contributed to the abandonment.  By the 1300's, all of the villages and pueblos of Chaco Canyon were abandoned.  As the ancient Indians left, their kivas were ceremonially burned and most of their possessions were left behind.


In 1949, the University of New Mexico deeded lands in Chaco Canyon National Monument to the National Park Service, in exchange for continued rights to conduct scientific research in the area. By 1959, the National Park Service had constructed the park visitor center, staff housing, and campgrounds. In the 1970's, a number of research projects, archaeological surveys, and limited excavations began which provided extensive information about the ancient Ancient Puebloans





Chaco Canyon Ruins

Chaco Canyon, courtesy National Park Service


Archeological excavations in Chaco Canyon today are limited, as modern methods such as remote sensing now allow archaeologists to gather a great deal of information without disturbing the fragile and irreplaceable sites.


In December 1980, an additional 13,000 acres were added to the park. To protect Chacoan sites on adjacent Bureau of Land Management and Navajo Nation lands, the Park Service developed the multi-agency Chaco Culture Archaeological Protection Site program. The sites are part of the sacred homeland of Pueblo Indian peoples of New Mexico, the Hopi Indians of Arizona, and the Navajo Indians of the Southwest, all of whom continue to respect and honor them.


Chaco Canyon Sites

The Ancient Puebloans built numerous great houses, kivas, and pueblos throughout a nine mile stretch of the canyon floor, perched on mesa tops, and situated in nearby drainage areas.


From the Visitor's Center, a nine mile paved loop accesses  five major Chacoan sites, where self-guiding trails are available. Trail guides are also available in the parking lots of the sites, or in the bookstore. Each site usually takes 45 minutes to one hour to complete.


Four backcountry hiking trails are also available to access more remote sites and features. Free permits can be obtained at the visitor center.  The nine-mile loop, as well as the Wijiji, Casa Chiquita, and Kin Klizhin trails may also be biked. Inquire at visitor center for free permits and directions.


Casa Chiquita: This unexcavated village, located near the old north road to the entrance of the canyon, is thought to have been built around 1100 A.D.  This village contains fifty rooms and three kivas, originally standing two or three stories high. A trail beginning at Casa Chiquita follows an old wagon road down the Chaco Wash leading to Peñasco Blanco.  Along this trail numerous rock art and historic inscriptions can be seen on the cliff face on the north side of the trail.


Casa Rinconada:  On the south side of Chaco Wash, almost direct across from the Pueblo Bonito, stands the largest known great kiva in the park.  The great subterranean kiva, with no surrounding residential or support structures, was once utilized for religious activities and ceremonies. Casa Rinconada one had thirty nine-foot passageways from the underground structure to above ground levels.  The trail leading to the great kiva passes several villages.


Chetro Ketl:  Located about 1/4 mile southeast of Pueblo Bonito, Chetro Ketl is one of the largest pueblos in Chaco Canyon.  Construction of the pueblo is believed to have begun in 1020 A.D. and continued through the next three decades. The immense elevated earthen plaza, rising above the surrounding landscape, is estimated to contain 500 rooms and 12 kivas, including one great kiva within the central courtyard. The 500 foot long rear wall once support five stories of rooms, the lower of which were utilized for storage, while the upper rooms contained living quarters.  The walls are embedded with wooden beams, thought to have been carried from distant forests.  The structure was abandoned by 1120.  In the cliffs behind the ruin are ancient stairways that lead to prehistoric roadways to Pueblo Alto and other outlying communities.


Fajada ButteFajada Butte - Rising some 400 feet above the canyon floor, Fajada Butte, at the entrance of Chaco Canyon, is visible for miles. High atop the imposing butte is a set of spiral petroglyphs carved into  the cliff face behind three giant slabs of rock. Functioning as a solar marker, a vertical shaft of light pierced the main spiral at its center. The site, known as the Sun Dagger, was discovered by Anna Sofaer in 1977 who conducted an extensive investigation and published results showing how the spirals may have tracked the lunar cycle.  Unfortunately, in 1989, the rock slabs shifted and the effect was ruined.  The rooms, though to have been used by Chacoan astronomers, was also a place of worship.  The loss of the sun dagger prompted the World Monuments Fund Chaco Culture National Historical Park to its Most Endangered Monuments list in 1996. Today, the site is closed to visitors.


Hungo Pavi: "Reed Spring Village" is located just about a mile from Una Vida at the junction of Chaco and Mockingbird Canyons.  Thought to have been built around 1000 A.D., the medium sized pueblo contained some 73 ground-floor rooms,  two kivas in the structure that reached four stories in height. It lies at the base of a prehistoric stairway which leads up the mesa and an ancient road linking it to the Chacoan road system.


Kin Kletso: Located about 1/2 mile west of Pueblo Bonito, Kin Kletso was built in two phases between 1125 and 1130 A.D. by people who came to Chaco Canyon from the Northern San Juan Region. The walls were made of large shaped sandstone blocks laid two or more rows thick.  The medium sized pueblo called the "Yellow House" by the Navaho, contains around fifty-five ground level rooms, four kivas and a tower kiva.  Excavated in the early 1950's, evidence of a obsidian production industry was found here.


Kin Nahasbas:  This isolated great kiva was constructed during the middle 1000's.  Nestled against the north mesa, the ruins are located just north of Una Vida.


New Alto or Nuevo:  Located just east of Pueblo Alto, the pueblo was one of the latest ones constructed in the late 1100's.  Despite a decrease in the population in the rest of the canyon, the pueblo contained some 28 rooms and a kiva.  It is speculated that it may have been built by Indians who had migrated from the Mesa Verde area.


Peñasco Blanco: Blanco, Spanish for "white cliff," is a large arc shaped great house built in five different stages, between 900 and 1125 A.D.  One of the first large pueblos built in the canyon, the ruins displays the development in Chacoan masonry through the centuries.  Sitting atop the northernmost point of West Mesa, the pueblo overlooks the confluence of the Chaco and Escavada Washes.  Reaching up to four stories tall, the pueblo contained approximately 160 ground-floor rooms, two great kivas in the central plaza, and two more located outside the pueblo. Near Peñasco Blanco is a well known cliff painting that contains a crescent moon, a ten-pointed star, handprint, and a sun sign.  Catching the attention of astronomers, many have speculated that the pictograph represents the sighting of a supernova in July, 1054 A.D., or the appearance of Halley's comet in 1066 A.D.


Chaco Canyon in New Mexico

Chaco Canyon courtesy National Park Service


Pueblo Alto: Located on a mesa flat due north of Pueblo Bonito, this great house is thought to have been built between 1020 and 1050 A.D.  Serving the area residents as a community house, archeological evidence suggest periodic episodes of occupancy and feasting.  It has been estimated that only five of the 85 rooms were constructed for permanent residents, while the others were utilized for community events and industry, including bead and turquoise processing and chert tool production. Ancient stairs lead from the large pueblo to the top of the mesa.


Pueblo Bonito:  This D-shaped pueblo is the largest Great House in the park spanning nearly two acres and believed to have once been as tall as five stories.  The approximately 650 rooms surrounded the central plaza and  throughout the settlement were about 40 kivas and numerous meeting places that served ceremonial purposes.  The pueblo was occupied from the mid-800s to the 1200s, with about 1,200 people at its height.  Pueblo Bonito is one of the most extensively excavated and studied sites in North America and is considered sacred by many Native American groups.


Pueblo del Arroyo:  Located near Pueblo Bonito at the side drainage known as South Gap, the pueblo was built in stages over a relatively short time.  The central portion was built around 1075 with the north and south wings, the plaza and tri-walled structure built in the early years of the 12th century.  The building once boasted approximately 280 rooms and  more than 20 kivas.

Tsin Kletzin:  Dating back to the early 1100's, Tsin Kletzin is located on the south mesa top above Casa Rinconada. The unexcavated great house lies near a large earthenware structure known as the Weritos Dam, where it is believed the ancient Ancient Puebloans obtained water. Because Tsin Kletzin has two roads leading to it from the north but no roads continuing southward, it is thought that it served as a destination point. 

Una Vida:  This Chocaon public building, closest to the Visitor's Center, was one of the earliest constructed beginning sometime in the mid-800's.  Construction is believed to have continued on the great house up until the late 1000's.  Una Vida includes approximately 150 rooms and five kivas.  The great house was known to the Navajos as "witchcraft woman's house" due to its association with a well-known legend where a witch held hostages atop Fajada Butte without food or water. On the cliff face behind Una Vida is an Ancient Puebloans pictograph which displays humanoid and geometric forms, and four-legged animal shapes possibly big horned sheep.

Wijiji:  With just over 100 rooms, Wijiji is the smallest to the great houses, thought to have been built around 1110 A.D. Located in a narrow wash about a mile from Una Vida, the site appears to have been utilized in part as a calendrical station.


All sites and trails are open from sunrise to sunset.

Chaco Canyon is located in northwestern New Mexico . The preferred and recommended access route to the park is from the north, via US 550 (formerly NM 44) and County Road (CR) 7900, and CR 7950.

From the north, turn off US 550 at CR 7900--3 miles southeast of Nageezi and approximately 50 miles west of Cuba (at mile 112.5). This route is clearly signed from US 550 to the park boundary (21 miles). The route includes 5 miles of paved road (CR 7900) and 16 miles of rough dirt road (CR 7950).


Contact Information:


Chaco Culture National Historical Park
PO Box 220
New Mexico 87037-0220


Compiled by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated July, 2011.


Also See:

Ancient & Modern Pueblos - Oldest Cites in the U.S. 

The Ancient Puebloans

The Broad House

Pueblo Indians - Oldest Culture in the United States


Ruins in Chaco Canyon

Pueblo Bonito, courtesy National Park Service


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