Just last week I had the privilege to visit one of the most culturally important sites in the Western United States: Chaco Canyon National Park. This park covers a very remote area of Northwestern New Mexico, to the South of Farmington. It boasts the largest ruins from the Ancestral Puebloan peoples, much larger than Mesa Verde. Chacos Canyon is certainly one of the lesser-known national parks, as well as a little-known culture to laymen and experts alike.
After hoping to go for so many years, I finally had the opportunity to spend a few days in this extremely rich, well-preserved concentration of American history. This is my experience visiting Chaco Canyon, as well as the story of what now lies on the canyon floor.
The Road to Chaco
Though Chaco’s ruins outboast Mesa Verde’s greatly, due to its remoteness it only receives a little over 1/12th of the visitors. After driving through hours of sparse scrubland, our drive concluded with a loud, shaky 15-mile dirt road filled with washboard ruts (which are unstable when wet!). But once this rite of passage was over we arrived into a tight canyon, and that is when the ancient walls of several great houses began to appear along the road.
Pueblo Bonito was the first great house we saw and the second largest in the complex. Construction started as early as 850 AD and continued through various extensions until the 1200’s, when all the dwellings in the canyon were suddenly abandoned. At the height of its development, this great house would have been up to 5 stories tall, with close to 800 rooms. The sheer size of the building is breathtaking, considering this was a fairly underused site (only thought to be used during great seasonal ceremonies).
“The Center of the Chacoan World”
Dozens of sites like this dominate the landscape inside and above Chaco Canyon, featuring extremely advanced masonry and construction. So, who were these people that built these things? They were the Ancestral Puebloans, a diverse group of peoples that were the ancestors of many contemporary American Indians (most notably the Hopi and the Navajo).
One of the first features of the natural landscape that we noticed while in Chaco Canyon was how unnatural it was– with many sections of the cliffsides cleared of rock and rubble to look clean and crisp. It is on these cliffsides that clumps of intricate petroglyphs can be found, all painstakingly pecked into the side of the wall. In addition are the many remains of the beautiful pottery traditions these people practiced, varying widely in style.
A Continuing Mystery
Though the remnants of Ancestral Puebloans rise majestically out of the sand in this park, and much has been deduced in how and when these great houses were all built, little is known as to why. The mysteries surrounding these people’s motivations, their morals, or even why these structures were abandoned can only be answered now in speculations steeped in controversy.
I would highly recommend anybody willing to make the trip to visit, as it is a breathtaking sight that reminds us of a much deeper, richer past of this country than many of us are familiar with.
Thanks for reading!
Mitch Deans, Architectural Designer
18 March 2019