Ancestral Puebloans-Part 2: Chaco Canyon

This is part 2 of a an evolving series.

Click here for part 1, here for part 3,  here for part 4.

 Among the best-known architecture of the Ancestral Puebloans is Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park. It was, however, preceded and superseded in significance by New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon. In its heyday, between the 8th and 11th centuries, this was already composed of complex buildings three and four stories high. Hundreds of miles of Chacoan Roads connected this hub to distant dwellings, and with trading networks as far away as the Pacific Coast and Mexico, as the presence of marine shells and tropical feathers found during early excavations attests.

From the new discoverers in the late 1800s, to present-day visitors, the park with its fabulous finds of adobe abodes, pottery, basketry, and jewelry has stimulated the imagination and, in consideration of its pivotal role it was designated a National Historical Park in 1907, and a World Heritage Site in 1987.

Fajada Butte, elevation 6623 feet, an important landmark near Chaco Canyon, seen from one of the ruins

Chacoan Road leading into the distance

My husband and I journeyed to Chaco Canyon in 2009 and again in 2015. We reached its location in the northwest corner of New Mexico near Farmington from the north, on a 21-mile county road, the last 13 unpaved and partly of washboard consistency. The approach from the south reportedly is no better. A campground provides the only overnight accommodation. The place sizzles in summer and freezes in winter, and during our last trip we awoke to snow one May morning.

May morning

A seven mile paved road leads from the newly remodeled Visitor Center around the core of the park and allows admittance to pueblos with names like Chetro Ketl and Hungo Pavi. They represent the initial surveyors’ fascination with what they uncovered, rather than ethnically sensitive or meaningful appellations. Pueblo Bonito, the largest among them, once had over 600 rooms and 40 kivas, ceremonial chambers thought to signify points of emergence of the people.

Multiple pueblos line Chaco Canyon

Pueblo Bonito

Interior of a pueblo showing the use of wood to create floors and ceilings. The beams supported smaller branches spread at a right angle on top of them.

T-shaped doors were a hallmark of Chaco Canyon

Why so many rooms, the majority without direct light and ventilation? According to scholarly thought, many of the so-called Great Houses might not have been intended for human habitation, but predominantly for food storage, distribution, and trade, or for ceremonial and religious purposes. If vast portions of these structures were not in regular use, as some evidence suggests, what accounts for their painstaking assembly, especially since each piece of stone had to be hewn by hand, and each log of wood dragged from forests at least 50 miles distant?

Ruins the color of the surrounding rocks

The largest of several Great Kivas at Chaco Canyon

When one wishes to escape the constant current of cars and crowds that congregate near the chief attractions, and ponder some of these perplexing questions, a variety of hiking trails afford access to more remote settlements where one finds solitude among the ruined remains. They whisper of a time when insightful people superbly employed their resources and developed an expansive and elaborate culture which still stretches the mind today.

Who were these Ancestral Puebloans?

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

15 thoughts on “Ancestral Puebloans-Part 2: Chaco Canyon

  1. It is amazing.
    We came from the South twice over the years and I wondered about the north route. Apparently they are both the same although we were told the south route floods if there is rain. We had a 4×4 so it was rough and dirty but not a problem.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I am actually glad that the roads are not completely smooth. At least this keeps the numbers of visitors in check, if only a little. I feel slightly guilty for feeling that way, but I think it is the main reason Chaco is not as overrun as some other National Parks.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I wonder if the T-shapes doorway is to accommodate a person holding two pots of goods — one under each arm. Keeps elbows from knocking on the frame, I’m guessing.

    I would have been hiking out to the more remote locations, away from the crowds. There is much history to be absorbed and pondered in these places!

    I’ve not yet been to Chaco Canyon. Am adding it to my places to see list. Another wonderful post, Tanja.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Shannon. I like your practical explanation for the existence of the T-shaped doorway. If they had asked the cooks earlier, they might have all been built like this. 🙂
      I hope you will make it to Chaco. It’s a very spiritual place, and I can’t wait to get back there.


  3. Snow in May – huh… You make it sound like a fascinating place to visit. Unfortunately, my last to the Southwest was in a rental car, which was not conducive to the extremely rough roads I was reading lead the way to Chaco. Still glad to read others’ accounts of it though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Chaco Canyon IS a fascinating destination, and it was well worth braving the bad roads. During our second visit we were lucky and the road had been graded only a few days earlier, so the washboard effect was much decreased. I hope you will make it there one day!


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