Posted by: Brad Nixon | June 10, 2016

Home of the Ancient Ones: Chaco Canyon

This is one of a series of blog posts observing the centennial of the U.S. National Park Service.

There are places we return to because we must: we live there, we work there, someone we love is there.

Other places call us in less obvious ways, and we go back for reasons that are difficult to articulate.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the United States National Park Service (NPS). If you’ve been to the Grand Canyon, Acadia, Boundary Waters Wilderness or Denali, a place that calls you back may be part of the NPS.

It’s true for me.

In the high desert of central New Mexico is a place I first visited more than 20 years ago. I’ve been back several times, and if I’m lucky, I’ll go again: Chaco Canyon.

The park is located in northwestern New Mexico.

For complete driving and access directions, please CLICK HERE.

Chaco is not a dramatically deep or vertiginous canyon like your mental image of the canyons of the Snake or the Colorado. Chaco Wash has eroded a wide floodplain covered by mesquite and sagebrush between weathered sandstone bluffs that rise 200 to 400 feet to the mesa above.

Chaco Canyon Brad Nixon 2894 (640x480)

Once you reach the boundary of the park, the road is paved and well-maintained. Here’s Fajada Butte, at the eastern end of the canyon.

Chaco Canyon Fajada view Brad Nixon 4041 (640x480)

There’s a small visitor center, staffed by park rangers, a campground, water, restrooms, and that’s about the extent of the Chaco infrastructure other than the paved road that loops through the canyon with access to the major sites.

You are now far beyond the reach of your cell signal, power lines and the 21st Century. The desert is hot and dry in summer, cold in the winter, and it’s quiet, with only the wind for company.

Chaco Canyon Brad Nixon 2948 (640x589)

Climbing one of several trails up to the mesa north or south of the canyon gives you a perspective on how distant this remote world is.

Chaco Canyon Brad Nixon 2974 (640x468)

As you walk the trail, you hear the crunch of your feet on rock or sand and your own thoughts. You might see lizards sunning on rocks, snakes, and early in the day, maybe jackrabbits or a coyote. Hawks circle overhead. You can walk, or just sit, look, and listen to the wind.

Chaco Canyon Brad Nixon 2914 (640x501)

That sign at the park entrance, though, isn’t “Chaco Canyon;” it’s “Chaco Culture National Historical Park.” For about 800 years, the canyon was the center of a highly-organized, extensive culture of people we often refer to by their Navaho name, Anasazi, which means “The ancient ones.” The Hopi call them Hisatsinom, “The ones who came before.” From about 400 – 1300 A.D., several thousand people lived in the harsh, demanding environment of Chaco Canyon, part of an extended network of related settlements in northern New Mexico, southern Utah and Colorado, connected by trade conducted along almost unerringly straight pathways they carved across the desert.

Chaco Canyon Brad Nixon 2904 Kin Kletso WS adj (640x538)

Today, their “great houses” are vast stone ruins. Above and below, the ruin of a large complex called (in Navajo) Klin Kletso.

Chaco Canyon Brad Nixon 2910 (640x513)

Through demanding labor over hundreds of years the ancient Puebloans (their more proper name) built elaborate cities of stone roofed by timber they hauled 40 miles from the Chuska Mountains to the west, using stone tools, without horses or the use of the wheel.

Sometime around 1300, they scattered ─ probably due to a combination of drought and overfarming of the thin soil ─ and their civilization ended.

Chaco Canyon is a beautiful and compelling place simply for its natural beauty.

Chaco Canyon Brad Nixon 2925 cliff adj (640x560)

To walk there in the footsteps of more than 100,000 people who inhabited the place through the centuries gives rise to thoughts about who we are and where we go.

Chaco Canyon Brad Nixon 2897 ruin view adj (640x512)

They left no writing, and there is no record of their language. Although the ruins still stand, and there are artifacts of stone and pottery, we know little about how they lived their lives.

Even the impressive round kivas they built, forerunners of those still used by present-day Pueblo cultures, can’t be said with any certainty to have been spiritual centers. Here is one, Casa Rinconada.

Chaco Canyon Brad Nixon 2994 (640x504)

The Counselor and I have climbed onto both mesas, looking down on the canyon.

Chaco Canyon Brad Nixon 2962 (640x519)

On the south mesa stands a ruin with the Navajo name, Tsin Kletzin.

Chaco Canyon Brad Nixon 2979 Tsin Kletsin adj (640x480)

As you come back down the mesa and look north from the edge, you see Casa Rinconada below, and, across the canyon, the ruins of Pueblo Alto on the horizon.

Chaco Canyon Brad Nixon 2964 (640x625)

Once, that view would have included fields, people moving and working. Today, there’s the road, and cars of other visitors. Otherwise, there’s the silence of the past.

Although the ancient Puebloans left no writing, one thing always speaks to me there: stones. Not in some mystical way, but in a way that makes the lives of the ancient ones immediate and real: rows and rows of hundreds of thousands of stones piled by the labor of thousands of hands over generations, as here in the wall of Casa Rinconada.

Casa Rinconada Brad Nixon 3009 (640x480)

The wind blows. Lizards dart out of my path. A hawk slants overhead, while silence prevails in Chaco Canyon under the western sky.

Chaco Canyon Brad Nixon 2959 (640x480)

More articles about Chaco Canyon:

Chaco Canyon: Pueblo Bonito Great House

Chaco Canyon: Wijiji Trail to the Last Great House

Pondering the Ancient Ones – Perspective on the the Chacoan culture, the labor involved in building the structures

Colorado: Home of the Ancient OnesAbout Mesa Verde, a stunning cliff dwelling complex in southern Colorado, an outlier of the Chacoan civilization

For driving directions to Chaco Culture National Historical Park, CLICK HERE.

© Brad Nixon 2016, 2017



  1. I fell in love with Chaco from the moment I arrived there many years ago. For me, it’s a very spiritual place where I feel enveloped, at home and at peace. Your post captures well its serenity and otherworldly beauty.

    I’m always drawn back and look forward to another visit soon.

    Liked by 1 person

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