Posted by: Brad Nixon | August 7, 2016

Getting There: Chaco Canyon, Bisti/De-Na-Zin

This post is reference material for articles recounting visits to Chaco Culture National Historical Park (Chaco Canyon) and the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness in New Mexico. Links to some of the articles describing these sites themselves appear at the bottom of this article.

Few online resources address more than the basics of “where to turn.” This post is meant to help you recognize those places, and have an understanding of road conditions, some of which are unpaved, though they don’t require off-road capability.

Chaco and Bisti/De-Na-Zin are not far apart — about 20 miles as the crow flies — but, lacking wings, you’ll do more driving than that. Here’s a map of northwestern New Mexico.

Chaco Bisti Map wide - marked

At the bottom right is Albuquerque, which is in the center of the state. On the right, northeast of Albuquerque, is Santa Fe. In the far upper left, near the Four Corners area, is Farmington.

The De-Na-Zin Wilderness is circled in red, Chaco Culture National Historical Park in blue. The Bisti Badlands are slightly southwest of De-Na-Zin along Route 371. See map below. The black circle highlights U.S. Route 550, the principal road to Chaco and De-Na-Zin.

Following are directions to the locations from Albuquerque/Santa Fe and from Farmington.

From Albuquerque/Santa Fe (Interstate 25) to Chaco Canyon

From I-25, drive northeast on U.S. Rt. 550 from Bernalillo, north of Albuquerque, about 40 miles south of Santa Fe. 550 is well-paved, 4 lanes for much of the distance and once you leave the developed area of Bernalillo, you’ll have no stop signs or traffic lights. The speed limit is 70 mph, slower in some developed areas. Allow 3 hours from the center of Albuquerque to Chaco Canyon. It’s 113 miles on 550 from the point at which you leave I-25 to the Chaco turnoff. The route passes through a variety of stunning landscapes, rising to more than 7,300 feet as you cross the Continental Divide.

NM 550 Brad Nixon 3946 (640x480)

NM 550 Brad Nixon 3952 (640x480)

There are green and white mile markers along 550. After you pass Mile 112, expect to see signs for Chaco, just past Red Mesa Express on your right.

Red Mesa Express Google

You’ll turn left onto paved, 2-lane County Road 7900.

Chaco left turn sign Google

From the turnoff from 550 to Chaco Canyon

It’s approximately 20 miles from 550 to the park entrance.

7900 - 7950 to Chaco - marked

County Road 7900 is paved for the first 8 miles, but use caution.

Road 7900 Brad Nixon 4330 (640x480)

You may go over a rise and encounter a slower-moving vehicle by surprise. At about 5 miles, there is a right-hand turn onto County Road 7950, visible in the map above. It is marked. Don’t miss it.

Enjoy the ride. You’ll see aspects of the high desert back country few travelers have the opportunity to appreciate at leisure.

Chaco Brad Nixon 4327 (640x480)

After about 8 miles, the road is unpaved for about 11 miles. You’ll slow to around 30 or 35 mph, but unless you have a low-slung car, you’ll be okay. Leave the Ferrari and get a rental, if necessary.

Chaco Road Brad Nixon 4316 (640x480)

The final 4 miles are the least-maintained, and can be extremely rough. Use caution. On our July, 2016 trip, this portion was the worst we’d seen it in 20+ years of visits. As they say in the guidebooks, conditions will vary.

Chaco road Brad Nixon 3991 (640x517)

Especially in summer, afternoon thunderstorms are common in the desert. Depending on where and how much rain actually falls, it’s possible that the dry wash that cuts across the road may be flowing with water.

Chaco wash Brad Nixon 4319 (640x480)

If that happens to you, wait it out. Do NOT drive through the water. You can’t tell how deep muddy water is and don’t know what’s under the surface.

flood sign Brad Nixon 4318 (640x480)

One aspect of country roads you may be unfamiliar with are cattle guards. You’re driving through open range land, with few fences. To keep free-range cattle from using roads to get around fences, cattle guards are installed in the road,. They consist of a concrete trench topped by metal pipes or bars, spaced so that cow hooves can’t cross.

cattle guard Brad Nixon 4394 (640x407)

You can drive across them, but treat them like railroad tracks: you never know how big a bump there may be between the road and the edge of the guard.

You’re driving through open range: no fences. You may see cattle ON the road. Be alert.

Cattle Willard Nixon 050 (640x474)

Once you reach the edge of the park, the road is paved, you spot the entrance sign, and it’s time to begin exploring Chaco Canyon.

Chaco sign Marcy Vincent 4215 (640x480)

There is a per-vehicle use fee, which was due to rise to $20 in January 2017. Stop at the Visitor Center to pay your fee. There are lower rates for motorcycles, individuals on foot or bicycle and organized, non-commercial groups. A variety of passes are accepted, and highly recommended if you’re going to visit more than one National Park. See https://www.nps.gov/chcu/planyourvisit/fees.htm

From Chaco Canyon to De-Na-Zin Wilderness

To reach the De-Na-Zin Wilderness, follow the directions above as far as the turnoff for Chaco Canyon. Continue NW on 550 for about 14 miles. You’ll have a striking view of Huerfano Mountain, one of the four sacred mountains in Navaho culture.

Huerfano Mtn Brad Nixon 4334 (640x484)

As you near the mountain, on the right, you’ll see your landmark, the Dzilth-Na-O-Dith-Hle complex (the Navaho name for Huerfano Mountain).

Dzilth-Na-O-Dith-Hle Brad Nixon 4335 (640x469)

Soon after you pass the center, you’ll see signs for Bisti/De-Na-Zin. You’re looking for unpaved County Road 7500 on your left, just after mile marker 127. (See map below for detail.)

From the turnoff to De-Na-Zin Wilderness

As soon as you turn, there IS a sign, but in July, 2016, it was overgrown:

De-Na-Zin sign Brad Nixon 4345 (640x513)

Barely visible in the foliage is the blue County Road 7500 marker. From there, it’s slightly less than 12 miles to the De-Na-Zin trailhead.

7500 is a gravel road, and was in good repair in summer, 2016, superior to most of the unpaved road to Chaco, but conditions will vary over time.

De-Na-Zin road Marcy Vincent 4309 (640x461)

The entrance to the trailhead and a parking area is on the right a little more than 11 miles from 550, clearly marked by a sign (more clearly focused than in this photo).

De-Na-Zin sign Marcy Vincent 4329 (640x480)

You are about to enter a wilderness with no marked trails, improvements, water or restrooms.

De-Na-Zin boundary Brad Nixon 4347 (640x480)

Follow the trail about 1/4 to the dry wash, turn left, and follow it into the canyon. Let’s go!

De-Na-Zin Marcy Vincent 4332 (504x640)

From Farmington, NM to De-Na-Zin Wilderness

If you start from Farmington or points northwest of the sites, 550 is also the route to De-Na-Zin and Chaco. Farmington, is reachable if you’re touring the Four Corners area, Mesa Verde, Canyon de Chelly, fishing on the San Juan and a host of other fascinating places.

From Farmington, travel east on U.S. Rt 64 to Bloomfield, then SE on Rt 550, a total of about 38 miles to County Road 7500.

Farmington - Bloomfield - 7500 marked new

550 is a well-paved, major route, and traffic barrels along at 70 mph, often two lanes each way. County Road 7500 is an unpaved road to the right. Signs on 550 do indicate that the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness turnoff is ahead. The turn is just past mile marker 128.

If you reach the Dzilth-Na-O-Dith-Hle health center and school complex on the left, you’ve passed your turnoff by about half a mile. Here’s the distinctive water tower.

Dzilth-Na-O-Dith-Hle Brad Nixon 4342 (640x478)

From this point, please follow directions under “From the turnoff to De-Na-Zin Wilderness” above.

Chaco Canyon from Farmington

Follow the directions to the De-Na-Zin turnoff, then continue 14 miles SE on 550 past the Dzilth-Na-O-Dith-Hle complex, past the small outpost of Nageezi on your right to County Road 7900. DO not follow maps or directions to turn off at Nageezi. That information is outdated. Signs along 550 will clearly indicate the correct right turn onto paved 7900, just after mile marker 113.

From this point, follow the directions “From the turnoff from 550 to Chaco Canyon” above for drive to the park entrance.

The Bisti Badlands (western part of the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness)

There is a second section of the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, the Bisti Badlands, which is relatively easy to access, about 37 miles south of Farmington via State Route 371. You can also drive north from I-40 at Thoreau, 75 miles north on 371. I highly recommend visiting this remarkable wilderness area.

Farmington-Badlands and D-N-Z map new

Remember, this is a wilderness area: no water, services, marked trails, and probably no cell service. It’s spectacular.

Bisti Badlands Brad Nixon 001 (640x415)

State Route 7500 Connects Bisti and De-Na-Zin

The thin line between U.S. 550 and Route 371 on the map above is unpaved State Route 7500. It connects Bisti and De-Na-Zin. I have not traveled it other than the distance from 550 to De-Na-Zin, so I can’t attest to its condition, but it should be passable for all but low-slung cars.

Caveats

As stated above, the conditions described in this article and shown in photographs were accurate on July 26, 2016. It’s always possible that erosion, storms, maintenance issues or other events could affect your route.

Take water. Have a couple of gallons per person. There is water inside Chaco Culture Historical Park, but none available on the roads into Chaco or Bisti/De-Na-Zin. There is no water available at Bisti or De-Na-Zin: It’s a wilderness. If you have a breakdown, or are stranded by water in a wash en route, you may have an uncomfortable wait.

Have enough fuel to get to your destination and back out again: There are no fuel stations along the back roads. En route on 550 from I-25, a good place to stop for fuel is Cuba. The last fuel before turning off for Chaco is the Red Mesa station. From Farmington, fuel up in Farmington or Bloomfield. The nearest fuel on 550 to the Bisti turnoff is at Hilltop Mustang, about 10 miles NE of the Bisti turnoff. I can’t attest to what hours those small shops are open.

There is a well-equipped, staffed park station near the entrance to Chaco with water, restrooms, knowledgeable National Park Service rangers, gift shop and, in 2016, even pay phones. There is camping on a first-come basis, but no other accommodations. The roads inside Chaco are paved and clearly marked, as are many trails. Full information is available at www.nps.gov/chcu.

As noted above, there are no roads, trails, water, rangers or gift shop in Bisti/De-Na-Zin; It’s a wilderness. Information at the Bureau of Land Management website and some other sites on the WWW.

Don’t expect to have reliable cell service, especially on the back roads. It’s possible, but don’t count on it.

There is a route into Chaco from I-40 to the south, longer than the route from the north. I don’t report it here, because I haven’t driven it.

If you have corrections or updates to any of this information, I’ll appreciate getting them and will incorporate them in this article with due credit. Leave a comment.

Some articles I’ve written with further information/perspective on Chaco Canyon, Bisti/De-Na-Zin and the Ancient Puebloans:

Home of the Ancient Ones – A brief overview/introduction to 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 and the labor and organization involved in building the structures

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

Hoodoo Wilderness: Bisti Badlands, New Mexico – A hike in the bizarre high desert landscape of eroded sandstone formations.

Hoodoo Wilderness: De-Na-Zin, New Mexico – Hiking the eastern portion of Bisti/De-Na-Zin for views of hoodoos, cliffs, petrified wood and a glorious landscape.

© Brad Nixon 2016, 2017. Some images from Google Maps, © Google. Cattle photo © Willard Nixon 2017, used by kind permission.

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