pueblo bonito, chaco culture national historical park

Chaco Culture National Historical Park – Day 1

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Chaco Culture National Historical Park features many Chacoan ruins from 1,000 years ago.  President Theodore Roosevelt designated the area as a National Monument in 1907 and it became a National Historical Park in 1980.  Chaco Culture National Historical Park is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, gaining the designation in 1987.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park is located in the middle of nowhere New Mexico.  It is surrounded by Indian land and as a result, the drive through the high desert fields to get there is sparse.  The park may be reached from the south or the north.

Getting to Chaco Culture National Historical Park

I came from the north and the only place to get gas after leaving the outskirts of Albuquerque was in Cuba, New Mexico.  There is also a single gas station at the turnoff to the park, but that’s like eating at the airport.  The gas station is also the last place for reliable cell service, so download any maps and entertainment that you may need before turning toward the park.

The road at the turnoff is paved in the beginning, but then turns into 18 miles of washboard.  While the road is not difficult to drive, in certain areas I wondered if I was going to loose a tire or tooth from the constant jarring.  It is remarkably rough.  The Navajo’s, whose land surrounds the park, could stand grading it every so often!

Gallo Campground

Coming from the north takes visitors to the Gallo Campground first and then the visitor center.  There is no place nearby to boondock, so be sure to reserve a campsite.  I had to make my reservation almost a month in advance to get four nights in a row in the same spot.

Perhaps, I should have gotten two different spots, because site 10 is next to the group sites.  The first night, it was only occupied by a gentleman from Arizona who writes travel articles and a family from Pennsylvania making a cross country trek home in their big RV.  I enjoyed a peaceful night around the campfire with them.

The next two nights, however, the group site was reserved by the Santa Fe Waldorf School (K-12).  With all my windows and doors closed and the music turned on, I could almost drown out the 12 4th graders’ high-pitched shrieks that went on for five hours daily. 

I don’t know why their chaperones only managed one “Quiet down”, but I expect I couldn’t hope for much after I watched one of the male adults take a whiz in the bushes behind my campsite when a bathroom was 50 yards away.

I did my best to embrace the situation, as I’m happy for kids to be in the wilderness, but at the same time, it was a miserable way to enjoy nature for me!  This is precisely why I boondock, though I suppose that’s not without challenges either. At least I wasn’t chasing a rooster out of my van like I did in Buena Vista.

gallo campground in chaco culture national historical park

The Gallo Campground is simple.  The spaces include a picnic table and fire ring.  There are few bathrooms with flush toilets and a sink, but no showers.  Also, surprisingly, there is a little library with a small selection of books.

Visitors can find three trails on the outskirts of the campground which doesn’t even require driving into the park.  This suited me well the first day since the staff at the Chaco Culture National Historical Park was so unorganized that they ran out of Annual National Park Passes to sell.  One lady was on vacation and another retired, so they didn’t have any annual cards.  Consequently, they wanted me to pay $25 fee for their park for a vehicle permit. 

I was completely miffed.  The parks system advertises that visitors can buy an annual card at a National Park.  Yet, they couldn’t provide it, so as a visitor I was supposed to suffer the consequences and pay for their disorganization?  Ummm, NO!  Principally that was not happening! 

Hikes from the Gallo Campground

Lucky for me, I had plenty of dog friendly places to hike from the campground, and when I shared my plight with Rory around the campfire, he claimed, “Oh, they gave me two permits.  Take my spare.”  I was set to enter the park the following morning and didn’t have to go talk to the ranger that I hoped would have more common sense than to two ladies at the gift shop counter.

Overlook Trail (1.5 miles – Easy)

The first hike I took from the campground was the 1.5-mile Overlook Trail.  It begins by the campground host and immediately climbs up the mesa.  Once at the top, it follows the ridge to Fajada Butte Overlook.  The path is marked by cairns, and aside from the short climb up and back down, it is very easy.

fajada butte in chaco culture national historical park

Unamed Trail

On the western side of the campground, a sandy path follows along the rock walls which are etched with petroglyphs.  There is also a small ruin.  This trail, not even a mile long, is also very easy.  The hardest part is spotting the petroglyphs!  While I saw several rock sections with different symbols, I suspect I missed just as many.

petroglyphs in chaco culture national historical park

Wijiji Trail (3.2 miles – Easy)

The third hike from the campground also began by the camp host.  It crossed the main road into the park and then followed a dirt road to the Wijiji great house.  From the campground, the hike clocks 3.2 miles roundtrip.  Adding the quarter mile spur trail to some pictographs at the end makes it slightly longer.

The dirt road rounds the cliffs and extends through the meadow of salt cedar and greasewood until it reaches the ruins.  Wijiji, Navajo for greasewood, is a later-period Chocoan great house built around AD 1100. It was built in a single construction surge rather than over several hundred years like other great houses in the Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

Wijiji great house is noted for its symmetrical layout and its 225 uniformly sized rooms that are compactly arranged around two kivas.  It differs from most other great houses in the park as it lacks both a great kiva in the plaza and a midden, a religious sacrifice area.  It is also missing the arch of connecting rooms which enclose the plaza.  Due these missing elements, some researchers believe Wijiji wasn’t completed.

wijiji in chaco culture national historical park

Dog Friendly Hikes in Chaco Culture National Historical Park

South Mesa Trail Loop

For my first full day in Chaco Culture National Historical Park, I took the 4.2 mile South Mesa Trail Loop.  The loop begins at stop 10 at Casa Rinconada.  I unfortunately, followed the AllTrails map which started me at a dirt road marked with an “official use only” and “no parking” sign.  Instead of passing up the road and parking at Casa Rinconada, I backtracked to the parking area for Pueblo Bonito.

This required going the wrong way briefly, but at 7am, there wasn’t a soul in sight…just a beautiful sunrise. Parking here extended the hike a half-mile along the road, but it let me explore Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl after my hike without having to drive around the 8-mile, one way loop in Chaco Canyon.

sunrise in chaco culture national historical park

While I felt out of sorts starting on the “official use only” road, I also would have felt out of sorts after seeing the “No Pets” sign posted at Casa Rinconada which you have to walk past to get to the dog friendly South Mesa Trail.  Not only is that signage slightly confusing, just being able to go in the backcountry in a National Park with a dog is unusual.  Generally, the rules are the opposite!  Dogs can only walk in the paved area and not go in the back country.

I knew, however, that Chaco Culture National Historical Park was one of the more dog friendly National Parks, and it is one of two reasons why I chose to visit.  The other was to see the remarkable Chaco ruins.  It is amazing to me that this area of high desert with little water was a major trading and community hub that drew people from as far as California.  I still can’t figure out why they chose such a harsh environment.

Anyway, I began on the wide dirt road which was built by the Chacoans.  I followed the loop hike, in the counter-clockwise direction through the high desert meadow of grasses, cacti, and tumbleweeds known as the South Gap.  The South Gap separates the South Mesa from the West Mesa and the Chacoans took advantage of this natural break to build one of their many straight, 30 foot-wide roads.

south mesa trail loop in chaco culture national historical park

After about a mile, I passed a post marking the turn off to a faint single-track trail.  So faint, in fact, that despite noticing the post, I didn’t see the trail and continued on the road for a few extra minutes before I realized I was slightly off course from the AllTrails map.  Upon my return, I noticed the post was a marker, but the trail was meant to be hiked in the clockwise direction, thus directions were only stamped on the other side.

For the next mile, I meandered through the meadow and climbed up to the top of the mesa.  Though not difficult, the terrain was more rugged than I expected for a national park.  The path was marked by cairns, but at times while crossing the hard rock plateau, it was difficult to follow, especially with a key cairn knocked down.

As I headed directly into the sun, a part of me wished it would poke out from the cloud to brighten the multi-hued sandstone walls.  The other part of me was thankful for the shade during my ascent.  That said, it was still a cool morning in October.

Upon reaching the high point of South Mesa, Annie and I stopped to take in the nice views of the San Juan Basin featuring nearby canyons and distant mountains.  We continued to the ruins of Tsin Kletzin great house. 

south gap in chaco culture national historical park

Tsin Kletzin

Tsin Kletzin, (Navajo for black wood or charcoal house), is situated in a direct true north-south alignment with Pueblo Alto, another great house.  This was common practice among the Chacoans to provide line of sight for ceremonies and for communication with fires or reflectors.  The buildings are also strategically located to important places in the landscape and for recording celestial events.

Tsin Kletzin, with its D-shaped design, row of back rooms, and enclosed plaza, took on the typical great house design of the late 1000s.  It’s masonry, however, reflects the newer McElmo style rather than the core-and-veneer.

The core-and-veneer masonry includes walls with a center of rock and mortar with facing stones placed on each side.  While the McElmo masonry features a thinner inner wall with shaped sandstone block veneers on the exterior.

The Tsin Kletzin contained more than 70 rooms, but little remains above the rubble.  As a result, the ruins are limited.  For anyone wishing to see more intact ruins, this hike isn’t likely for you.  For me, it was a great way to wear out my crazy dog, Annie, and to enjoy the surrounding views.

tsin kletzin in chaco culture national historical park

Casa Rinconada

After my hike, I wandered around Casa Rinconada, Pueblo Bonito, Chetro Ketl, and the Wetherill Cemetery.  Additionally, I stopped by a Chacoan Staircase before heading back to the campground.

Casa Riconada, on the canyon’s south side, is the largest great kiva in Chaco Culture National Historical Park.  The sacred site was used from AD 1075-1250.  Many small house sites may be found to the east.  And in between is the trail that leads up to Tsin Kletzin.

Pueblo Bonito

Across the canyon from Casa Riconada, stand Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl.  They are connected via a short trail along a wall of petroglyphs.  Pueblo Bonito is the core of the Chaco complex and the largest great house.  Built in stages between the 800s and 1100s, Pueblo Bonito rose four stories high and included 600 rooms and 40 kivas.

It is believed that Pueblo Bonito was used for ceremonies, trading, storage, administration, hospitality, communications, astronomy, and burial of the honored dead.  Very little was used as living quarters.  The vast D-shaped structure covered three acres and is a good example of the original core-and-veneer masonry used by the Chacoans.

Despite the short trail, wandering through Pueblo Bonito, Chetro Ketl and visiting the Wetherill Cemetery took me almost an hour.  I loved ducking through the extremely short doors and inspecting the stone and mud mortar masonry. 

It was also remarkable to see how much wood the Chacoans used, given trees were in short supply in this high-desert area.  During logging periods, the Chacoans harvested ponderosa pine and fir trees from the distant Chuska Mountains.  They cut the trees, peeled them, and left them to dry for one year.  Then they carried the logs by hand to Chaco Canyon.  They utilized over 225,000 timbers in these Chaco buildings.

Chetro Ketl

Chetro Ketl is the second largest great house in Chaco Culture National Historical Park.  It too, covered three acres, though is very different from Pueblo Bonito.  In fact, some archeaologists believe each great house served a different purpose.

Chetro Ketl features a great kiva and an elevated plaza which stand 12 feet above the valley floor.  It also includes a colonnade wall that may reflect Mexican influences. 

chetro ketl in chaco culture national historical park

What these two great houses do have in common is that they were planned, designed, and built in stages over many years.

Wetherill Cemetery

A short walk from Pueblo Bonito, is the Wetherill Cemetery.  It includes the grave of Richard Wetherill and others, though the grave site for Richard is the most notable.  Richard Wetherill came to Pueblo Bonito from Mesa Verde in 1896.  He spent much of his life exploring the region, excavating sites, and selling artifacts.

Archeologists and universities complained of his practices, which were the same as many professionals of his day, but ended his activities in Chaco and ultimately led to the nation’s first antiquities law.  Consequently, Wetherill began ranching and opened a trading post before he was eventually killed in 1910.

wetherill cemetery in chaco culture national historical park

In all, I had a great first 1.5 days in Chaco Canyon National Historical Park. Originally I planned to include my four days in the park as one post, but there is so much information about the ruins that I split into multiple posts. To be continued…ETB

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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned award winning travel blogger and photographer sharing the earth's beauty one word and image at a time.

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