Chaco Canyon -
Home of Ancestral Puebloans
Preserving 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
Albuquerque and Farmington, in a
relatively inaccessible valley cut by the Chaco Wash.
Once home to the
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
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
Archeological evidence suggests that the
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
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
allowed walls to rise to more than four stories
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
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
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
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
abandoned. As the ancient
their kivas were ceremonially
burned and most of their possessions were left behind.
In 1949, the University of
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
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
lands, the Park Service developed the multi-agency Chaco Culture
Archaeological Protection Site program. The sites are part of the sacred
homeland of Pueblo
and the Navajo
of the Southwest, all of whom continue to respect and honor them.
Chaco Canyon Sites
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
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.
Located about 1/4 mile southeast of Pueblo Bonito, Chetro Ketl is one
of the largest pueblos in
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.
Butte - Rising some 400 feet above the canyon floor, Fajada Butte,
at the entrance of
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.
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
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.
This isolated great kiva was constructed during the middle 1000's.
Nestled against the north mesa, the ruins are located just north of Una
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
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.
Canyon courtesy National Park Service
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.
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.
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
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
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
"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
pictograph which displays humanoid and geometric forms, and four-legged
animal shapes possibly big horned sheep.
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
All sites and trails are open from sunrise to sunset.
is located in northwestern
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).
Culture National Historical Park
PO Box 220
of America, updated July, 2011.
Ancient & Modern Pueblos
- Oldest Cites in the U.S.
- Oldest Culture in the United
Pueblo Bonito, courtesy National Park Service
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