The Center of Chacoan Culture
Created in 1907, Chaco Canyon National Monument became Chaco Culture National Historical Park in 1980 and, in 1987, a World Heritage Site.
It seems unlikely that Chaco Canyon, with its long winters, short growing seasons, and marginal rainfall, could have become a hub of regional cultures. But 1,100 to 1,200 years ago, native people made this high desert valley the center of their world. They created monumental architecture and developed far-reaching commerce and a complex social organization.
Chaco people began to build here on a grand scale in the mid-800s. Using masonry techniques unique for the time, they continued to expand their massive, multi-story stone buildings (great houses) for over 300 years. From the start, they planned their buildings to have hundreds of rooms. Construction of some great houses spanned decades or even centuries. Each one is different, but all share features distinct to Chacoan architecture.
The great houses of Pueblo Bonito, Una Vida, and Peñasco Blanco rose in the mid- to late 800s. Hungo Pavi, Chetro Ketl, Pueblo Alto, and many others followed. Often oriented to solar, lunar, and cardinal directions, some great houses incorporated sophisticated astronomy markers. Lines of sight among the great houses enabled communication. By the early 1100s, Chaco Canyon had become a ceremonial, administrative, and economic center. Road networks linked dozens of great houses in the canyon to over 200 throughout the region. The mountains, mesas, and shrines sacred to Chacoans continue to hold deep spiritual meaning for their descendants.
What lay at the heart of this great social experiment? According to oral traditions, people converged at Chaco because it was a sacred place, and several Navajo and Pueblo clans and ceremonies originated here. It may have been a so-called "center place," binding regional peoples through a shared vision. Or was it the hub of a network set up to trade turquoise for macaws, copper bells, shells, and other items from distant lands? Did Chaco redistribute food and resources to growing populations when climate failed them? Continuing research may reveal answers to these questions.
By the late 1100s, reorganization of the Chacoan world led to a shift in focus to other regional centers. Chaco's influence could be seen in places like Aztec, Mesa Verde, the Chuska Mountains, and other centers to the north, south, and west. Today, many of the Southwest tribes are Chaco descendants. For these individuals, Chaco is still seen as an important stop on their clans' sacred migration paths, and a spiritual place to be honored and respected.
Clues to the Past
These were not mere foot trails but carefully engineered roads, labor-intensive to build and maintain. The road system is most elaborate near the great houses, where two- and four-lane segments may have related to ritual and ceremony. While the roads served a practical purpose, they also may have held a greater meaning that reflected the Chacoan worldview.
Chacoans valued turquoise highly, and left great quantities of ornaments, offerings, and worksite debris in the canyon. They imported raw turquoise from distant mines, crafting it into exquisite beads, necklaces, and pendants. A small frog found in Pueblo Bonito, carved from jet, has a collar and eyes of inlaid turquoise.
The distinctive black-on-white Cibola pottery may have originated in communities to the south and west. Most of the pottery found at Chaco was probably made elsewhere.
The earliest walls were one stone thick and bonded with generous courses of mud mortar. At Pueblo Bonito the oldest walls are of this masonry type. To make higher, longer walls, Chacoan builders widened the rubble cores and added structural stone veneers and internal wooden supports.
Another early masonry type used large tabular sandstone blocks chinked with smaller stones set in mortar.
Chacoans developed ever more intricate masonry styles through the mid to late 1000s. Yet they covered many walls in plaster, sometimes with painted or engraved decorations.
By the early 1100s, a different style known as McElmo became prominent. Seen in Kin Klesto and elsewhere, it has thinner rubble cores and thicker veneers of shaped sandstone.
A Guide to Chaco Culture
Chaco's Ancient Architecture
At the visitor center, see the exhibits about Chaco and its people. Staff will help you make the most of your time. Take a ranger-led walk, and ask about other programs.
The great house closest to the visitor center, Una Vida, is a short walk from the parking area. This unexcavated early great house has probably the most extensive view of the cultural landscape from the canyon floor. A short hike up the talus slope from Una Vida is a striking petroglyph panel.
Down canyon from Una Vida, at the mouth of Mockingbird Canyon, is Hungo Pavi great house. It is strategically located near natural drainages, and several seeps and springs. Of all the great houses, Hungo Pavi is the most easily accessed from the parking area. The short trail around the building and through the plaza passes an ancient stairway carved into the cliff.
Pueblo Bonito, the core of the Chaco complex and the largest great house, lies farther down the canyon. Built in stages between the mid-800s and early 1100s, Pueblo Bonito reached at least four stories with over 600 rooms and 40 kivas. East of Pueblo Bonito, a petroglyph trail leads to Chetro Ketl.
Chetro Ketl, another of the largest great houses, includes an immense elevated earthen plaza. The trail offers a unique view into the lower sections of the building and the construction sequences of the great kiva.
Chacoans built Pueblo del Arroyo, Spanish for "village by the wash," over a relatively short time. The round tri-wall structure seen at the west side of the building is rare in the Chaco region. The building's position took advantage of an unobstructed view through South Gap and toward Hosta Butte.
The placement and width of the east wall at Kin Klesto may have provided observation points for predicting and confirming the winter solstice sunrise. Other great houses may have been similarly oriented to other celestial cycles.
Casa Rinconada, on the canyon's south side, is the largest excavated great kiva in the park. The trail to this great house passes a dozen so-called "small house sites" contemporary with Casa Rinconada but different in construction and function.
Hiking trails lead to many other sites. The Pueblo Alto Complex, atop the mesa, is important as the junction of dozens of prehistoric roads. Tsin Kletsin and Peñasco Blanco can be reached by hiking from the central canyon. Wijiji, built in one stage in the early 1100s, is noted for its symmetrical layout and uniformly sized rooms. Find hiking permits, required for these trails, at the trailheads or visitor center.
Hiking Chaco's Trails
• Camping and fires are not permitted in the backcountry. • All trails and Chacoan cultural sites close from sunset to 7 am. • Pets are permitted only on backcountry trails. They must be leashed. • The park's elevation is 6,200 feet. Winters are cold and summers hot, with little shade. • Brief, violent thunderstorms occur in summer. • Trails are steep, uneven, and icy in winter. • Wear hiking boots and appropriate clothing and be sure to drink plenty of water. • Prepare for extremes. • Watch out for rattlesnakes.
About Your Visit
Chaco Culture National Historical Park is in northwestern New Mexico. The recommended access route is from the north, via US Hwy 550/44 and County Roads 7900 and 7950. Turn off US 550 at CR 7900, 3 miles east of Nageezi and 50 miles west of Cuba (at mile 112.5). Follow the signs south on CR 7900 for 5 miles (paved), then turn right on CR 7950 (16 miles, mostly unpaved) to the park boundary.
Two roads access Chaco from the south, both from Navajo 9, running among Crownpoint, Pueblo Pintado, and Cuba. Signs direct you to the park via Pueblo Pintado and via Seven Lakes. At Pueblo Pintado, go north on Navajo 46 (for 1 mile), left on CR 7900 (16 miles), and left on CR 7950 (16 miles) to the park entrance (33 miles, rough dirt). At Seven Lakes (3 miles north and 12 miles east of Crownpoint), go north on NM Rt. 57 to the park entrance (20 miles, rough dirt). All routes have sections of dirt roads that may be impassable in inclement weather. Call 505-786-7014, ext. 221, for road conditions.
No lodging, gasoline, repair services, or food is available in the park. The National Park Service's Gallo Campground, one mile from the visitor center, has tables, fire rings, and central toilets. Water and firewood are available at the visitor center. No RVs or trailers over 35 feet long are permitted in the campground. Camping is limited to 14 days.
For Your Safety and the Park's Protection
Remember that the past belongs to everyone. These fragile, irreplaceable sites are part of the sacred homeland of the Hopi, the Pueblo peoples of New Mexico, and the Navajo, among others. Help preserve the World Heritage Site; follow park regulations. • Do not remove natural or cultural features. • Do not deface, add to, or alter petroglyphs, pictographs, or rocks. • Do not walk, climb, sit, or lean on walls. • Stay on designated trails. • All trails close from sunset to 7 am. • For firearms regulations check the park website.
Source: NPS Brochure (2017)
Brochures ◆ Site Bulletins ◆ Trading Cards
1941 Annual Report, Navajo Indian Mobile Unit, Chaco Canyon National Monument Southwestern Monuments Special Report No. 27 (Gordon Vivian, June 30, 1941)
A General Description of the Hydrogeology, Water Supply Wells, Groundwater Monitoring, and Potential Threats to Groundwater Resources of Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico NPS Technical Report NPS/NRWRD/NRTR-2005/325 (Larry Martin, January 2005)
A History of Chaco Canyon National Monument (Lloyd M. Pierson, 1956)
Acoustic Monitoring Report, Chaco Culture National Historical Park NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/NRSS/NSNS/NRR-2015/907 (Misty D. Nelson, January 2015)
An Administrative History of the Chaco Project (Mary Maruca, 1982)
Anasazi Cultural Parks Study: Assessment of Visitor Experiences at Three Cultural Parks NPS Technical Report NPS/NAUCPRS/NRTR-95/07 (Martha E. Lee and Douglas Stephens, September 1995)
Baseline Biology of Birds and Mammals at Chaco Canyon National Monument, New Mexico (Jack F. Cully, Jr., March 31, 1981)
Chaco Canyon Studies (Publications in Archeology)
18a. Archeological Surveys of Chaco Canyon (Alden C. Hayes, David M. Brugge, James W. Judge, 1981)
18b. Great Pueblo Architecture of Chaco Canyon (Stephen H. Lekson, 1984)
18c. Tsegai: An Archeological Ethnohistory of the Chaco Region (David M. Brugge, 1986)
18d. Small Site Architecture of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico (Peter J. McKenna and Marcia L. Truell, 1986)
18e. Environment and Subsistence of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico (Frances Joan Mathien, ed., 1985)
18f. Investigations at the Pueblo Alto Complex, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico: Volume I (Thomas C. Windes, 1986)
18f. Investigations at the Pueblo Alto Complex, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico: Volume II, Part 1 (Thomas C. Windes, 1986)
18f. Investigations at the Pueblo Alto Complex, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico: Volume II, Part 2 (Thomas C. Windes, 1986)
18f. Investigations at the Pueblo Alto Complex, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico: Volume III, Part 1 (Thomas C. Windes, 1986)
18f. Investigations at the Pueblo Alto Complex, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico: Volume III, Part 2 (Thomas C. Windes, 1986)
18g. Ceramics, Lithics, and Ornaments of Chaco Canyon: Volume I (Cermaics) (Frances Joan Mathien, ed., 1997)
18g. Ceramics, Lithics, and Ornaments of Chaco Canyon: Volume II (Lithics) (Frances Joan Mathien, ed., 1997)
18g. Ceramics, Lithics, and Ornaments of Chaco Canyon: Volume III (Lithics and Ornaments) (Frances Joan Mathien, ed., 1997)
18h. Culture and Ecology of Chaco Canyon and the San Juan Basin (Frances Joan Mathien, 2005)
Circular Relating to Historic and Prehistoric Ruins of the Southwest and Their Preservation (Edgar L. Hewitt, 1904)
Colonizing Chaco Canyon: Mapping Antiquity in the Territorial Southwest (©Berenika Byszewski, Master's Thesis University of New Mexico, December 2011)
Ecosystem impacts by the Ancestral Puebloans of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, USA (David L. Lentz, Venicia Slotten, Nicholas P. Dunning, John G. Jones, Vernon L. Scarborough, Jon-Paul McCool, Lewis A. Owen, Samantha G. Fladd, Kenneth B. Tankersley, Cory J. Perfetta, Christopher Carr, Brooke Crowley and Stephen Plog, PLoS ONE, 16(10), October 27, 2021)
Enjoy the View Visual Resources Inventory Report, Chaco Culture National Historical Park NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/CHCU/NRR-2016/1353 (Mark E. Meyer, Ksienya A. Taylor, Robert G. Sullivan, Jim Von Haden and Dabney Ford, December 2016)
Erosion Control in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico for the Preservation of Archaeological Sites (©William Chauvenet, Master's Thesis University of New Mexico, 1935)
Evaluating Chaco migration scenarios using dynamic social network analysis (Barbara J. Mills, Matthew A. Peeples, Leslie D. Aragon, Benjamin A. Bellorado, Jeffrey J. Clark, Evan Giomi and Thomas C. Windes, extract from Antiquity, Vol. 92 Issue 264, August 2018)
Geologic Map of the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, Northwestern New Mexico USGS MAP I-1571 (G.R. Scott, R. B. O'Sullivan and D.L. Weide, 1984)
Geologic Resources Inventory Report, Chaco Culture National Historical Park NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/NRPC/GRD/NRR-2015/1045 (K. KellerLynn, September 2015)
Identity and Material Practice in the Chacoan World: Ornamentation and Utility Ware Pottery (©Hannah Victoria Mattson, PhD Thesis University of New Mexico, July 2015)
Interpretive Geology of the Chaco Area, Northwestern New Mexico USGS MAP I-1777 (J.M. Mytton and G.B. Schneider, 1987)
Joint Management Plan: Chaco Culture Archeological Protection Site System Plan Amendment (March 1990)
Kin Kletso: A Pueblo III Community in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico with The Human Skeletal Material / Tree-Ring Dating of the Archeological Sites in the Chaco Canyon Region, New Mexico Southwestern Monuments Association Technical Series No. 6 (Gordon Vivian, Tom W. Mathews, Erik Reed and Bryant Bannister, 1973)
Natural Resource Condition Assessment, Chaco Culture National Historical Park NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/CHCU/NRR-2021/2304 (J. Judson Wynne, September 2021)
Paleontology of the Upper Cretaceous of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico (©Richard Packard Vann, Master's Thesis University of New Mexico, 1931)
Paleontological Resources Inventory (Non-Sensitive Version), Chaco Culture National Historical Park NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/CHCU/NRR-2019/1915 (Phillip J. Varela, Vincent L. Santucci and Justin S. Tweet, May 2019)
Possibility of developing a ground-water supply at the Chaco Canyon National Monument, San Juan county, New Mexico USGS Open-File Report 57-121 (S.W. West, 1957)
Prehistoric Roads of New Mexico: A Synthesis of GIS and Remote Sensing Techniques (©Natalie L. Heberling, Master's Thesis University of New Mexico, December 2010)
Prospectus: Chaco Canyon Studies (Wilfred Logan and Zorro Bradley, September 1969)
Quaternary Geology of Chaco Canyon, Northwestern New Mexico (©David Waxham Love, PhD Thesis University of New Mexico, December 1980)
Remote Sensing: Multispectral Analyses of Cultural Resources Supplement No. 5 Part 1: An Airborne Spectral Analysis of Settlement Sites in Chaco Canyon, Part 2: Remote Detection of Prehistoric Sites in Bandelier National Monument (Part 1: Stanley A. Morain, Thomas K. Budge and Amelia Komaerik, Part 2: Stanley A. Morain, Charles Nelson, Mike E. White and Amelia M. Komarek, 1981)
Report on Wind Cave National Park, Sullys Hill Park, Casa Grande Ruin, Muir Woods, Petrified Forest, and Other National Monuments, Including List of Bird Reserves: 1913 (HTML edition) (Secretary of the Interior, 1914)
Reports of the Chaco Center
2. Aerial Remote Sensing Techniques in Archeology (Thomas R. Lyons and Robert K. Hitchcock, eds., 1977)
3. The Outlier Survey: A Regional View of Settlement in the San Juan Basin (Robert P. Powers, William B. Gillespie, and Stephen H. Lekson, 1983)
4. A History of the Chaco Navajos (David M. Brugge, 1980)
5. Stone Circles of Chaco Canyon, Northwestern New Mexico (Thomas C. Windes, 1978)
6. The Architecture and Dendrochronology of Chetro Ketl (Stephen H. Lekson, 1983)
7. The Architecture and Material Culture of 29SJ1360 (Peter J. McKenna, 1984)
8. Recent Research on Chaco Prehistory (W. James Judge and John D. Schelberg, eds., (1984)
9. A Biocultural Approach to Human Burials from Chaco Canyon, New Mexico (Nancy J. Akins, 1986)
10. Excavations at 29SJ 633: The Eleventh Hour Site, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico (Frances Joan Mathien, ed., 1991)
11. Excavations at 29SJ 627: Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, Volume I. The Architecture and Stratigraphy (Marcia L. Truell, 1992)
11. Excavations at 29SJ 627: Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, Volume II. The Artifact Analyses (Frances Joan Mathien, ed., 1992)
12. The Spadefoot Toad Site: Investigations at 29SJ 627, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico: Artifactual and Biological Analyses, Volume II (Thomas C. Windes, ed., 1993)
13. Early Puebloan Occupations in the Chaco Region, Volume I: Excavations and Survey of Basketmaker III and Pueblo I Sites, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico (Thomas C. Windes, 2006)
Seismic and vibration hazard investigations of Chaco Culture National Historical Park USGS Open-File Report 85-529 (K.W. King, S.T. Algermissen and P.J. McDermott, 1985)
Shabik'eshchee Village: A Late Basket Maker Site in the Chaco Canyon, New Mexico Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 92 (Frank H. H. Roberts, Jr., 1929)
Sociocultural Diversity in the Prehispanic Southwest: Learning, Weaving, and Identity in the Chaco Regional System, A.D. 850-1140 (©Edward Alexander Jolie, PhD Thesis University of New Mexico, December 2018)
Speaking in Circles: Interpretation and Visitor Experience at Chaco Culture National Historic Park (©Maren Else Svare, Master's Thesis University of New Mexico, May 2015)
The Geology of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico In Relation To The Life And Remains Of The Prehistoric Peoples Of Pueblo Bonito Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, Volume 122, Number 7 (Kirk Bryan, February 2, 1954)
Twentieth century arroyo changes in Chaco Culture National Historical Park USGS Water-Resources Investigations Report 2001-4251 (Allen C. Gellis, 2002)
Using Archaeological Remote Sensing to Evaluate Land Use and Constructed Space in Chaco Canyon (©Jennie Odessa Sturm, PhD Thesis University of New Mexico, December 2019)
Vegetation Classification and Mapping Project Report, Chaco Culture National Historical Park NPS Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/SCPN/NRTR-2011/452 (David Salas, Lisa Floyd-Hanna and David Hanna, May 2011)
Vertebrate Paleontological Resources from National Park Service Areas in New Mexico (Vincent L. Santucci, Justin Tweet, David Bustos, Jim Von Haden and Phillip Varela, extract from New Mexico Museum of Natural History Bulletin 64, 2014)
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Last Updated: 02-Dec-2021