Posted by: Brad Nixon | August 10, 2016

Chaco Canyon: Wijiji Trail to the Last Great House

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

Concluding my short series of posts about Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico, I hope to explain not only what I find so compelling about the place, but something about why we travel anywhere.

In addition to being, between about 850 and 1250 AD, the center of the sophisticated, extensive civilization of people common referred to as the Anasazi, Chaco Canyon is a place of stark natural beauty.

Chaco Canyon Brad Nixon 4119 (640x420)

There, far from highways and high tension lines, you’re truly IN the desert. You can turn in every direction and focus your attention on wide vistas or close-up to see the desert light on the lichen covering the rocks.

Chaco Canyon Wijiji lichen Brad Nixon 4113 (640x480)

You can, as described in the previous post, drive to within a short walk of most of the principal sites in Chaco (printed in green on the map below). Better, though, is to allow time to hike on any of the trails, marked as dotted black lines.

NPS Chaco Canyon map (640x340)

You can walk up onto the north or south mesas to visit some of the outlying ruins, and from there look down into the canyon .

Chaco Canyon Brad Nixon 2959 (640x480)

You’re looking not only at a striking desert landscape, but at a place that once was home to thousands of people.

All the trails are within the scope of hikers of average ability. Although there are some steep portions onto the north and south mesas, they gain only a couple hundred feet in elevation, and require some exertion, but not rock climbing skills.

This summer, we hiked the one Chaco Canyon trail we hadn’t explored in previous visits: from the eastern edge of the park to Wijiji (WEE-juh-jee).

NPS Chaco Canyon map Wijiji marked

The 1-1/2 mile trail is level and wide (it’s also a Park Service access route). You walk on sandy soil amidst mesquite, greasewood and sage, following the course of Chaco Wash between the bluffs on either side.

Chaco Canyon Wijiji Brad Nixon 4042 (640x433)

Depending on the season and time of day, you may see lizards, rabbits, coyotes, mule deer, bobcats and badgers, even elk. Be alert — as always in that country — to the presence of rattlesnakes.

Summer temperatures are typically in the 80s and 90s, but can exceed 100 degrees F. Afternoon thunderstorms are typical in the Southwest, so keep an eye on the sky. It can be extremely cold in winter, particularly if you’re planning to camp overnight.

Looking behind you gives a good view into the upstream portion of the canyon, flanked by 6,623-foot Fajada Butte.

Chaco Canyon Fajada view Brad Nixon 4041 (640x480)

The landscape, the desert life and the almost complete silence are reasons enough to make this hike. At the end, though, you reach the ruins of Wijiji, probably the last of the Great Houses constructed in Chaco, probably from 1110-1115 AD.

Chaco Canyon Wijiji Brad Nixon 4058 (640x385)

Wijiji is unexcavated and almost entirely unrestored except for some stabilization of the structure, which — unlike the other Chacoan sites — was built on clay, not a stone foundation, and may have begun disintegrating soon after its construction.

Chaco Canyon Wijiji Brad Nixon 4117 (640x480)

You can only circle around the structure, and its overall layout is difficult to determine. Here’s a diagram from a National Park Service publication.

Wijiji site plan NPS

There were about 225 rooms arranged around 2 circular kivas (which we could not visit). The inner row of rooms are 1 story, backed by 2 ranks of 2-story rooms and the outside rank is 3 stories tall. Here is a surviving portion of the tall back wall.

Chaco Canyon Wijiji Brad Nixon 4125 (640x586)

The thin slabs of sandstone were carried from the top of the bluffs above, all by hand.

Chaco Canyon Wijiji Brad Nixon 4070 (640x424)

Chaco Canyon Wijiji Brad Nixon 4066 (640x380)

If you read the previous article about the largest Great House, Pueblo Bonito, you’ll see the similarities in stonework and planning, including aligned series of doors that provided access, air circulation and at least some light.

Chaco Canyon Wijiji window Brad Nixon 4078 PSLR (640x480)

This now-lonely ruin was once home for hundreds of people, who farmed maize, corn and beans; hunted, wove baskets and clothing, made pottery and stone tools and wrested a living from a land as harsh a thousand years ago as it is today.

Chaco Canyon Wijiji Brad Nixon 4108 (640x321)

While they had no metal implements, no draft animals, they constructed a vast system of almost perfectly straight roads connecting far-flung corners of their world, including Mesa Verde in Colorado, although they did not have the wheel.

The opportunity to consider that prospect, I think, is the primary reason to go to Chaco Canyon, and especially to take a hike like the one to Wijiji: To reflect on what makes us human and connects us with people from long ago, and, by extension, to other cultures elsewhere in the world, different from us in almost every external way.

They belonged to an inordinately successful civilization that prospered for four hundred years. We know nothing of their language, they left no writing, and it’s assumed they had an entirely oral culture.

Everywhere in the world there are reminders of past civilizations: at Cahokia in Illinois, home to approximately 40,000 people at the same time the Ancient Ones were living in Chaco; Mayan ruins at Palenque; the Mali Empire’s Mosque of Djenne in Africa.

It’s a mistake to romanticize the Ancient Puebloans; we know nothing of the nature of their society. We assume the kivas they built were places of worship, and they constructed accurate means to track the cycles of the sun. But we do not know if they were an autocratic society or a traditional tribal organization of clans, nor if their lives were arduous, violent or peaceful. We have no means to discover the details of their culture, beliefs, myths or the stories they told at night under the stars.

Still, they flourished in a harsh land for hundreds of years. As thoughtful travelers, we owe it to ourselves to do more than drive there, walk, look and take a photograph. We can ask what connects us to people we can never know. Perhaps we can learn something about ourselves, if the Chacoans themselves are unknowable.

Chaco Wijiji Brad Nixon 4134 (640x422)

In Chaco Canyon, there are only the stone walls they built, the sound of the wind they heard, the same desert light they saw on the cliffs. Once there were voices; certainly there were songs. What did they sing? What did they dream? These were our fellow humans, after all. Gone now.

Walk lightly. Listen.

Chaco Canyon Brad Nixon 2894 (640x480)

Articles I’ve written with further information/perspective on Chaco Canyon and the Ancient Puebloans:

For driving directions to Chaco CanyonGetting There: Chaco/Bisti Preview

Home of the Ancient Ones – Brief overview/introduction to Chaco Canyon

Chaco Canyon: Pueblo Bonito 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 more articles about U.S National Parks, look under “Categories” in the right hand navigation column.

Some of the photographs in this post, many other shots from Chaco Canyon 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. Maps courtesy of U.S. National Park Service. Wijiji site plan from “Chaco Culture Backcountry Trail Guide,” sponsored by Western National Parks Association, Tucson, Arizona, undated.



  1. Great questions, thanks for the visit!


  2. Another very interesting blog post! I enjoy reading your prospectives.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Good observations and travel advice. I’d only add what I think you strongly implied: walk slowly, look slowly, observe carefully, and your experience will be greatly enriched. Merci!


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