Chaco Canyon is a place we have wanted to visit for some time. During our 2020 roadtrip we were unable to get there as a winter storm rendered the roads in impassable. There are two unpaved roads into the park – both are rough, heavily washboarded affairs. From the north, County 7950 is 13 miles from pavement end to CC while Route 57 is 21 miles coming in from the south.
In order to optimize our time at the park we decided to take advantage of the camping opportunity at the Horse Thief Camp. The ranch property is on County 7950 and is the closest option outside the park.
HORSE THIEF RANCH
The ranch is owned by Wayne and Yolanda Beyale, and has been owned by Wayne’s family for many generations. The ranch sits amongst a patchwork of properties owned by the Navajo Nation and various federal agencies. The area that Wayne has set aside for camping provides panoramic views and and very dark skies (we also saw several wild horses).
Wayne is Navajo and graciously shared the history of his family and the ranch. He and his seven siblings spent summers living in a single hogan in the spot where we camped. The outdoor oven they used to bake and cook still stands intact. Two of the photos above show the circle corral where Wayne tamed wild horses that they captured (hence Horse Thief Camp).
Chaco Canyon was a major center of Ancestral Puebloan Peoples between 900AD and 1150AD. The scale of the great houses and ceromonial sites here is larger than anything else to be found in the Southwestern United States. Within the canyon there are 15 major complexes. The largest of the structures — Bonito Pueblo — contains over 500 rooms!
Chaco Canyon is located in Northwestern New Mexico near the Four Corners. It is very remote — the first record of European people visiting the canyon is not until 1823 when New Mexican governor José Antonio Vizcarra led an expedition through the canyon. At that time this area was still under Mexican rule.
The Chaco Canyon National Monument was formally established on 11 March 1907 by President Theodore Roosevelt. This act preserved the canyon and the structures from any future development or extractive industries. The park was officially designated a national park in 1980 and an additional 12,500 acres was added to bring the park to the current total of 34,000 acres. There are over 4000 archeological sites within the 34,000 acres.
The structures at Chaco provide evidence of a very advanced civilization. The architecture, engineering and construction techniques are quite sophisticated. A number of the Great Houses were five stories tall. The structures were anchored by deep foundations which demonstrate the planning which took place prior to construction. The majority of the Great Houses were built on the north side of the canyon to optimize heat and light from the sun.
There is also evidence that the Chacoans built dams on side canyons to funnel water to the Great Houses and to the fields in order to irrigate crops. Additionally, the remnants of a road system leading away from the canyon in all four directions is still discernable.
Of course, the final question is why this great center was abandoned. And as is usually the case — no one really knows. There are a number of theories ranging from an extended drought, deforestation rendering the canyon unsustainable and political power struggles causing people to flee.
Hiking at chaco
One of the great features at Chaco is the ability to tour the inside of the pueblos and explore the connected rooms, but the canyon rim above also provides a terrific overhead view. So we made the climb up on the Pueblo Alto Trail to see views of the pueblos and the canyon from above.
Pictured are three items we observed along the canyon rim. Starting from the left: a pecked basin — circle carved into the stone by the Chacoans as repositories for offerings; clam shells and shrimp burrows respectively. The clam shells and shrimp burrows testify to the canyon having been an inland sea during the Cretaceous Period (75–80 million years ago).
DEPARTING CHACO CANYON: ROUTE 57
After a full day of touring the pueblos and hiking along the rim of the canyon we set out for the Bisti/Da Nae Zin Wilderness. In orded to reach the Bisti we needed to travel south out of the park on the notorius Route 57. The 57 is a 21 mile stretch of rutted and washboarded dirt that runs through desolate ranch land.
Route 57 is considered impassable when wet. When we left the park there were storms to our east — unfortunately, as we headed south a storm crossed our path and we found ourselves on the muddy and slippery version of the 57 (see video below).
Fortunately, we were able to make it through — only sliding our back end into a ditch once — but we decided not to venture into the Bisti Wliderness as the road conditions there are as treacherous as the 57. In the photos below, we are airing up for our return to paved roads.
We highly recommend a visit to Chaco if you have the appropriate vehicle to handle the conditions and the patience to travel at very slow speeds for an extended period of time. Also, if you are interested in gaining further knowledge about this remarkable civilization we recommend Chaco Culture: A Complete Guide by Gian Mercurio and Maxymilian L. Peschel.
Be seeing you!