Camping among the ancients – Chaco Canyon


Over the years, I’ve slowly come to appreciate the idea the some areas are not truly appreciated if I limit myself only to backpacking.

I think back to an experience in the Pawnee Grasslands.  A place that was only revealed its subtle beauty when staying there overnight. The vast plains were best enjoyed in silence while watching the sun setting over the distant Rockies. A similar trip to The Great Sand Dunes had the place come to life for us one cold and isolated-feeling Thanksgiving weekend.

And add to these special places the time someone and I spent in Chaco Canyon over Christmas break.

Located in an isolated part of New Mexico,  Chaco was arguably the heart of what is now called the Four Corner regions.  An ancient  trading, cultural and religious center,  Chaco’s influence was felt all over the American Southwest and possibly beyond.

With my own trip to Escalante over Thanksgiving and the trip we took to Mesa Verde earlier in the fall, a trip to Chaco seemed a natural extension to our southwest exploration.

While I did expect to see impressive building hundreds of years old, I did not expect to experience the sheer size, vastness and inspiring beauty of the canyon itself.

If Mesa Verde was place that we had to see and experience, Chaco Canyon is a place where we feel the need to return and see again. To fully understand the history and culture of the American Southwest, Chaco Canyon is place that must truly be seen, felt and cherished.

someone and I arrived at Chaco on a cold and blustery day in the afternoon.  After checking in at the visitor’s center (and finding that the museum is gone until at least 2014), we explored the nearby pueblo of Una Vida.

Bordering on a millennium old, the view towards Fajada Butte immediately gave the feeling of just the sheer size of this area.

Besides the buildings left behind, other evidence of the culture the lived here abounded, too.

After this short walk, we picked out our campsite. Situated in the former corn fields of the Ancestral Pueblos, it was also conveniently located next to a trail that leads to the Wijiji Pueblo.

Sitting in the surprisingly warm rock, sheltered from the wind and having a southern exposure, easy to the see the careful planning that went into the placement of these structures.

After the blustery walk, it was getting towards sunset.  Time to make camp and get ready for the cold evening.

Dinner was made, hot drinks consumed and a warm fire in the light of the nearly full moon was enjoyed.

We woke up to frigid temps that made for some slow going in the morning.

When we made it back to the visitor’s center, the ranger informed us that the temps had dropped to -7F (MINUS)  at night!

Good thing we were prepared with warm sleeping bags (-15F) and appropriate clothing.

After a slow morning and some more exploration, we went to on a guided tour of Pueblo Bonito.

The most impressive Great House in the already impressive canyon, the ranger led tour was not only informative but also brought this area to life. In an odd way, I was reminded of ancient Rome. The old buildings, a center that was (more than likely) for trading, spiritual and political reasons and wide and ancient roads that were still able to be seen. To say I was impressed would be an understatement. On the cold December day with only a handful of other people on the tour, I was in awe.  In awe of the history, in awe of the structures themselves and in awe of the area in which it was located.  someone and I were lucky enough to talk to the ranger after the tour. His passion and knowledge of the area was apparent. Coming during the off-season had its advantages!

Alas, the folder where the photos were kept from both that day and part of the next day became corrupted. 🙁  The mental images will not be forgotten, though.

The following day, someone and I did a hike of approx 5 miles on the mesa above Chaco Ketrl and Pueblo Bonito. On this hike, not only did we get a view of the great houses below, but also able to see elements of the ancient roads and stairways that lead to Chaco. Thirty-feet wide with evidence of being lit at night during festival times, I was again reminded of ancient Rome.


Pueblo Bonito from above. Looking towards South Gap where an old road is still in evidence.

We spotted potsherds at pueblos on the mesa only excavated in the 1970s.

After this hike, we did some more exploration of the sites located on the loop road in the park.


Another small hike was done to explore Casa Rinconada and the surrounding buildings. The Great Kiva, largest in North America, was as impressive as imagined.

someone and I walked another trail from the campground with a fantastic view towards Fajada Butte and over the canyon. We took in the canyon in quiet and solitude. Afterward, another night was enjoyed under the New Mexico sky.

We woke up to about six inches of snow on the ground. As I was putting on my boots, we saw the ranger from the Pueblo Bonito tour checking up on the three other people in the campground and us.  He did not seem too surprised to see that it was us in the campground and in comfort. 🙂  The ranger said another foot of snow was on the way and that we should stop by the Visitor Center once we are situated to get a full report.  someone and I  discussed our options. Though we wanted to do more hiking and exploring (esp to see the famous supernova petroglyph) , we decided it was more prudent to leave that morning, Though we have a 4WD vehicle, we did not have chains.  Driving in nearly 18 inches of snow on a washboard dirt-road did not seem the best course of action.

We reluctantly packed everything up and made our way to the visitor’s center.

While packing, we had a last look at the dwelling perhaps two hundred feet away:



And the last visit from some little friends who were very present in the campground. 🙂

While there, we had another last talk with the ranger that we felt fortunate to have.

We left in the swirling snow and made our way to the nearest town of Cuba, NM for breakfast and to wax nostalgia about my CDT hiking days.

We’ll be back. There is still more to see. Experience. And take photos of course. 🙂

All the photos


  • The Chaco Canyon NP website is the first place to go. Has needed driving directions and camping info
  • Speaking of camping, I thought it was cool to be camped so close to Pueblo dwellings and near hiking trails that lead to other dwellings. There are also petroglyphs in the campground itself. As I said, very cool!
  • Chaco is very isolated! I strongly suggest you gas up in the small hamlet of Nageezi, NM near the road that leads to Chaco. The gas station is what I think of like a convenience store plus. Some basic groceries and supplies, it serves the residents of the area.  From this turn off, you will quickly run out of pavement and run into nearly 20 miles of washboard dirt roads.
  • There are no traditional amenities that people are now coming to expect in their National Parks. No concession stands, no restaurants, no WiFi, no fancy lodging. If Mesa Verde is a bit Disneyland-eque, Chaco Canyon is a place that would make Cactus Ed smile.  Needless to say, I loved it, too. 🙂
  • Otherwise the nearest towns of any size near Chaco are Cuba, NM (~75 miles from the park and 50 miles from Nageezi) and Bloomfield, NM (~65 and 40 miles respectively).  Plan accordingly.
  • When to go? It seems like October would be ideal. Fewer people and pleasant weather. If you do go in winter, there are heated bathrooms in the campground. Perhaps it was cheating ;), but it was a great place to leave our water overnight and to change in the morning. Of course, we could only do this because we essentially had the place to ourselves. 🙂
  • Of course, having -15F bags, down jackets, insulated pants and other appropriate gear helped a tad
  • The winter solstice and summer solstice are apparently crowded times in the campground, however.
  • If we had more time and the weather was better (sigh), we’d explore the nearby outliers too.
  • While the park is technically not a backcountry area, the isolation, sheer size and lack of people gave this area the feel of a backcountry area. Perhaps ~20+ miles of hiking trails total are available, too. This map is all you need.  The miles seem longer because the hiking trails are primarily a museum on foot. Take your time and savor.
  • Want more info about the people, the culture, and the area? This book is highly suggested. If you can find it on your local PBS station (or watch it online via searching Da Google), watch this documentary.
  • Finally..JUST GO!


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Andrew Cook
Andrew Cook
10 years ago

Good Stuff Paul! Maybe I’ll head down there in the summer instead of the winter.

10 years ago

reminds you of Rome?—roman artifacts have been found near Tucson and in other parts of the western hemisphere