Visiting Chaco Canyon – Where did all the Anasazi go?

Chaco Canyon – Home to the Anasazi

I have always loved visiting ancient civilizations. I climbed the ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru as a high school student. We spent our honeymoon climbing Maya and Toltec ruins in Mexico.  Chaco Canyon is North America’s version of these wonderful, mysterious sites.

This amazing National Historical Park, just south of Farmington in New Mexico, is a ‘must visit’ location for those of us who crave the mystery of ancient wealth and glory, now covered in sand and myth. So where did the powerful, creative, sophisticated residents of this 11th century ruin all disappear to? This is the question I just needed to answer.

We started our day in Farmington, New Mexico, about 60 miles south of the Colorado border.  This is the region known as “Four-Corners” because the states come together here.  It turns out that the Anasazi culture, over a period of over 400 years, spread into all four corners, in an area known as the Colorado Plateau.  For information about traveling to this site, see below.

In traditional stories from Acoma Pueblo, Jemez Pueblo, the Rio Grande pueblos and from the Navajo culture, Chaco Canyon is known as the home of the Great Gambler.  The Gambler came from the south, enslaved the pueblo people and forced them to create the great buildings of Chaco, before he was outwitted and driven away.

The Name Anasazi

Before we can learn much about the site, it helps to know something about the people who built it, and the first question is “what is their name?”  Because there are no written records to the period, we really do not know what the people called themselves.  The name “Anasazi” was first created in the early 19th century by Navajo Indians working for the archaeologists (pot diggers?) first exploring the sites.  The name in the Navajo language comes close to meaning “the bones of our enemies” all though it has often been translated “ancient ones”.

Clearly this name is not favored by the Hopi and other tribes that inherit the Anasazi blood lines.  Scientists have taken to calling the people “Ancestral Puebloans” because they are, in a round-about way, the ancestors to the Pueblo tribes currently living in Arizona and New Mexico, mostly around Albuquerque and Santa Fe.  The Hopi’s have their own name, which describes them as Hopi ancestors, and leaves out the other tribes.

For now, we will call them Anasazi, going with the “Ancient Ones” translation.  For an interesting discussion of the Anasazi name, see  What’s in a name? (Craig Childs)

Where did they come from?

In the early centuries A.D. the Anasazi were a mobile people.  They learned to farm and built pit houses, half below ground and half above.  For many pre-historic populations around the world, learning to farm meant not traveling.  You have invested a lot in your home and land, so you stay.  These people however, rarely stayed in one area for more than 20 years or so.  When the weather changed and the source of water moved, so did they.  This was the Colorado Plateau.  Life is always “on the edge”.  And so the Anasazi have always been travelers.  Although they moved frequently, they stayed “social”, aware of the groups traveling around them, trading with them, combining language and religion.

Farming techniques improved significantly by about 400 AD and the people were able to stay longer in one place.  The loose knit society grew into sophisticated civilization.  They began to settle in places longer, built larger more permanent homes and public structures.

It is these structures we begin to see at Chaco Canyon.

The Great Kiva at Pueblo Bonito
The Great Kiva at Pueblo Bonito

Building Chaco Canyon

The people began building here in approximately 850 AD.  (Most dates based on tree-ring and relative ceramic dating)  Over 300 years construction continued. Individual areas, now called Pueblos, were built in the canyon.  Each has a Great House, which is a single continuous construction with rooms for public activities and private living.  Each Great House contained multiple kiva, the circular structure, built below grade, designed for ceremonies, dancing, and other large group events.

Artists Rendering of Chaco Canyon when occupied
Artists Rendering of Chaco Canyon when occupied

The main pueblo in Chaco Canyon, now called Pueblo Bonito, was planned in advance to have hundreds of rooms.  By 1150 AD, this one Pueblo was five stories high, had 600 rooms and 40 kiva (see below).   Other Pueblos are scattered throughout the canyon.  Many have been excavated or partially excavated and can be explored when you visit the area.  But don’t forget that for all the buildings you can see, each Pueblo scattered a couple of miles apart, there are hundreds of outlying buildings, possibly homes, possibly more Great Houses, that have not yet been excavated.

Sample Core and Veneer Walls at Chaco Canyon
Sample Core and Veneer Walls at Chaco Canyon

As you explore the various Pueblos at Chaco Canyon, keep your eye out for the “Core and Veneer” architecture.  The builders constructed walls using rough sandstone and mortar in the center, and then covered it with a veneer of carefully cut stone.  Over the 300 years of construction at this site, the style of the veneer changed.  You can date the walls (approximately) by observing the veneer stone pattern.  Even after all of that beautiful stone work, the veneer was then covered with plaster and often painted with decorative murals.  Looks a bit different now than it did in 1150 AD!

The Fall of an Empire?

In the declining years of Chaco, from 1150-1250 AD, many of the large spaces were modified to be more efficient as living spaces, indicating that the need for large public events had waned.  About the same time, the great houses of Aztec Ruins (Aztec, NM) and Salmon Ruins (Bloomfield, NM) began to rise in importance.  (We will be writing about these in the near future. Stay tuned!)

Life in Pueblo Bonito

Researchers estimate the year-round population for Pueblo Bonito at 50-100 and for the Canyon as a whole only 2000 to 6000 people. This is based on the umber of habitation rooms, identified as rooms with fire pits and pottery.  This low population is a bit surprising given that the Pueblo Bonito alone had 600 rooms. That would be 6 rooms per person! It appears that the area was maintained by a few people, but periodically visited by very large crowds.

Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon
Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon

Evidence of imported goods from Mexico (Macaws and Parrots) and throughout the Southwest indicates that this site was a cultural center visited periodically for religious celebrations, trade and other social events.  The people would then return to their own homes and go on with their lives.  The homes in the area, and especially the graveyards, indicate people from many different ethnic groups.  This returns us to the first question, “who were the Anasazi?”  In fact, they were a lot of different ethnic groups, that saw themselves as united.  In some sense, and for a time, it was Chaco Canyon that united them.

Treasures Lost

One of the most interesting things about this Pueblo cannot be seen by the visitors.  There was an amazing assortment of wealth buried in the ruins.  The culture clearly loved brightly colored birds, which are only available south of the Mexican border.  Turquoise jewelry and statuettes covered tables and the ground.  Explorers found  graves filled with jewelery and pottery imported from miles away.   Researchers found amazing pottery, of many different styles, and therefore different regions.  In order to explore this part of Chaco Canyon, you will have to explore the museums in Albuquerque and New York City.

Anasazi Pottery Samples

So Where Did They Go?

The heyday of Chaco Canyon appears to be 1100-1150 AD.  After that, it seems to have become a sleepy little town, rather than the center of the universe.  So did the civilization just die?  Well not really.  A great deal of research has been done in the past 30 years that demonstrates that the cultural center simply moved north.  The town of Aztec, about 50 miles north of Chaco Canyon, has ruins partially excavated that are proving to be at least as large, if not larger, than Chaco Canyon.  After that other areas such as Mesa Verde became central.Chaco Canyon Ruins

These are the Anasazi.  They are a mobile civilization, remember?  It is becoming clear that the people move to follow good crop lands and good rain.  Even while they moved, they kept their “culture” intact.  Kivas, Great Houses, T-Shaped doorways, marvelous pottery all continued for another 200 plus years as the people traveled to other areas in the Southwest.

We plan to follow them.  More blogs to come!

Traveling into Chaco Canyon

Parking the Rig

Chaco Access Map
Best access is from Highway 550

To be honest, we almost chickened out.   The easiest way to get to the park is from Highway 550, which runs from Bernalillo (Hwy 25), northwest to Bloomfield (Hwy 64).  There is a convenience store called Red Mesa Express Gas Station at mile 112.5.  If you are driving a large rig that should not be on crazy dirt roads, now is the time to park it and switch to the toad (or truck if you are towing).  On the south side of 550, at the turn off marked “Chaco Canyon National Historic Park”, there is a wide, dirt pull out where you can (safely?) park your rig for a few hours.  One overnight parking web site lists this as available for sleeping.  Your call.

Slow Road In

The Slow Road into Chaco Canyon
The Slow Road into Chaco Canyon

From the turnoff at mile 112.5, you will have 8.4 miles of good paved road, 8.5 miles of good gravel road and 3.5 miles of fairly bad dirt.  The dirt road condition will of course depend on whether it has rained recently.  But it is slow going, 10-20 mph at best.

At the end of that road is a small campground with space available for vehicles under 35′.  We saw a rental motorhome coming toward us as we went in.  I guess they were not worried about the shocks on that poor thing!

Seeing the Ruins

At the entrance to the park, the road is again paved.  Stop at the visitor center to pay the $10 per person charge ($20 per car) and grab some brochures.  I highly recommend the $1.00 brochure detailing the stops at Pueblo Bonito.  There are others there as well for less than $1.00 each.  They are really helpful when you get to the site.

After leaving the visitor center, there is a paved  loop that runs for nine miles by five pueblos.  Other pueblos are available if you are willing to walk/climb about 2 miles one way to each one.  The local park ranger can give you more details.  You must check in with the ranger if you are going to go to these “back country” sites.

Notes on PETS.  Pets are NOT allowed on the ruins, but they are allowed on the parking lots, picnic areas etc.  Because the day we chose stayed around 50 degrees all day, I didn’t mind leaving our wonderful Tucker in the car for a few 30 minute stretches.  Clearly that weather is short-lived in New Mexico.  So please be careful with Fido!

Enjoy this trip.  I hope you take the time to see it.  It is really worth a bit of extra work to get there.  We would love to have you comment on your trip and let people know how it goes!