Situated in a remote corner of northwest New Mexico are what were once the United States’ largest manmade structures. Established by the Ancestral Puebloans over a millennium ago, Chaco Canyon (officially known as Chaco Culture National Historical Park) is arguably the most impressive archaeological park in the country. But planning a visit can be tricky, which is where this Chaco Canyon guide comes in.
In the following guide, we’ll be covering all the main sites (and hikes) one can expect to experience within a single full day. And at the very end of the article, you can learn more about reaching Chaco Canyon and the best places to stay.
Chaco Canyon: A Brief History
Despite its remote location and harsh conditions, Chaco Canyon was continuously occupied for at least 4000 years, as evidenced by numerous pit house settlements. But the impressive structures we see today were established by the Ancestral Puebloans who came to the area in the 9th century.
The Ancestral Puebloans are also known as the Anasazi. But as this is actually a Navajo term which roughly translates to ‘ancient enemies,’ their modern descendants aren’t a big fan of the label.
With construction beginning in the 850s, the Ancestral Puebloans seemed to have deliberately planned out their settlements in advance before continuously working on them for the next few centuries. These large complexes are known as ‘great houses,’ and many of them featured hundreds of rooms.
Not only were the designs of the individual great houses carefully planned, but their positions in relation to one another appear to have been deliberate as well, with astronomy having a major influence over the area’s layout.
During its prime, Chaco Canyon was likely inhabited by a combined total of a few thousand people. We still know little about Chacoan society or system of government, but it’s clear that only a highly organized society could’ve pulled off building something on this scale and level of complexity.
In total, the Ancestral Puebloans would only stay here for about four centuries. It’s likely that deforestation eventually led to construction being halted in the twelve century, while a drought possibly led to further population decline. Chaco Canyon would eventually be fully abandoned by around 1250, with many inhabitants likely fleeing to places like Aztec, New Mexico, which was much better suited for agriculture.
In modern times, the area was first documented in 1823 during the brief period when the region belonged to an independent Mexico. Then, after the US took over New Mexico following their victory in the Mexican-American War, the military began surveying the area in the 1840s.
But given its remote location far from any major city (which still holds true today), few people visited over the next several decades. It wasn’t until 1896 that the Hyde Exploring Expedition did extensive excavations at Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon’s largest complex.
Eventually, Chaco Canyon would be declared a National Monument in 1966 and then a National Historical Park in 1980. Officially, it’s known as the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, though many simply call it Chaco Canyon. As we’ll cover below, those who make the effort to get there will be rewarded with one of the most fascinating archaeological sites in the United States.
No matter where you’re coming from, getting to Chaco Canyon is tricky, as much of the journey will be along dirt roads (learn more below). Fortunately, the roads become paved again once you reach the national park.
Chaco’s main building complexes were built across a long stretch of the canyon floor. And today, the main landmarks are connected by a single 9-mile (14 km) loop road. The following guide to Chaco Canyon covers the main landmarks in the order you’ll encounter them along this road.
Each great house has its own parking lot and you normally shouldn’t have issues finding a space. But as the loop road is only one-way, be careful not to miss anything.
In addition to touring the great houses, visitors also have the option of going on a few different hikes. But for those with only a day to explore, the best choice is the Pueblo Alto trail, which you can learn about in more detail below.
Also be sure to check the end of the article for more information on entry fees and lodging.
As there are no restaurants at the park, be sure to come well-prepared with snacks. Also anticipate potentially not having reception for most of the day, so be sure to download any apps or data you might need before your trip.
After a seemingly endless journey along bumpy, unpaved roads, you’ll know you’re almost there when you spot the Fajada Butte in the distance near the park entrance.
It was from here that the Chacoans quarried sandstone to build many of the structures we see today.
In ancient times, it also served as an astronomical observatory. Archaeologists, in fact, have discovered markers at the top which indicated the summer and winter solstices, along with the spring and autumn equinoxes.
Now closed to the public to better preserve it, the butte is still considered sacred to descendants of the Ancestral Puebloans, as well as by the Navajo who later came to the region.
Just next to the Visitor Center is the trail leading to Una Vida, one of the least-excavated great houses of Chaco Canyon. The trail around the ruins is about a mile roundtrip, plus some additional hiking.
In total, the Una Vida great house featured around 100 rooms. And while that may sound like a lot, it was actually among the smallest complexes built at Chaco Canyon.
Construction here lasted between 850-1100 AD, and the great house remained occupied until the 1250s.
The main architectural highlight here is what remains of a multistory building. Much of its facade remains intact, while you can step through the doorway to enjoy a clear view of Fajada Butte in the distance.
After passing by more ruins, be sure to make a short hike to the upper walls of the canyon where you can spot a wall entirely covered in petroglyphs that were pecked into the rock with stone hammers.
Common motifs at Chaco Canyon include bighorn sheep, mountain lions and deer. While there’s still much we don’t know about the significance of each symbol, Puebloan petroglyphs surely had a religious intent and were far more than mere doodles. Rather, it’s likely that the Puebloans saw them as some kind of link with the spirit world.
Past the petroglyphs, you can keep on walking for some beautiful views of the canyon. When finished, descend to ground level and walk back the way you came to the Visitor Center parking lot.
While you may want to visit the informative museum at the Visitor Center before starting your journey, it might be a good idea to save it for the end if you’re concerned about time.
A short drive along the loop road leads you to the next Chacoan great house, Hungo Pavi. Occupied from around 1000-1250, it was strategically built near several springs and drainages.
As the complex is right near the parking area and is overall not very big, Hungo Pavi makes for the quickest visit of all the great houses.
As you walk along the main structure’s long outer wall, you’ll notice wooden beams that have been left in place for centuries. As the Puebloans didn’t leave behind any writing, archaeologists have been able to date the various structures by studying the tree rings of beams like these.
You can also enjoy some interesting views of the canyon through some of the structure’s windows. As we’ll cover shortly, archaeologists believe that many windows throughout Chaco Canyon were strategically placed to observe certain astronomical phenomena.
Pueblo Bonito shares a parking lot with Chetro Ketl to the east of it. While you can visit them in whichever order you like, I decided to start with Pueblo Bonito to get some photos before one of the ranger-lead tours arrived.
Whichever one you start with, be sure to walk along the Petroglyph Trail which links the two complexes (more below).
Occupied from 850 to the 1250s, Pueblo Bonito is the largest of the Chacoan great houses, serving as the region’s main administrative, religious and commercial center. And members of the Chacoan elite have been found buried within.
As you enter the site, you’ll see numerous large boulders. These fell down here as recently as 1941, destroying about 30 rooms in the process.
But there are still plenty more of the original 600 or so that survive. Surprisingly, however, only a small portion were used as living quarters.
The entire complex was built as a giant D shape. And archaeologists believe that its form was planned from the beginning, though it took three centuries to fully complete.
In addition to its hundreds of rooms, Pueblo Bonito also contained dozens of kivas. But what is a kiva?
Partially constructed underground and then topped with buildings made of earth and wood, kivas hosted important religious ceremonies, while they also served as council houses.
In addition to smaller private kivas that belonged to individual families, Chacoan settlements also typically had a single large ‘great kiva’ that hosted communal gatherings.
As the complex expanded, the builders even built elevated kivas that were added to the first and second stories and built within square frames.
In addition to exploring its spacious plazas, one of the top highlights of Pueblo Bonito – and Chaco Canyon as a whole – is getting to walk through its labyrinthine interior.
Clearly, many of these structures were originally multiple stories high, with parts of the wooden beams used to separate the floors still intact.
There are so many rooms to explore here that it would be easy to get lost were it not for the occasional arrows pointing the way. Nevertheless, you’ll still repeatedly reach dead-ends and have to backtrack.
Amazingly, archaeologists have discovered more than 125,000 artifacts in these rooms. Common objects were turquoise beads, stone vessels, flutes, wooden staffs, and jars. One particular room, in fact, contained 50,000 pieces of turquoise!
In another room, meanwhile, no less than fourteen macaw skeletons were discovered. These colorful parrots, of course, were not native to New Mexico. So how did they get here?
Notably, Chaco Canyon’s peak overlapped with that of Mesoamerica’s Toltec Empire. The Toltecs operated long trading routes that reached into what’s now the American Southwest. Furthermore, they even had a major influence over the Mayan city of Chichén Itzá, so it’s possible that the macaws found here originated in the tropics of the Yucatán Peninsula!
(On that note, one wonders if the Chacoans also traded with Cahokia to the east, which also thrived around the same time.)
At one end of the complex, you’ll encounter a unique T-shaped door. While we don’t know for sure, they may have delineated sacred spaces within the complex.
Notably, they haven’t only been discovered here, but also at other sites like Mesa Verde, the ruins of Aztec, New Mexico, and even at Paquime in the Mexican state of Chihuahua.
As we’ll cover below, visitors also have the chance to enjoy a spectacular view of Pueblo Bonito from above via the Pueblo Alto trail. But first, head back east on foot toward the Chetro Ketl great house via the Petroglyph Trail.
The Petroglyph Trail
The aptly-named Petroglyph Trail is about a half-mile long, connecting Pueblo Bonito with another large great house, Chetro Ketl. And as you walk along, you’ll pass by numerous markers indicating that there are petroglyphs nearby.
But even if you know where to stop and look, you’ll still have to put in the effort to spot them, as many of them are faint. Along the trail, you’ll find shapes like spirals, as well as animals like birds and mountain lions.
One of the most interesting shapes, meanwhile, appears to resemble a large human figure.
Petroglyphs aside, this area is remarkable for another reason. The rock between the two great houses, in fact, was modified to create an amphitheater. Apparently, it could project sound directly to the houses on the opposite side of the canyon, known as the Casa Rinconada complex (more below).
If you’re visiting Chetro Ketl via the Petroglyph Trail, you’ll enter the complex from behind. But as mentioned above, you also have the option to visit Chetro Ketl before seeing Pueblo Bonito, in which case you can get there directly from the parking lot.
After Pueblo Bonito, Chetro Ketl is the second-largest great house at Chaco Canyon, and it too featured multiple stories. When walking along the main plaza, you can even look down to see what’s left of the subterranean rooms.
Construction on Chetro Ketl began around 990 – roughly a century after Pueblo Bonito was started. And it was finished earlier, too, which construction ceasing in the 11th century. But like many other great houses, it would remain inhabited until around 1250.
Though smaller than Pueblo Bonito, it’s also D-shaped. And while it doesn’t feature as many kivas as Pueblo Bonito, its great kiva is among the canyon’s largest.
Like much of Chaco Canyon, its true function largely remains a mystery, but some archaeologists suspect that Chetro Ketl’s purpose was largely ceremonial.
Pueblo del Arroyo
Getting back in your car, drive to the farthest end of the loop. But rather than make a left to complete it, be sure to leave the main loop by heading straight. Here you’ll find the parking lot for the Pueblo del Arroyo great house and also a couple of hiking trails.
Pueblo del Arroyo was occupied from around 1075 to the 1250s. In total, it contains about three hundred rooms and is considered the fourth-largest great house at Chaco Canyon.
Rather than facing the canyon wall like the other great houses, it’s located in the middle of the canyon and faces east, looking directly across it. This was surely pre-planned – likely for astronomical, or perhaps symbolic reasons.
All in all, Pueblo del Arroyo contains more or less the same architectural features described above. But while it has over a dozen kivas, it lacked a single great kiva.
Across from Pueblo del Arroyo is a much more modern landmark – the final resting place of Richard Weatherill (1858-1910). In 1896, Weatherill arrived at Chaco Canyon with the Hyde Exploring Expedition. But it wasn’t his first Puebloan site.
He’d previously studied Mesa Verde, and was in fact the first white man to see what we now call the Cliff Palace. While Weatherill was surely passionate about the Ancestral Puebloan civilization, he was also criticized for selling many of the artifacts he found to museums.
Later on, Weatherill would be among the first to excavate Pueblo Bonito. But to fund his activities, he also set up a trading post there, selling local Navajo goods to other parts of the country.
His actions were highly controversial, prompting the ratification of the Federal Antiquities Act to protect the ruins. And despite being fired from the Hyde Expedition, Weatherill would go on to claim a large swathe of land, which included several Great Houses, as his own.
He ultimately gave up the claim after Chaco Canyon was declared a national park, but he remained living in the area. He would ultimately be murdered by a local Navajo, though it remains unclear if the attack was personal or a hired job.
The Pueblo Alto Trail
As mentioned, the parking lot for Pueblo del Arroyo is also nearby two hiking trails. One of them is the Peñasco Blanco Trail, which culminates at what’s believed to be a pictograph of a supernova. Along the way, you’ll also pass a few additional ruins.
At about seven miles roundtrip, it will take around 4-6 hours to complete, and therefore impossible to see on the same day as all the other landmarks in this Chaco Canyon guide.
Furthermore, parts of the Peñasco Blanco Trail occasionally get flooded with water, making it impassable. If you’re interested in doing this hike, not only do you need an additional day, but you should also confirm the conditions of the trail at the Visitor Center beforehand.
If you only have a day at Chaco Canyon, consider the Pueblo Alto trail instead. Before beginning the hike, be sure to register by signing your name on one of the slips of paper near the trail starting point, so rangers will know to look for you if they encounter an empty vehicle in the evening.
But before the Pueblo Alto trail officially begins, you’ll encounter yet another great house known as Kin Kletso. It’s one of the later Chaco constructions, as evident by its walls.
In contrast to the construction phases of other buildings, which often spanned centuries, Kin Kletso was only built between 1120 and 1130. And as opposed to the thin, flat stones used in many other constructions, the stones here are much larger, more closely resembling those of Mesa Verde.
Ascending the Trail
The Pueblo Alto trail will take you to the top of the mesa. Nearby Kin Kletso you’ll find a narrow stairway in between cracks in the rock which you can climb directly to the top.
But before beginning the Pueblo Alto trail, understand that you have a couple of different hiking options once you’re atop the mesa.
One option is to hike a long loop trail that’s about 4.8 miles roundtrip. The shortest option, on the other hand, would be to only hike to the Pueblo Bonito overlook, which is about 1.5 miles roundtrip.
Instead, I decided to check out the overlook and then walk directly to the Pueblo Alto ruins. Ignoring the loop, I returned the same way I came. The journey, which you can learn about below, is about 3.2 miles roundtrip and took me a little under two hours.
While you’ll encounter some helpful trail markers, it would be wise to use an app like Maps.me or AllTrails for this route (be sure to download them in advance).
Reaching the top of the mesa, you’ll be greeted with amazing views of the canyon below. Also look down to spot things like ‘pecked basins,’ which the Chacoans apparently carved out to store water.
As we’ll cover shortly, the ancient inhabitants would regularly traverse the mesa top to travel to and trade with distant Puebloan towns.
The mesa top offers clear views of Kin Kletso and then Pueblo del Arroyo down below.
Keep walking and you’ll eventually reach the Pueblo Bonito overlook, which provides a fascinating new perspective of Chaco Canyon’s largest great house.
Having visited hundreds of archaeological sites throughout the world, I’ve never seen any other ruins quite like these. Pueblo Bonito almost looks like some sort of sci-fi spaceship when seen from above!
Finished enjoying the views, walk in the opposite direction of the canyon. You’ll occasionally see small signs or trail markers – sometimes in the form of stacked rocks – to point you in the right direction.
Along the trail, you’ll even walk up an ancient Chacoan staircase that was carved into the bedrock.
There are actually two ancient complexes atop the mesa. I decided to start with the more impressive one, simply known as New Alto.
Centuries ago, a trail from the Pueblo Alto area connected Chaco with the Aztec ruins (Puebloan ruins named after the town of Aztec, New Mexico and unrelated to the Aztec Empire of Mexico).
Various people from throughout the Puebloan world (and beyond) would traverse this route to trade, likely stopping at New Alto along the way.
Pueblo Alto can be a little hard to spot at first, as little of it remains. On top of that, it was one of the only single-story complexes at Chaco.
If you’re not doing the entire loop, when finished with these ruins, it’s time to make the long walk back toward the parking lot in front of Pueblo del Arroyo.
Back in your car, it’s time to complete the main loop. While most of the important landmarks mentioned in the Chaco Canyon guide above are located on the north side, there are a few small ruins on the opposite side as well.
Collectively, they’re known as Casa Rinconada. Rather than a single great house, these are small villages scattered about the area. Interestingly, they were built at the same time as the main great houses, so one wonders why people would choose to live out here instead.
While Casa Rinconada isn’t very impressive from a distance, the area is actually home to Chaco Canyon’s largest kiva. That’s right – it’s even bigger than the great kivas of Pueblo Bonito or Chetro Ketl!
It was built as a standalone structure and likely served as the main kiva for all the small villages in this part of the canyon.
A trail will then take you to the remnants of the nearby dwelling places, along with some smaller kivas.
Now it’s finally time to head back to wherever it is you’re spending the night, though you may want to check out the museum and gift shop at the Visitor Center before heading home.
Getting to Chaco Canyon is a challenge, largely due to much of the journey consisting of unpaved roads. While a 4×4 is not necessary, and plenty of people make it to Chaco Canyon in sedans, those doing further travels throughout the Four Corners region should still consider renting a 4×4 for their trip.
The specifics of getting to Chaco Canyon depend on whether you’re coming from the north or the south. Furthermore, road conditions can often change, and you could potentially find yourself in a tricky situation if you take the wrong route – especially after bad weather.
Therefore, I’m not going to go into details here because they could potentially already be out of date by the time you read this. Be sure to check the recommended route, along with updates on current road conditions or potential closures, on the official NPS website.
To give you an idea of how much time you should budget, this was my itinerary: Having stayed in Cuba, New Mexico, the night before, I departed from my motel around 7:00, arriving at the Chaco Canyon visitor center around 8:45.
After touring all the sites mentioned in the Chaco Canyon guide above, including the Pueblo Alto Trail, it was already 16:00 by the time I left the park. I then headed onward to the town of Bloomfield, New Mexico, arriving around 17:30 in the evening.
On its own, Chaco Canyon costs $25 to enter.
If you’re visiting from abroad, note that in contrast to many other countries, US parks typically charge per vehicle rather than per person. However, if you’re traveling by bicycle instead, they’ll charge you for an individual pass which costs $15, while those on motorcycles will be charged $20.
But considering how many National Parks and National Monuments there are to see in the Southwest alone, the best option for most will be to buy an ‘America the Beautiful’ Annual National Parks Pass.
These cost $80 for the year. In most cases, you’re already saving money by just visiting four National Parks/Monuments anywhere in the country within a full year.
What’s more, is that only one person in your vehicle needs to have the pass. Additionally, seniors can buy the pass for just $20. So if you have someone over 62 in your party, just have them get the annual pass and everyone else will be set.
As for where to get the pass, you can purchase it in person at most National Parks or Monuments. But you can also order it in advance online.
Even if you already have an annual pass, you’re usually supposed to ‘check in’ at the park or monument Visitor Center. But if you arrive before the office opens, you should be fine just leaving your pass visible on your dashboard.
As Chaco Canyon is quite isolated geographically, there aren’t any big cities that serve as adequate bases. If you’re coming from Santa Fe to the south, you’ll want to spend the night before in a town like Cuba or Nageezi.
I stayed at the Frontier Motel in Cuba, from where it took a little under two hours to reach Chaco Canyon the next morning (they are not on regular booking sites, so it’s better to reserve by phone).
For those coming from the north, you have the choice between some larger towns, such as Farmington or Bloomfield.
I stayed in Bloomfield after my day at Chaco Canyon and had a good experience at the Super 8.
Another option would be to camp at Chaco Canyon, either in a tent or RV. But don’t expect many amenities. You can learn more about camping options here.