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Chaco Canyon Hike

Chaco CanyonAn 11th century pictograph at Chaco Canyon may depict the supernova of AD 1054. This supernova and the Moon were in this configuration when the supernova was near its brightest. An imprint of a hand at the top signifies that this is a sacred place.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park is a major unit of the United States National Park System located within the Navajo Nation in northwest New Mexico.

It preserves extensive ancestral pueblos of prehistoric native American Indian communities. Chaco Canyon's largest pueblo, Pueblo Bonito, is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

For many years, people referred to the great houses in Chaco Canyon as ruins, but modern Pueblo Tribal members consider it more respectful to refer to the sites as ancestral pueblos.

Tribal elders have explained that Puebloan cultures moved from area to area to seek their place. Had the Spanish not arrived in the 1500s, it's possible, even likely that these sites may have once again been occupied.

It is also preferred by the Pueblo Indians that the residents of Chaco Canyon and other ancestral villages be called "Ancestral Puebloans," rather than "Anasazi."

The ancient inhabitants of New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon, the zenith of Pueblo culture in the Southwest over a thousand years ago, likely had to import corn to feed the multitudes residing there, says a new Colorado University at Boulder study.

Colorado University at Boulder scientist Larry Benson said the new study shows that Chaco Canyon is believed by some archeologists to have been populated by several thousand people around A.D. 1100.

They believe it to have held political sway over an area twice the size of Ohio and had soils that were too salty for the effective growth of corn and beans.

Chaco Canyon“The important thing about this study is that it demonstrates you can’t grow great quantities of corn in the Chaco valley floor,” Benson said.

“And you couldn’t grow sufficient corn in the side canyon tributaries of Chaco that would have been necessary to feed several thousand people. Either there were very few people living in Chaco Canyon, or corn was imported there.”

“The important thing about this study is that it demonstrates you can’t grow great quantities of corn in the Chaco valley floor,” said Benson, an adjunct curator of anthropology at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History.

“And you couldn’t grow sufficient corn in the side canyon tributaries of Chaco that would have been necessary to feed several thousand people.

“Either there were very few people living in Chaco Canyon, or the corn was imported there from elsewhere.”

A paper penned by Benson was published online in the Journal of Archaeological Science reports that between the 9th and 12th centuries, Chaco Canyon - officially the Chaco Culture Natural Historic Park located in the San Juan Basin in north-central New Mexico was the focus of an unprecedented construction effort.

Benson said that at the height of its cultural heyday, 12 stone masonry “great houses” and other structures were built there, along with a large network of ceremonial roads linking Chaco with other Pueblo sites in the Southwest.

As part of the study, Benson used a tree ring data set created by University of Arizona Professor Emeritus Jeff Dean that showed annual Chaco Canyon precipitation spanning 1,100 years.

Chaco CanyonThe tree rings indicate the minimum amount of annual precipitation necessary to grow corn was exceeded only 2.5 percent of the time during that time period.

Benson suggests that much of the corn consumed by the ancient people of Chaco may have come from the Chuska Slope, the eastern flank of the Chuska Mountains some 50 miles west of Chaco Canyon. It was also the source of some 200,000 timbers used to shore up Chaco Canyon masonry structures.

Between 11,000 and 17,000 Pueblo people are thought to have resided on the Chuska Slope before A.D. 1130, Benson stated.

The Chaco Canyon inhabitants traded regularly with the Chuska Slope residents, Benson said, as evidenced by stone tool material (chert), pottery and wooden beams.

“There were timbers, pottery and chert coming from the Chuska region to Chaco Canyon, so why not surplus corn?” asks Benson, a former U.S. Geological Survey scientist.

Many archaeologists are still puzzled as to why Chaco Canyon was built in an area that has long winters, marginal rainfall and short growing seasons.

“I don’t think anyone understands why it existed,” Benson said. “There was never a time in the past when Chaco Canyon could have been a Garden of Eden.”

The Chaco dwellings were built and occupied primarily between about 850 AD and 1250 AD, during which time they were the hub of a remarkable network of transportation routes, many of which survive today as the "roads" of Chaco.

They fell into disuse after 1300, probably due to climate change, although descendants of the Chacoans and other tribes remained aware of the ancestral pueblos.

The present park was one of the first units of the National Park System to be formed specifically to protect archaeological resources, being first formed as Chaco Canyon National Monument in 1907 - shortly after Mesa Verde National Park, which also started as a national monument rather than a park.

Chaco CanyonThe monument achieved national-park status in 1980 and Pueblo Bonito became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.

This elevation is high enough to challenge the lungs of the visitor freshly up from sea level. So, you may find yourself a bit short of breath when hiking, so if you're going to be there overnight, it's recommended that you do the "easy" trails along the main loop first to get acclimatized somewhat, then the longer, more vertical backcountry trails on your second day or on later days.

Most of the rock comprising the mesas as well as the canyon floor is sedimentary, and consequently tends toward flat bedding planes that are interrupted by relatively few faults and folds.

As a result, one of the hiking challenges is that the transition between individual geological formations along the canyon walls can be steep. This is incentive to stay on the constructed trails in the backcountry; you'll want to do that anyway, as off-trail hiking is generally prohibited and the prohibition is enforced.

One of the signature features of Chaco is Fajada Butte near the south entrance. This narrow, steep-walled butte rises about 400 feet above the canyon and is notable for artifacts including the "Sun Dagger".

This verified by Anna Sofaer as an astronomical observatory/clock used by the Chacoans to predict and document the solstices, equinoxes, and the approximately 18.5 year lunar cycle.

Dr. Sofaer's research is available at www.solsticeproject.org

This website, in particular, is a must for visitors who wish to inform themselves before the magical experience of a making a Chaco visit.

Fajada Butte is no longer open to hikers, but a roadside turnout near the south entrance leads to a viewpoint from which it can be seen and photographed to good advantage. Early morning and late afternoon are the best times to photograph Fajada.

Chaco CanyonChaco, like most of northwestern New Mexico, has a high desert climate with four distinct seasons. Spring is dry and windy, with high temperatures rising rapidly from an average of 60 °F (16 °C) or so in March to over 80 °F (27 °C) in June.

Summer is hot, with highs frequently above 90 °F (32 °C), and with much of the average annual precipitation falling in isolated, brief but violent thunderstorms.

However, it's the legendary "dry heat" that doesn't feel nearly as hot as in regions with higher humidity. Cooling starts in August and leads to a dry, temperate fall season that is usually a good time to visit Chaco.

Winter is also pleasant with highs around 50 °F (10 °C) and clear skies, although there are usually three or four frontal storms each winter that bring snow, usually in small quantities but with there is the occasional major snowstorm.

The remoteness of the park is such that it's a good idea to check a weather forecast before visiting in the winter; Farmington, about 60 miles (100 km) away, usually experiences similar weather, and its current conditions and forecast are updated regularly.

If there's significant snow (say 6 in/15 cm or more) in the forecast, it's wise to defer your trip unless you're particularly well prepared for snowy roads.

The nearest city with air service is Farmington, about 60 miles north, which is served by a commuter airline (Mesa) that is a partner with United Airlines. The nearest major airport is in Albuquerque about 150 miles (240 km) southeast. There is no rail or bus service in this remote region.

It is always a good idea to call the visitor center before your trip to determine current road and trail conditions. Even on a good day, travel time between Chaco and a paved highway can exceed three hours.

On a dry day, the eastern entrance requires about two hours, depending on your backcountry driving ability. You will know when you have reached the Park when the unimproved (scraped only) road turns into pavement.

Also, older maps of the Chaco area may lead drivers astray owing to a road closure: Hwy 57 from Blanco Trading Post on US 550 is permanently closed at the park's north boundary.

Chaco CanyonFrom US 550 - The National Park Service recommends the following route, which is possible. There is a turnoff to CR 7900 from US 550 about 3 miles southeast of Nageezi (mile 112.5). There is a gas station (as of 2020) within 0.5 miles of the turnoff.

The route is well marked with signage - expect 8 miles of paved road (CR 7900 and a right turn onto CR 7950) and 13 miles of rough dirt road. Unless you're in an offroad-capable vehicle or SUV, avoid the sandy shoulders which can trap the tires of smaller cars. This route crosses a waterway that is normally dry but can be impassible in rainy conditions.

These following two routes should only be considered by those driving high-clearance vehicles in dry conditions. The National Park Service website warns: "Not recommended for RVs."

The "not recommended for RVs" warning doesn't accurately do this road justice: if there has been recent rain or other precipitation, this can be a hairy road to drive that may leave you stuck in a large mud puddle or high-centered on a bypass - in either case stuck about 20 miles from help.

Highway 9 to Pueblo Pintado: - At Pueblo Pintado, turn north on Navajo 46 and follow for 10 miles. Turn left on CR 7900 for 7 miles then left on CR 7950 for the remaining 16 miles (13 unpaved and 3 paved).

Highway 9 to Highway 57 (Highway 14 on some maps): This turnoff is located 13 miles east of Hwy 371 at the former Seven Lakes Trading Post. The signs directing drivers to turn from Hwy 371 on Hwy 9 are reportedly missing.

From I-40 - Take Exit 53 at Thoreau and go north on NM 371 (aka Vietnam Veterans Memorial Highway). Get off on road 57 (aka Navajo Service Road 9) at Crownpoint.

Then be sure to exit left (i.e. north) at Seven Lakes (after about 13 miles) to stay on NM 57. This next stretch of NM 57 is also known as Navajo Service Road 14. Road 9 continues east from Seven Lakes, so don't miss this exit. After about 20 miles, you'll get to the park loop road and the visitor center.

From Farmington / US 64 - Take NM 371 south to Crownpoint, then exit east onto 57 (aka Navajo Service Rd 9), as described above.

Chaco CanyonEntrance fees for the park are $15 for individuals, $25 for cars, and are good for seven days.

There are several passes for groups traveling together in a private vehicle or individuals on foot/bike that provide free entry to Chaco Culture National Historical Park and all national parks, as well as some national monuments, national wildlife refuges, and national forests:

The $80 Annual Pass (valid for twelve months from date of issue) can be purchased by anyone. Military personnel can obtain a free pass by showing a Common Access Card (CAC) or Military ID.

The $80 Senior Pass (valid for the life of the holder) is available to U.S. citizens or permanent residents age 62 or over - applicants must provide documentation of citizenship and age.

This pass also provides a fifty percent discount on some park amenities. Seniors can also obtain a $20 annual pass.

The free Access Pass (valid for the life of the holder) is available to U.S. citizens or permanent residents with permanent disabilities.

Applicants must provide documentation of citizenship and permanent disability. This pass also provides a fifty percent discount on some park amenities.

The free Volunteer Pass is available to individuals who have volunteered 250 or more hours with federal agencies that participate in the Interagency Pass Program.

The free Annual 4th Grade Pass (valid for September-August of the 4th grade school year) allows entry to the bearer and any accompanying passengers in a private non-commercial vehicle. Registration at the Every Kid Outdoors website is required.

The National Park Service offers free admission to all national parks on five days every year:

Chaco CanyonMartin Luther King Jr. Day (third Monday in January); next observance is January 18th, 2021

The first day of National Park Week (third Saturday in April; next observance is April 17th, 2021

The National Park Service Birthday - August 25th

National Public Lands Day - fourth Saturday in September; next observance is September 26th, 2020

Veterans Day - November 11th

Campsites are $10/night, with a $5 discount for holders of a Park Pass. Permits are required for backcountry hiking. They're free and available at the visitor center, or at the trailheads.

The main sites are reached via a short loop road that is suitable for bicycles as well as cars; in fact, a bicycle is a comfortable ride that gives a more intimate sense of the canyon than you'll get from a car. If you are biking, make sure your tires resist punctures, as all manner of plants with thorns and spines grow in the park.

The short trails to the sites along the loop road can be visited in street shoes, but hiking boots are recommended if you're planning on visiting any of the more remote areas.

Some but not all of the sites are wheelchair-accessible, as is one of the campsites at the park campground.

The nearest hotels and motels are in Farmington and Bloomfield, about 60 miles north, and in communities along Interstate highway 40 - like Gallup and Grants, a further distance south.

Chaco CanyonCamping - Gallo Campground site #26 The park includes a single, rudimentary campground. Fee $10/site/night ($5 with NPS Park Pass). There is no potable water, but bottled water may be purchased at the visitor center, or water containers filled from the Park's water system.

At Gallo Campground - Vehicles (RVs, trailers) must be no longer than 30 feet. The campsites are first-come, first-served. In the non-winter seasons, the park rangers host a star party on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturday. evenings, complete with telescopes and advice on timely things worth seeing in the night skies.

The Gallo Campground has flush toilets and sinks with wash water - but not for drinking. In 2008, the campground was limited to 35 spaces. Check with the park, and try to arrive around noon to get a campsite. There are both drive-in and walk-in campsites. The walk-in campsites tend be more interesting and private.

The ranger talks and star parties are worth staying overnight in the park.

No backcountry camping or backpacking is permitted within the park - only in designated areas.

There are no significant safety issues with the park itself aside from the usual warnings about wildlife, sunscreen and other personal considerations.

But its remoteness means that you may want to pay a little extra attention to road safety while getting there and back. Northern New Mexico is notorious for problems with drunk drivers.

Chaco CanyonAreas near Navajo Nation, as Chaco is, are particularly worrisome, as the prohibition of alcohol on the reservation causes residents to drive into Farmington or Gallup to indulge. Terrible accidents have happened involving Navajo Nation citizens on the way home after an evening of drinking; be extra cautious at such times.

Be alert also for livestock on the roads, particularly sheep. It's wise to fill your gas tank in Farmington or Gallup (or Grants or Thoreau) before heading for the park, as services are sparse indeed once you get off the main roads.

Weather conditions and amplew hydration cannot be adequately emphasized. Every year there are rescues of visitors who are improperly prepared for either.

From June to October, the Four Corners region is subject to violent afternoon and evening thunderstorms called "monsoons," or by the Navajo, the "male rains."

These storms build quickly and can be preceded by strong winds, even into the 40-60 mile per hour range. Tents should always be tied with guy wires, and care must be taken ensuring the tent is not located in even the smallest of drainage courses.

It is safest to hike to isolated areas in the morning with the activity timed to return before mid-afternoon. When hiking during Monsoon season, carry a poncho or other rain gear.

Take shelter and avoid trees or outcroppings because of lightning. If caught in a storm, if a feeling of hair raising or tingling is felt, crouch low to the ground, stay out of puddles, and try to keep your body from direct ground contact.

Balance by holding on to your shoes. At your campsite, the tent is the safest shelter.

Chaco CanyonIn terms of hydration, carry four to five liters of water when on one of the wilderness hikes.

Anything less can be deadly. Drink before you feel thirsty and set a rhythm where regular "swigs" of water are part of the hike. Even when visiting the "accessible" abandoned pueblos, it makes sense to carry at least a liter and to hydrate regularly.

A good ratio is one liter of an electrolyte-filled drink to three liters of water. Consuming exclusively water can dilute eletrolytes and create a deadly body condition. For best results, use electrolytes that have little or no sugar or other sweeteners.

Navajo Nation lies just west of the park, with numerous related attractions. If you happen to be there on a Friday, there is a Navajo rug auction at Crownpoint that combines well with a visit to Chaco.

These rug auctions are "usually - but not always" on the third Friday of the month, so check the Crownpoint Rug Weavers Association's website to be sure. Crownpoint rug auctions are a fascinating cultural study even if you're not in the market for a rug.

Aztec Ruins National Monument is another NPS unit full of historical, cultural and archaeological interest; near the town of Aztec just east of Farmington.

Chaco Canyon is 3 hr 5 min (136.4 mi) via NM-126 N and US-550 N from the Bandelier National Monument north of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The cliff dwellings located in Frijoles Canyon are another ancient Native American site with numerous hiking trails in it's location in Bandelier National Monument.

I highly recommend joining All Trails website for comprehensive information on hiking trails across the United States. They have extensive listings of trails and hiker/user commentary on each.


Noteable trails in and near Bandelier National Monument - www.alltrails.com

Alcove House Trail - 4.2 kilometer heavily trafficked loop trail located near Santo Domingo Pueblo, New Mexico
Tsankawi Ruins Trail - 2.6 kilometer heavily trafficked loop trail located near Santa Fe, New Mexico
Main Loop Ruins Trail - 2.3 kilometer heavily trafficked loop trail located near Santo Domingo Pueblo, New Mexico
Cerro Grande Trail - 6.8 kilometer lightly trafficked out and back trail located near Jemez Springs, New Mexico
Upper Falls Trail - 4.7 kilometer moderately trafficked out and back trail located near Santo Domingo Pueblo, New Mexico
Frey Trail - 5.0 kilometer moderately trafficked out and back trail located near Santo Domingo Pueblo, New Mexico
Burnt Mesa Trail - 8.5 kilometer lightly trafficked out and back trail located near Los Alamos, New Mexico
Frijolito Trail - 4.2 kilometer lightly trafficked loop trail located near Pena Blanca, New Mexico
Yapashi Pueblo and Stone Lions Trail - 19.2 kilometer lightly trafficked out and back trail located near Los Alamos, New Mexico
Burro Trail - 13.8 kilometer lightly trafficked out and back trail located near Pena Blanca, New Mexico
Tyuonyi Overlook Trail - 3.4 kilometer moderately trafficked out and back trail located near Santo Domingo Pueblo, New Mexico
Saint Peters Dome Trail - 10.6 kilometer lightly trafficked out and back trail located near Santo Domingo Pueblo, New Mexico
White Rock Canyon Rim Trail - 4.3 kilometer lightly trafficked out and back trail located near Los Alamos, New Mexico
Chino Mesa to Rio Grande - 4.0 kilometer moderately trafficked out and back trail located near Los Alamos, New Mexico
Buckman Mesa Otowi Peak Trail - 6.9 kilometer moderately trafficked out and back trail located near Santa Fe, New Mexico
Camino Cruz Blanca Trail - 2.9 kilometer lightly trafficked out and back trail located near Santa Fe, New Mexico
Atalaya Mountain Trail is a 10.3 kilometer heavily trafficked out and back trail located near Santa Fe, New Mexico
Frijoles Overlook is a 19.0 kilometer lightly trafficked out and back trail located near Santa Fe, New Mexico




Chaco Canyon Ancestral Pueblos, New Mexico

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