The remnants of what was once the hub of an important and thriving culture fill a remote, arid valley in northwestern New Mexico. It’s hard to believe that this barren spot once teemed with as many as 5,000 people, but the finely built ruins of four-story houses show otherwise. Some 4,000 roads, ruins, dams, and petroglyphs fill the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, which covers 53 square miles of unforgiving desert that once was fertile and flourishing.
Chaco Canyon served as the ceremonial and political hub of the Anasazi (or Ancestral Puebloan) culture from roughly A.D. 850 to 1250, when a number of monumental “great houses” were built of stone using increasingly sophisticated masonry techniques. The jury is still out on their use: They seem residential at first glance, but their sheer size suggests some greater ceremonial significance. Farming, hunting, building, and ceremonies most likely occupied the residents’ days. A trading network extending to the Pacific and southern Mexico brought seashells and tropical birds in exchange for pottery and turquoise.
Like many archaeological sites in the Southwest, Chaco experienced a massive, sudden population decline near the end of the 13th century, thought to have been caused by a combination of drought and overpopulation. By 1300, Chaco was almost entirely deserted.
Some historians believe that the inhabitants drifted away to more hospitable areas, and that their descendants live among the Hopi and Rio Grande Pueblo in Arizona and New Mexico today.
It’s the combination of grandeur and emptiness that gives the ruins such otherwordly appeal. Some have been partially restored, others left undisturbed. Take the 9-mile paved loop road, the only one in the park, to Pueblo Bonito, Chaco’s most famous great house. A steep trail leads to an overlook above the D-shaped complex, which at its peak had about 600 rooms and 40 kivas, or round ceremonial chambers, covering three acres. You can enter the ruins themselves to see the intricate stonework on the walls up close, but to fully experience the buildings’ size and haunting splendor, view them from above at sunrise or sunset.
Chetro Ketl, Pueblo del Arroyo, Tzin Kletzin, and Casa Rinconada are other giant ruins along or near the road, each impressive for its size and meticulous construction. Four backcountry hiking trails, open from sunrise to sunset, lead past ancient farming terraces, prehistoric stone staircases, and rock art panels, one of which is thought to depict a supernova visible in 1054. Frequent night-sky programs at the park’s small observatory help you learn more about the brilliant stars above Chaco and what they meant to the Anasazi.