Category: Chaco Culture National Historic Park

Drive to Mesa Verde

August 1, 2022

The 17-mile drive out of Chaco Canyon is excruciating. Roads in the park are paved, but for five miles it is one of the worst roads I have ever driven, and I have driven some rough roads searching for trout. Five miles an hour was my average speed for those five miles. It took an hour and 15 minutes to drive the 17 miles. Even then the paved road was really bumpy. There had been reports of bad storms for our three-night stay, but we had near perfect weather. If bad storms come, you could be trapped in the canyon. There are several areas that could wash across the road, making it unpassable, especially if you are pulling a trailer. There is a wash that the road crosses. A sign instructs you not to cross if there is ANY water. There was a little water when we came in, and thankfully no water going out.

The road passes through Indian land, Navajo I think. This treasure of a park is beautiful and accessible. You can walk up to the ruins, around and above them. The campground couldn’t be any more pleasant, right up against the canyon walls with some ruins at the bottom. If that road was paved all the way in, tour busses would be lined up, putting at risk a delicate environment that is sacred to many Indian tribes. Although torture driving in and out, it is well worth it!

We stopped at a Safeway in Aztec to resupply. The parking lot was packed on a Monday. It turned out to be the best Safeway I have ever been in. They had everything we needed and all the employees were nice and helpful. We barely got everything in the refrigerator, but we did. Then back on the road, crossing a big mountain and down into the town of Mancos, Colorado. We needed a mouse trap. We had a pack rat get into the trailer in Chaco Canyon. I think I chased him out, but he came back in. 

We stopped at a Family Dollar that also was one of the best I have been in, and also very nice help, who walked us right to the mouse traps. We drove on to the Mesa Verde Visitor’s Center. Unlike Chaco Canyon, you can’t walk to or through the ruins, you must sign up for a guided trip. A ranger told us everything was booked. Martha got right on her phone, searching for an opening and found two, one to Cliff Palace and one to Balcony House, two of the best sites. There are nearly 5,000 archeological sites in the 54,000 acres of Mesa Verde.

tarting c. 7500 BC Mesa Verde was seasonally inhabited by a group of nomadic Paleo-Indians known as the Foothills Mountain Complex. The variety of projectile points found in the region indicates they were influenced by surrounding areas, including the Great Basin, the San Juan Basin, and the Rio Grande Valley. Later, Archaicpeople established semi-permanent rock shelters in and around the mesa. By 1000 BC, the Basketmaker cultureemerged from the local Archaic population, and by 750 AD the Ancestral Puebloans had developed from the Basketmaker culture.

The Mesa Verdeans survived using a combination of hunting, gathering, and subsistence farming of crops such as corn, beans, and squash. They built the mesa’s first pueblos sometime after 650, and by the end of the 12th century, they began to construct the massive cliff dwellings for which the park is best known. By 1285, following a period of social and environmental instability driven by a series of severe and prolonged droughts, they abandoned the area and moved south to locations in Arizona and New Mexico, including the Rio Chama, the Albuquerque Basin, the Pajarito Plateau, and the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. From

We drove up a steep mountain to Morefield Campground, where you can drive around and select your spot. After 3 trips around, we picked a nice, shady spot.

Hike Pueblo Alto, Chaco Culture National Historic Park

Sunday, July 31, 2022

Our goal was to hike Pueblo Alto Loop Trail, which is about 5.5 miles on top of the north mesa to another settlement, Pueblo Alto. Continuing across the mesa and around the rim with views of the valley, Pueblo Bonita, Chetro Ketl and Chaco Canyon. 

People have been here for thousands of years, but in the mid-800’s they began to build on a grand scale for 300 years, and it is incredible what they did. It became the hub of trade for settlements throughout the southwest and Mesoamerica, bringing chocolate here. They built roads to connect settlements, irrigated fields, stored water and foods and had ceremonies in their great, round kivas. Many Native Americans feel this was where they came from, and it holds great spiritual value to them. To build such a structured society, there had to be strong leadership and organization. 

The trail starts behind Kin Kletso, one of seven major “great houses”. It quickly climbs up the mesa through a very narrow slot in the canyon wall. Once on top, it is mostly level with wonderful views of the settlements and the large valley. A mile around the rim, we had a great overlook of Pueblo Bonito. It is like a highway on the solid rock of the rim, the trail well-marked by cairns (rock piles). In Canada they are called Inunchucks, the Inuit name for their way of marking sites or trails on the ice.

It was a beautiful morning, beginning at 65 degrees. I almost wore a second shirt, but knew I would soon warm up. It was overcast, a blessing in July in New Mexico. Martha and I rate this the best hike we have taken. It was a perfect day for hiking; we never saw anyone else; the history is amazing, comparable to Machu Picchu; there are many unique features: solid rock canyon rim extending for miles like a highway, slot canyons, canyon steps carved 1,000 years ago, the views, “buckets” holding water, iron deposits. There were very few boring steps. Wonderful hike, and it was the ranger’s second favorite! I think her favorite was the Petroglyphs Trail, but the wash was running too hard to cross.

Chaco Culture National Historic Park Loop Drive

Saturday, July 30, 2022

65 deg at 6:00 am, cloudy

We took the Loop Drive through Chaco Valley, stopping first at the Visitor’s Center. Behind the center was a 1-mile hike to Una Vida and some petroglyphs. It was pretty impressive. “Una Vida is a Chacoan “great house,” a large pre-planned multi-storied public building with distinctive masonry, formal earthen architecture, and a great kiva. Una Vida exists today in a near-natural state of preservation, free from major vandalism, and with only minor excavations and preservation repairs.” It was built in the mid-800’s AD and had 160 rooms. You can see the two streams that run through Chaco Canyon. There are six major sites on the loop drive, some largely excavated. For many Indian tribes The Pueblans, Hopi, Navajo and others, these are sacred sites where many are buried, and they don’t want further excavation. Some of these were found and excavated in the late 1800’s.

We drove to the next spot, Hungo Pavi, which included several sites, then looped behind to the cliff where there were a lot of petroglyphs. These were pretty amazing structures. Chaco Canyon was the hub of trade throughout New Mexico and beyond. I would like to see Machu Pichu, but this is pretty incredible. It is huge, and the rock work is impressive. Certainly they had the materials, with plenty of flat stones falling off the cliffs naturally, but they way they put them together, using mud for mortar would rival today’s stonework. At times they used tiny stones to fill gaps. In later buildings, they used columns, wooden support beams and flying buttresses. Sometimes they used a double-wall construction. Parts of these buildings still stand 1,000 years later!

The common thread was the kiva, a round building with windows, often aligned with the sun, moon and stars. Several of these kivas are huge! 50 people would fit comfortably. They built roads for commerce with other settlements, often carving steps in the cliffs above. They built irrigation canals and water storage. We talked about the Romans and their incredible construction at the same time. One difference is we know a lot about the history of the Romans. We know little about Chaco Culture. Why did they leave? What did they do in these great kivas? This was a huge, open society where people visited from hundreds of miles away. Artifacts were found from the west coast, Mexico and the north.

We completed the loop drive and went back to the Visitor’s Center.I found several interesting books while Martha talked with a ranger about what hike to take tomorrow. Her favorite hike was out, because we can’t cross the “wash”, which is a river right now, and it is supposed to rain tonight. 

Chaco Culture National Historic Park 1

Friday, July 29, 2022

We were supposed to take a jeep tour of Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “shay” or tsegi in Navajo), but Bobby VanWinkle came to our campsite, and said the Navajo park chief closed the park to visitors. It is monsoon season and Chinle Wash has been a raging river. A truck sinks gradually in the middle of the river. One native said she had never seen it this high. Bobby knew we could cross safely, but the man in charge wanted to err on the side of safety. I was disappointed, as Bobby is known for his excellent tours, and it is the only way to really see this incredible canyon. I hope we can come back.

Why would it take so long to drive 95 miles to Chaco Canyon? Of course I didn’t want to drive the same road we drove yesterday, so we took the alternate route. We started on Rt. 64 north, a major route. A line of cars and trucks all blinked their lights at us. We are in monsoon season. Was the road washed out? Are there cows or horses on the road? This is open range on the Navajo Reservation, so there are often animals on the road, although I am pretty amazed how they seem to be road-smart. I slowed down, but never did see the problem. I think there were animals on the road.

At Alon we turned south on 12, then turned east on 13 and headed toward some big mountains. Martha said we were on a Scenic Highway. As we started up the mountain, we were surrounded by huge, red rock cliffs, and the road wound tightly through them. A car wisely passed us on a double line. We wound up the big mountain around very tight, twisty turns. I was going 10 miles/hr asking Martha if anything was coming down the mountain as I had to swing wide to get around turns. There are times I think this big, diesel truck is more than needed. Then we come to a steep mountain like this, and I am grateful to have such a powerful truck!

It is certainly a beautiful drive. Cows grazed on both sides of the road, and all the land was in use, divided amongst the Navajo in what manner I don’t know, but it’s pretty cool. Crossing the top of Buffalo Pass at almost 9,000’ and in the clouds, I feared going down would be just as difficult as coming up, but it was easier. At the top it was 62 degrees! At the bottom, we were back into arid desert.

We passed through Farmington, New Mexico and made a daring turn to get into a Kentucky Fried Chicken for lunch. A trucker had parked out front on the side of the road, and we pulled in behind him, barely leaving room for people to get in and out of the restaurant. As we passed he said with a smile, “I didn’t know where else to park! Oh well, I was hungry. Have a good day.” 

As we drove a very remote road, Martha read the instructions for entering the park. “A four-wheel drive is recommended. If you get stuck on the 16.5 mile, rutted gravel road, you may have to wait a long time for a tow vehicle. If you leave your car, they will not tow it.” Martha called the Visitor’s Center. The lady said, “It is monsoon season, and the road can get washed out. Heavy rains are predicted for the next four days, and you may not be able to get out.” I stopped to fill up with gas and considered the options. I mean it’s a national Park! Can it be that bad? 

Before leaving Martha had called to ask if it was OK to come in from the south. They said it is a VERY rough 20-mile road. Four wheel drive with high clearance is needed, and then came the towing warning. We opted for the north.

At the turn toward the park, we stopped at a food truck and asked if we would be OK pulling the trailer to the park. “Oh yes, it is a good road.” three miles of paved road turned to gravel, but a very nicely groomed gravel road. I breathed a sigh of relief.

From NPS. This is the good part of the road

After 11 miles on the gravel road, a sign said it was the end of county maintenance, and the road turned very rough for the last 5 miles, so rough we were going 5 mph most of the time, crossing sides to find a smoother track. Regular sedans passed coming out. Everyone waved – a sort of camaraderie of the road less traveled. Martha was mad. “How could a national park have a road like this?”

When we FINALLY entered the park, the road became paved. We turned into the small campground and parked in site 20 right in front of some ancient ruins and a petroglyph of a horse. After setting up, we drove to the Visitor’s Center. I showed my Senior Pass and got a 7-day pass to put on the mirror. 

I asked who owned the park. “The United States Government” was the reply. “Why is that road so bad?” I asked. If I interpreted the answer correctly, that strip is not owned by the park and not by the county, but by the Navajo Nation. I asked why the government wouldn’t pay to at least gravel that road. “I guess they have other priorities.” There is a story here I hope to explore, but right now I have one bar of cell phone service.

We read some of the signs around the center, learning this is also a UNESCO site. We watched a 30-minute movie about how the Chaco Indians developed this area into a huge city with very large, well-built buildings from the middle 800’s to the 1100’s. It became a hub of travel and trade with well-engineered roads in all directions. A map showed the many Chaco settlements and buildings throughout New Mexico.

We might have taken the Scenic Loop Drive, but I was tired, so we opted for a drink and dinner. We sat outside, looking at the huge, black cloud approaching. With binoculars, we explored the cliffs and walls, noticing a lot of bird poop. Were they owls, bats or cliff swallows. There were multiple holes where birds could live.

As the storm approached and the winds picked up, we put the awning up and lowered most of the windows. There was a little thunder, but it turned out to be just a good, steady rain. Temperatures dropped to the mid 60’s, which made for great sleeping.

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