Preserving some of the largest structures built by the Ancestral Puebloans, Chaco Culture National Historical Park is one of the most studied archaeological sites in the U.S. Southwest. Along with Aztec Ruins and several smaller Chacoan sites, the ancient ruins in Chaco Canyon are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and comprise some of the most famous ruins in the Four Corners area. However, in this case, being a famous site doesn’t translate into being overcrowded.
In fact, the ruins in Chaco Canyon are some of the least visited sites showcased in national parks. The reason for this is their remoteness. Laying in the middle of the Navajo Nation, reachable only by a dirt road, Chaco is far from any tourist route, adding to its mystery, and to some unbelievable dark skies.
Because of this remoteness, Chaco Culture National Historical Park is not the easiest National Park to visit. My family loves it though, and we drive out to it often, making it one of our best Four Corners driving holidays. Over the years, we learned a few things that make our visits easier and more enjoyable. Here are some tips on how to make the best of your trip to Chaco.
Make Sure Your Car Can Handle Dirt Roads
You need to drive about 20 miles on a dirt road to reach Chaco Culture National Historical Park. You don’t need a four-wheel drive to get through it, but a high-clearance vehicle is helpful. However, most cars can make it in good weather; just don’t drive your brand-new low-clearance luxury car out there.
You’ll find the road to Chaco on maps as Highway 57 (also shown on some maps as Highway 14), a turn-off from Highway 9 (a paved road). Most of it is good, though you’ll have to pass cattle guards and some rough parts. They don’t recommend it for RVs.
However, once you’re within the park’s boundaries, you’ll be back on a paved road.
Stop At The Visitor Center And Walk Up To Una Vida
Your first stop should be the visitor center, where you can pick up a brochure and learn as much as possible about the park. Don’t miss the Museum of Chaco Culture, where you can see artifacts from the site and learn about the Ancestral Puebloans who built it.
From the visitor center, take the short trail to Una Vida, a set of smaller ruins on top of the hill. Though not fully excavated, the site is worth the walk for the views and an introduction to the ruins. The one-mile round-trip walk includes views of petroglyphs. The trail is easy, though it has a few rocky areas and it might get slippery when wet (an extremely rare occurrence at Chaco).
Note: Due to COVID-19, the visitor center has limited hours and services. Check the park’s website for the latest opening hours.
Drive The 9-mile Loop And Stop At Each Individual Site
Past the visitor center, a nine-mile paved loop drive takes you through the site, with parking areas for each individual structure. Chaco comprises individual “great houses,” some of the best-preserved and most complex prehistoric structures in North America.
Stop along the loop at each individual site to explore these structures and their surroundings, a protected natural area in a desolate but gorgeous part of the high deserts.
Visit Hungo Pavi
An unexcavated site, Hungo Pavi is the first stop past the visitor center. The quarter-mile flat trail takes you through an area that might give you a good idea of what the unexcavated ruins look like. The only structure standing in this area is a long wall the trail follows. Look out through some of the window openings for some gorgeous views of Chaco Canyon. To walk the full trail and stop along the wall, count on spending about thirty minutes here.
Explore The Structures At Chetro Ketl
Your next stop is Chetro Ketl, 4.5 miles from the visitor center. It’s worth spending more time here, since it is the second largest great house in Chaco. The half-mile trail takes you through a few large structures, including a few elevated kivas (round ancient ceremonial centers) and a great kiva. Plan to spend at least 45 minutes here.
Walk The Petroglyph Trail
From Chetro Ketl, you can drive to your next stop, but it is worth walking the short Petroglyph Trail, connecting the site to Pueblo Bonito. The quarter-mile trail leads you along the cliff face between the two sites, filled with petroglyphs. Some are clear, but you’ll find others so eroded, you can only guess what was there in ancient times. Bring binoculars for the best experience.
Explore Pueblo Bonito, The Largest And Most Famous Great House
The largest and most spectacular great house in Chaco, Pueblo Bonito is also the most important in the area. Built between 850 and 1150 A.D., it was the cultural center of the Chacoan world that covered a large area of the Southwest.
You’ll find a large multi-story structure you can explore inside and out as well as several kivas here. Considering it is the largest site, plan on spending most of your visit here. The least amount of time you should plan on spending here is about an hour. This will give you a chance to walk through all the rooms and explore the kivas.
The trail itself is only a quarter of a mile long, but past that, you can walk inside the multi-story structure and explore the interconnecting rooms and low doorways. Look up and notice the corner window in one room, built so the sun can shine through during the solstices. Outside the structure, explore the maze of kivas, proving the ceremonial importance of the site.
Stop At The Great Kiva At Casa Rinconada
Once you see Pueblo Bonito, you might be ready to leave, thinking that nothing can top the experience. While you would be right that nothing else can even come close, the Casa Rinconada trail leads to the largest kiva at the site.
Isolated from other structures, you’ll find the Great Kiva, with a diameter of 64 feet, half sunk into the ground at the end of a quarter-mile trail through a barren landscape.
Stop At The Last Great House Along The Loop At Pueblo Del Arroyo
Your last stop along the loop is Pueblo del Arroyo, showcasing another Chacoan great house built between 1025 and 1125. Though it lacks a great kiva, the site has all other characteristics of a typical Chacoan great house. It is also a perfect place to watch the sunset over the Chacoan world. The quarter-mile round-trip trail through the site is gravel but climbs a few steep rises.
To Experience Gorgeous Dark Skies, Camp At Chaco
Besides being home to these amazing ruins, Chaco is also an International Dark Sky Park, so it is worth camping here to experience it. Besides watching the sky on your own, the park features a small observatory near the visitor center.
Though the dark skies might be your reason to camp in Chaco, camping is the only lodging available in the park. Besides, when you camp here, you’ll have your own ruins at the campground, in an alcove.
If camping is not your idea of fun, the closest towns where you’ll find a variety of hotels are Aztec (69 miles), Farmington (74 miles), or Gallup (94 miles).
Note: Some of the camping sites are closed because of the danger of rockfalls. And due to COVID restrictions, you need to reserve the campground beforehand (not on the same day). You can do this by visiting the reservation website.
Bring Your Own Food (And Other Practical Tips)
No matter where you spend the night, you need to bring your own food when visiting Chaco. The park has no restaurant or grocery store, so make sure you have enough food and water. The vsitor center has a store, but you’ll only find snacks there.
When visiting the site, remember that you won’t find restrooms at the individual structures. The only ones available at the park are at the visitor center.
Plan to stay until closing time for some of the best views and photo opportunities. Watch the sunset at the ruins.
Safety Tips And Other Considerations
While exploring any of the ruins, make sure you carry water and wear a hat and sunscreen. Wear comfortable shoes, no matter how long you plan on hiking.
If it’s your first time here, consider joining a guided tour, offered from May to October. Check the park’s website for times and availability.