Chaco Canyon in the northwest portion of New Mexico holds the remains of an ancient civilization that flourished between about A.D. 850 and 1250. Many Hopi, Zuni and Pueblo people trace their ancestry back to Chaco and consider it to be a sacred place. Today, it is a national historic park and the ruins of the massive stone buildings are protected for the future.
At Chaco, there are various sites known as great houses that usually include many rooms built in multiple stories with open plazas and round kivas. The buildings are often oriented to solar or lunar events, like the winter solstice. The theories about the purpose of the settlements at Chaco have evolved ever since they were first excavated in the late 1800s. Chaco may have been the ceremonial and trading center of the extensive civilization of the Ancestral Puebloan people. There have been shells and macaw feathers found that came from Mexico, along with pottery and turquoise imported from distant locations. In addition to the multiple great house sites within Chaco, there are more than 150 great houses at outlier sites, which are connected to Chaco by an ancient road system covering hundreds of miles. The roads, some as wide as 30 feet, can still be seen from aerial photos.
According to archaeologists, before A.D. 850, people native to the area lived here in simple pit homes built into the earth. The multistory stone buildings were constructed over the next 300 years. After about 1150, construction slowed. Tree ring analysis shows that a period of drought began about this time. Eventually, the people dispersed – moving in many directions, including north to Mesa Verde and south to pueblos along the Río Grande.
Many of the great house ruins are clustered around a loop called “downtown Chaco.” A few of the sites are outside of the loop and accessed by longer backcountry trails. These areas are quieter and more lightly traveled.
On a beautiful October day, I took one of the backcountry hikes to the site of Peñasco Blanco. This trail is more than 7 miles round trip. It passes by several great house ruins, as well as along a bluff filled with rock carvings and under a cliff overhang that shelters a cluster of painted symbols known as the “supernova pictoglyph.”
The names at Chaco are a combination of Spanish and Diné (Navajo) names. It is thought that the first Europeans to see Chaco were part of an exploration party led by former New Mexico Gov. José Antonio Vizcarra, while the area was part of Mexico. At that time, Diné people lived nearby. Archaeologists believe these people arrived in the 15th century after the Ancestral Pueblo people had departed.
In 1849, a United States Army expedition headed west from Santa Fe to address Diné raids. Led by a Mexican guide named Carravahal, the group rediscovered some of the ruins at Chaco. Artist Richard Kern was with the military expedition and made the first known sketches of the great houses. Peñasco Blanco was among the sites discovered by a contingent that stayed behind to explore the canyon. Lt. James Simpson, an engineer assigned to survey Chaco, was particularly interested in Peñasco Blanco. He was fascinated by the precision of the wooden beams and doorways, the round kivas and the courses of finely cut stone that created the mosaic look of the walls, according to Michael Strutin in his book, “Chaco: a Cultural Legacy.”
Peñasco Blanco is thought to be named after the white bluffs that sit below the pueblo. This site is also referred to by Diné names that mean “house around which the wash bends” and “table-land tapering to a point house,” referring to the location of the site overlooking the confluence of the vast Chaco Wash and the Escavada Wash to the north.
The Peñasco Blanco T rail begins at the far north end of the main driving loop. Although the hike is more than 7 miles round trip, it is mostly level until the final climb to Peñasco Blanco. Even in the late fall, it can be hot here during midday under the vast open sky.
The trail first passes by Kin Kletso (meaning “Yellow House” in Diné), a rectangular great house thought to have been constructed about A.D. 1125. After about a mile of walking, Casa Chiquita comes into view on the right. Built in a later style of stone patterning, this great house was constructed in a square and has an elevated kiva.
After another half-mile, the Petroglyph Trail branches off to the right. Here, there are rock carvings, some of them marked by wooden posts and numbers that correspond to descriptions found in the “Backcountry Trail Guide,” available at the visitor center. The walls are full of depictions of human-like and animal figures, along with more abstract designs, like the spiral.
The trail leaves the cliffside after the petroglyph wall and crosses the wide-open basin and the Chaco Wash. Peñasco Blanco is visible on the cliff top to the northwest above the white cliffs.
After crossing the basin to reach the white cliffs, look for the sign marking the location of the supernova pictoglyph. This is a painting on the overhang of the cliff that depicts a large star, a crescent moon and a handprint. Archaeologists theorize that the large star might be a depiction of an exploding star known as a supernova. In A.D. 1054, Chinese and Japanese astronomers recorded a supernova that resulted in the Crab Nebula. The supernova lit up the sky for a month and was so bright that it was visible during the day. The “Backcountry Trail Guide” says, “Hopi oral traditions reveal that their ancestors saw this ‘blue star’ and it directed a convergence of clans in Chaco.” Perhaps the handprint is an effort by a Chacoan to place him or herself as a human into the larger picture of nature and the sky.
Follow the trail as it climbs up around the side of the bluff about 200 feet to reach Peñasco Blanco at the top. The great house has not been formally excavated, but walls are visible along with two great kivas. This great house is the only one at Chaco known to be built in an oval shape. In the quiet here, it is possible to imagine the builders carefully selecting each piece of sandstone to construct the beautiful patterns on the walls. From this hilltop, there are views north to Escavada Wash and back toward the cliff face that shelters other great houses.
“Peñasco Blanco, built in the late 800s, was perhaps the key early Chacoan great house for connection along the Great West Road that runs west just south of the Chaco River and links to settlements along the Chuska Mountains about 60 miles away,” said Tom Winders, who worked at Chaco beginning in 1972 as a National Park Service archaeologist. From that time and continuing after retirement from the Park Service, he has been a researcher and expert on Chaco.
“Lots of materials that came into Chaco came from the Chuskan area,” Winders said. “Numerous early [800s/900s] Chacoan great houses are located along this route to the west and it is one of the most important early Chacoan settlements before Chaco Canyon became a major focus in the A.D. 1000s. From Peñasco Blanco, one can also see a huge swath of the prehistoric Chacoan world to the north, west and east up Chaco Canyon.”
Chaco Canyon is a high desert environment higher than 6,000 feet and the weather can change quickly; there is always a chance of an afternoon storm. For the next few weeks, forecasted highs are in the 60s and lows in the 20-30s.
Camping and services
There is one campground located in Gallo Wash near the entrance to the park, 1 mile before the visitor center. The 49 spaces are located near a cliff that has ruins and petroglyphs. Advance reservations are recommended; call 1(877) 444-6777. There are bathroom facilities with water that’s not drinkable, although these are closed after Veterans Day. The closest food and other services are located on State Road 550 at Nageezi.
The most direct way to reach Chaco Canyon from Taos is to drive north from Taos Plaza 4 miles and turn left onto U.S. 64 toward the Río Grande Gorge Bridge. Go past the bridge and turn left onto West Rim Road. Drive just more than 8 miles and go right on State Road 567 through Carson. Turn left onto U.S. 285 and head south for 27 miles. (You can also take the shortcut at the El Rito turn for State Road 111). Go right on U.S. 84 for 21 miles and then turn left onto State Road 96. After 49 miles, the road will end at U.S. 550. Turn right and go about 44 miles to the entrance to Chaco on your left. Follow the signs to the visitor center about 23 miles from this turn. The first part of the entry road is paved. It then turns to gravel. As you approach Chaco, the road is rough in places.