Posted by: Brad Nixon | August 8, 2016

Chaco Canyon: Pueblo Bonito Great House

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

We recently returned from a trip to New Mexico, which included a visit to one of our favorite places, Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

Chaco Canyon Brad Nixon 4041 (640x376)

Chaco Canyon is a an impressive place to visit for its natural beauty — sere and remote — but even more alluring because of the glimpse it gives us into a lost world.

From about 850 – 1250 AD, Chaco Canyon was the center of a civilization commonly known as the Anasazi. During those centuries the Ancient Puebloans (their more correct name) organized and engineered an impressive series of structural complexes referred to as “Great Houses.” These structures, several stories tall, consisted of hundreds of rooms, typically centered around plazas, all built of stone and wood, without the use of metal tools, draft animals or the wheel.

Chaco Canyon was at the center of the widespread ancient Puebloan culture, which included sites spread around the Four Corners area of northwestern New Mexico, southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah.

For an introduction to Chaco Canyon, see my recent post, Home of the Ancient Ones.

A good example of what makes Chaco fascinating is the largest of the Great Houses, Pueblo Bonito.

Pueblo Bonito pano 1 Brad Nixon (640x221)

Like many of the sites in Chaco, Pueblo Bonito is easy to reach from the paved loop road that circles the floor of the canyon, about 4-1/2 miles from the Visitors’ Center (marked in red).

NPS Chaco CNH Park map - PB marked

Covering 3 acres, with 600 rooms built 4 and 5 stories high and dozens of round kivas, it was a marvel of sophisticated planning and execution, requiring hundreds of thousands of hours of labor over 300 years, from about 850 -1150 AD.

Chaco Canyon Pueblo Bonito Brad Nixon 4214 (640x399)

The scale of Pueblo Bonito is still impressive today.

Chaco Canyon Pueblo Bonito Brad Nixon 4248 (640x480)

A reconstruction shows how Pueblo Bonito may have looked in the early 1100s.

NPS Pueblo Bonito reconstruction

It housed several thousand people engaged in the daily business of life, only one of nearly a dozen large centers in Chaco, alone. Nearby are the ruins of another complex, Pueblo del Arroyo.

Chaco Canyon Pueblo Bonito Brad Nixon 4218 (640x480)

The stonework, 3 feet thick, was carefully planned. The outer facings are neatly laid.

Chaco Canyon Pueblo Bonito Brad Nixon 4289 (640x480)

There are walls built in a variety of ways from different periods in Pueblo Bonito’s history.

Chaco Canyon Pueblo Bonito Brad Nixon 4257 (640x480)

The roofs and intermediate floors were constructed of overlapping layers of timbers, crossed by smaller rafters, and again by smaller branches, covered probably by dirt flooring.

Chaco Canyon Pueblo Bonito Brad Nixon 4201 (640x530)

Doorways interconnected the rooms.

Chaco Canyon Pueblo Bonito Brad Nixon 4243 (480x640)

Higher up, there are openings for ventilation and some amount of light throughout the complex.

Chaco Canyon Pueblo Bonito M Vincent 4282 (640x480)

I previously wrote in some detail about the labor involved in building the Chaco complex over several hundred years. CLICK HERE.

Somehow the Chacoan culture thrived in that harsh environment at a time when it was just as dry and forbidding as it is today. Perhaps as many as 100,000 people lived out their lives there during the several hundred hundred years of occupation. In the end, we have little that we know of them. Although we have their buildings, pottery, stone tools and some preserved items like sandals woven from yucca, their beliefs, their language are unknown to us. Exactly what became of them isn’t certain, although it’s relatively well established that extended drought, over-hunting and exhausting the soil all combined to bring an end to their world.

Now we stand under the western sky and wonder. We’ll come back in the next article for a further look at Chaco Canyon.

Chaco Canyon Pueblo Bonito Brad Nixon 4188 (640x429)

For driving and access directions to Chaco, please click here.

More articles about Chaco Canyon:

Home of the Ancient Ones: An introduction and overview of Chaco Canyon

Chaco Canyon: The Trail to Wijiji: A hike off the main road to one of the last Great Houses built in Chaco Canyon.

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

For more articles about U.S National Parks, look under “Categories” in the right hand navigation column.

Some of the photographs in this post and select images from other Under Western Skies posts are available on Click on the linked photos, or CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky photo portfolio.

© Brad Nixon 2016, 2017. Window photograph © Marcy Vincent 2017, used by kind permission. Park map and Pueblo Bonito reconstruction © U.S. National Park Service.




  1. Very impressive! I love all the photos you post. It’s amazing how a stucture like this could be built without modern technology and tools.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Some of the construction technology (other than things like air entraining cement and steel reinforced concrete) aren’t so different from what was being built in other parts of the world (although the Chacoans lacked the ability to make arches or domes with stone). What’s mind-boggling is scale and degree of organized labor using, as you rightly say, primitive technology. Cutting down something like a quarter of a million trees with stone axes was a mammoth labor, let alone hauling them 40 or 50 miles from the mountains. Thanks for commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. it’s on the list now!
    and, don’t forget crater lake…


    • I do have more to say about Crater Lake, and I will. Thanks for the reminder. I wrote a short piece about the adjacent Oregon Pinnacles at


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