Return to Chaco Canyon – Thanksgiving 2015

In my years of outdoor experiences, I’ve been fortunate enough to have some excellent memories.

Among my favorite outdoor experiences are the times spent on the Colorado Plateau and/or northern New Mexico.

The blend of different cultures, history, and natural beauty all makes me want to come back. And among the favorite regions, I’ve visited.

I truly think it is one of the most striking places in the United States. It is where isolation can still be found. And a night sky is often unblemished.

Over Thanksgiving, someone and I again went to Chaco Canyon. 

We were there in 2012 but had to leave early. And I lost some photos.  We not only wanted to go back, we felt compelled to go back.

Chaco is simply an amazing place. And it requires more than just a day being there. Even after two visits, there is still more to see, do and savor.

Our second visit together started on Thanksgiving Day. The easternmost outlier of Pueblo Pintado was investigated. Near the existing Navajo community by the same name, it is in direct alignment with the buildings in Chaco Canyon directly west.

The area was wide and lonely.  Even among the ruins, it was easy to imagine how this outpost was a welcome respite for any travelers coming to Chaco. The last push was a day’s walk away. On a slight rise, the outlier gave a view to the surrounding terrain.

As we walked around, an 800+-year-old piece of pottery was discovered. Even the remnants of the Pueblo pottery is beautiful.

We soon drove to the park proper. Though the campground was not as deserted as that cold December three years ago, the campground was still fairly quiet compared to peak season.  We found a camp spot reasonably isolated and not directly next to any others.

A short evening hike was taken to enjoy the sunset towards Fajada Butte. A striking rock formation and an important part of Chacoan astronomy.

The following morning, we’d hike to see the famous “supernova pictograph” that we missed seeing a few years ago.

Being a “big” hike of seven miles round trip, we did not see many people on the way. Only us and the remains of the ancient culture once past the initial area.

The famous pictograph was reached.

Sheltered from the elements, the colors were still vibrant. There is a debate if this pictograph represents a supernova from 1054 (also observed by the Chinese), but there is no doubt that it does show some astronomical event and the importance of astronomy in Chacoan culture.

someone turned around at this point. I continued the rest of the hike solo.

I continued the hike up toward another outlier called Penasco Blanco. The views were towards the canyon proper and a wash that contained a Chacoan road.

Was the road for transport? Trade? Religious ceremonies?  Or the fragmented stretches purely symbolic? Perhaps all of the reasons and changed throughout the Chacoan history. There is no consensus. But sometimes the questioning and searching for answers is more interesting than the answers themselves…

Penasco Blanco was soon reached. I enjoyed the solitude and a commanding view of this high and remote Pueblo building.

As I hiked away, I took a look back towards the ruins.  Nearly a millennia later, the buildings continued to inspire and impress.

I hiked back and then went on another “big” hike of five miles.  Though short by the standard of many of my backpacking trips, the mileage and modest elevation gain is enough to dissuade most visitors on these longer hikes. I would again have most of the area to myself.

The hike quickly took me to an overlook to Pueblo Bonito. The most famous, and largest, building in the canyon..and where most of the roads and other great houses were directly aligned with.  All roads lead to Rome in the Classical world. All roads seem to lead to Pueblo Bonito in the Chacoan world.

An  old road was soon reached. A view into South Gap was seen.  The Great North Road came through where I was looking and where I was walking.

Soon, Pueblo Alto was reached. Another structure directly aligned with Pueblo Bonito.

Reminders continued to be seen of the people who lived in this canyon long ago.

The hike was lonely and beautiful on the mesa top.

The loop was almost done. Chetro Ketl could be seen with Pueblo Bonito in the distance.

someone and I met up again.

A welcoming camp fire and a hot meal on a cold and clear moonlit night was perhaps the best way to end our full day in Chaco.

The following day, we went to two ranger-led walks.

The first was at the oldest structure in the park: Una Vida.

The talk and walk were fascinating. Adding much nuance and history to the bare facts.

After the talk, we spent some time looking at other ruins. We then went to another ranger led talk on the roads, their alignment and the shrines along the way. Another worthwhile talk.

someone and I paid a visit to Pueblo Bonito in the fading light of the winter sun.

Chetro Ketl was also looked at again.

Along the way, someone and I finally found the macaw petroglyph.  Copper bells, cocoa and parrots were traded all the way from what is now modern-day Mexico.

The following morning we left Chaco..but not before returning to the visitors center again. There are still a few things we want to see at Chaco. Then the ranger mentioned the museum will finally be opening again in 2017. And it will have artifacts not seen in Chaco since 100 years ago! We’ll be back…

That day, we visited some relatively close outliers. These outliers are located in towns that are on rivers. It makes sense modern towns are located on rivers..for the same reasons the ruins are on rivers. I must admit it was an odd juxtaposition to be in such an isolated area such as Chaco Canyon and then to see similar ruins in modern towns.

The Salmon Ruins were visited first.  Besides the ruins, there is a very good museum inside the visitor center in terms of some very unique artifacts.

The houses are located on what was the location of the San Juan River.

We also made a trip to the nearby Aztec Ruins. 

Both sets of ruins had similar masonry to Chaco..but also river rocks making up the construction.

At the end of our walk, we went into a Great Kiva reconstructed on the site of the original one.

There is a sense of mystery in this building. Walking down into what was believed to be the place of emergence in the Pueblo tradition. Then exiting out into the greater world.  And then knowing that the modern Pueblo people conduct ceremonies here similar to what their ancestors did almost 1,000 years ago.

A place worth savoring.

We drove part of the way back home.

The following day, a side trip was made to Crestone, CO.  We saw another place of spiritual contemplation. A stupa outside of the Sangres mountains seemed fitting.

Across the San Luis Valley, in the town of San Luis itself,  is a similar place that seems an odd comparison at first. But the Stations of the Cross and church, the stupa and the kiva are all of the same cloth.  Places of community and spiritual devotion. Where traditions and culture resonate through the years and generations.

We made it back to Boulder. The power was out in our complex. I joked that the camping trip continued….

But I am not joking in that I know we’ll return to Chaco Canyon again at some point. The ranger at Chaco said something along the lines that there must be something wrong with anyone who does not want to return to Chaco.

He’s right.

We’ll be back.


Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
John D
8 years ago

Hi, Paul. Your photo of the Great Kiva reconstruction made me think of a neolithic ruin found in Anatolia (although the lack of bulls’ horns is a major difference). A book I have called “Inside the Neolithic Mind” suggests that the way our brains work had us constructing similar objects across the world. To an extent, I suspect that must be true. I really enjoy the Trail Show and was pleased to hear the Cape Wrath Trail getting a mention. Gilad Nachmani has got his work cut out for him if he is to hike it in 8 days because… Read more »

8 years ago

Great write up and pics. Chaco is certainly on my to do list. I know that you are interested in history from the podcast. Are you familiar with Cahokia? I was surprised to learn of this relatively unknown culture and it’s abrupt fall.
Keep those sweet pics coming!

8 years ago
Reply to  Paul Mags

Yep, most of the construction was earth and wood. Good thing they had to do an antiquities study before they constructed the interstate there, or many of the artifacts they found there would have been lost.

8 years ago

There’s a book written by a guy that was on this awesome radiolab segment about the Anasazi:

It’s called House of Rain, besides the author coming across as a pretentious asshole and plugging in too much spiritual mumbo jumbo, it was a good compilation of Anasazi history.

He walks the route of the Anasazi through the southwest in the book and has some cringeworthy elitist thoughts on backpacking in there.