You Need To See This Ancient Hidden Gem in New Mexico

The coming of spring has often inspired me to seek outdoor adventures, especially after a few months of cold, dark days. And what better way to explore than to take a road trip to one of New Mexico's incredible hidden gems?

Chaco Canyon, in northern New Mexico, harbors the remains of an ancient culture in North America. Its remote location means it is virtually crowd free, plus it is just so breathtaking to see!

As a teenager, I went with my family to see Chichen Itza and other Mayan ruins in Mexico. At the time, I didn't know there were comparable ancient ruins in my native country. Then my brother told me about this amazing, ancient civilization that once lived in what is now New Mexico.

Chaco Canyon became especially fascinating to me when I learned that the Chacoans (Anasazi) had traded with Mayans in Yucatan, Mexico where I had already been. This ancient trade route extended over 2,000 miles over dry land!

The Anasazi, or "ancient ones," who occupied the area had an incredible turquoise industry, and they traded their beads with the Mayans for macaw parrots, cocoa beans, seashells, etc., the remains of which have been found in the Chaco ruins. 

They were also highly skilled in architecture, astronomy, and irrigation. Upon visiting the ruins, it became clear that only a very sophisticated ancient people could have survived in the stark climate of Chaco Canyon. Annual temperatures range from -38° F to 102° F!

Neil Judd who headed an extensive excavation project of the ruins from 1920 - 1925 complained in his journal of the harsh living conditions and said there was a limit to how many summers a person could live there. 

It is awe-inspiring to think that multiple civilizations have flourished in the desert for thousands of years. The people of Chaco Canyon eventually abandoned their home, but the Navajo Nation, whose roots extend as far back as the Anasazi, is currently the largest indigenous nation in the United States. 

During our visit to the Chaco ruins, we got to walk among several "great houses." These large buildings had hundreds of rooms where the Chacoans made their homes. One of these great houses named Pueblo Bonito had around 800 rooms! And it was the largest apartment-style structure in the history of the world until 1882!

Many of these stone structures are supported with large wooden beams. This timber had to be carried from over 50 miles away via complex road systems! An incredible feat for any people without modern machinery!

Among the ruins, we also saw nearly a dozen kivas. These are large, pit-like structures once used for meetings, ceremonies, and sometimes storage. 

The complex architecture of Chaco Canyon was astounding! There are even a few rooms in one of the great houses that are open to the public to go in and and look around.

Unfortunately, there are no signs or any written information to be found in or around the ruins. You can learn about guided tours at the Visitor Center, though. (The Visitor Center is currently closed due to COVID-19)

I wished we could have had a tour, but we arrived too late in the day, so plan your trip accordingly.  

At least my brother knew some interesting facts about the Chacoans from the anthropology class that sparked his desire to visit Chaco Canyon. Exploring the ruins was worthwhile even with a lack of information. The sophisticated architecture is truly amazing. 

I learned a lot more online after our vacation, and I wish I had done some research beforehand as it would have made the ruins even more exciting. (You can find more links to information about Chaco history and culture at the end of this article.)

An especially interesting fact about Chaco Canyon is its mysterious abandonment in which residents left behind valuable items including large piles of turquoise beads and even some caches of food. Archeologists have found evidence of a severe, 50 year drought which seems to be the most likely reason for the Chacoans to abandon their home that had thrived from about 850 to 1250 AD. 

Visiting Chaco Canyon helped me appreciate the incredible native civilizations (some of which still thrive today) that are the foundation of America's history. The Chaco Culture Historical National Park is a bit out of the way, but well worth the visit!

Have you been to Chaco Canyon? Is it on your bucket list? Share your thoughts in the comment section below!

***The Visitor Center and Campgrounds at Chaco Culture National Historical Park are currently closed due to COVID-19.***
• I suggest you visit Chaco Canyon as an extension to a Mesa Verde NP trip! 
• For directions to Chaco Canyon, see the National Parks Service website as GPS directions may lead you astray.
Camping in Chaco Canyon

Chaco Culture National Historical Park
Pueblo Bonito

Hi! My name is Kait. Follow this link to learn more about me and my blog.


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