Sometime in the early 800s AD, tiny far-flung groups of pre-Puebloans in the Four Corners region began to coalesce around a site located in a very remote Chaco Canyon. For nearly 400 years, the Chaco culture grew and prospered before collapsing around 1250, scattering its peoples across the Southwest. What they did left behind has been an enigma to archeologists since serious archeology began in 1896. Splendid, multi-storied ruins of magnificent architecture, an extensive road system, an astounding understanding of astronomy still offers scientists and historians great puzzles for anyone who would explore and understand it. Located along the shallow expanse of Chaco Wash there are dozens of small habitations, as well as ten Great Houses, the construction and use of which lies at the heart of what’s now called the Chaco Phenomenon. The greatest of these Great Houses is Pueblo Bonito, maybe the most recognized and investigated Ancestral Pueblo ruin in the Southwest.
Located at the very literal center of the Chaco universe, Pueblo Bonito, is a huge, multi-storied D-shaped Great House structure which, within it’s full two acres, rose more than four stories, contained more than 600 rooms, two huge, symmetrical plazas, nine Great Kivas and more than 30 more small kivas and ritual spaces. Building began around 850 AD and continued in stages over the next 300 years. Pueblo Bonito today offers the visitor a magnificent example of Ancestral Puebloan architecture and construction technique. It’s symmetry is amazing, as demonstrated in it’s special alignment, which orients the building walls simultaneously to solar, lunar and cardinal directions.
All this goes to inform the conclusion of most archeologists that Pueblo Bonito was much more of a ritual center than a place of residence; a place to visit rather than a place to live. Evidence here is based on the physical structure of the ruin, limited habitation findings within and without the ruins, as well as the finding many small farming dwellings throughout the area.
From a photographer’s point of view, Pueblo Bonito is a place you can play all day. Capturing the ruins in their setting is a must—hugging the colorful vertical cliffs of Chaco Canyon. You’ll also be able to walk completely around the perimeter, observing unique architectural features and distinctive masonry, then stroll around the broad plazas and examine the several subterranean Great Kivas enroute. The southwest corner of the ruin is accessible for viewing—you can explore a large section of interconnected rooms with beautiful doorways and windows. A great perspective of Pueblo Bonito can be had by ascending the short Pueblo Alto trail for a top down view of the Pueblo ruins. Obviously the light changes throughout the day, but you’ll almost always be able to find good conditions throughout the complex.
IF YOU PLAN TO GO . . .
A part of the National Park System, Chaco Culture National Historic Park is located in northwestern New Mexico It’s also designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Park is also located near the eastern edge of the Navajo Nation.
Chaco Canyon is a lot easier to get to than you may have heard—until it’s not. Located in San Juan County on Hwy 550, the well signed turnoff onto CR 7900, is located just a few miles southeast of the Navajo community of Nagazzi at milepost 112.5. Exit and follow the signs west for 21 miles, of which eight are paved and the remaining 13 are on rutted clay which can become gooey and impassible when wet and wildly ungraded when dry. Nevertheless, it’s worth the effort. Watch the weather at all times of the year. Summers can be blazing hot and the winters cold and occasionally snowy. July and August are monsoon season and thunder storms are a regular feature. Contact the Park at (505) 786-7014 if you want the most up-to-date weather and road conditions.
Chaco Canyon has a small admission charge as do other Parks, so stop at the Visitors Center, which the best place to familiarized. It’s also where to arrange for camping if you plan to spend the night. Like other NPS Visitors Centers, this one is awesome—books, pamphlets, maps, displays and lots of good information.
The paved road up Chaco Wash is one of those famous NPS one-way loops, which means you can pull over to look without taking your life in your hands; no extended parking though because all of the major Great Houses on this route have designated parking. Each site also has a very informative interpretative pamphlet available at the trailhead—also to found at the Visitors Center.
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