Chaco Culture

Pueblo KivaVisited: Mar. 2014

Site Type: Cultural

Inscribed: 1987

Background and Opinion:

Visiting the Chaco Culture National Historical Park is probably not the first UNESCO World Heritage Site that comes to mind. Do you know how I know? Only one hundred and twenty three of you guys bothered to come. That is correct 123!

Pueblo Bonito

Okay, it is time to start making some sense. Chaco Culture NHP gets, on average, a miniscule 123 visitors per day, one of the lowest for a National Park Service land and World Heritage Site which prompted National Geographic to rank it in its Top 10 Underappreciated National Parks. I must say that its lack of people definitely contribute to the wonderful experience that comes with visiting this amazing place.


A top view of the Pueblo Bonito Great House.
A top view of the Pueblo Bonito Great House.

What Exactly is Chaco Culture?

The name of the area comes from the Chaco Canyon, a very shallow canyon and runs the length of the park. From around 850 A.D. to 1250 A.D (give or take), this area was a meeting place of sorts for the nearby native American tribes. The ancient “Pueblo People” build great houses to host reunions to discuss trade, share ideas, and even to commemorate important dates that the Hopi, Navajo, Pueblo, and others shared in common.

Chaco Canyon - Chaco Culture
Top view of the shallow but long Chaco Canyon area.

Many of the great houses have been excavated and  dozens of petroglyphs, a type of wall painting or engraving, have been found all over the area. Some archaeologists even predict that a common language was probably not spoken, and required a great deal of translators to be present.

Kiva - Chaco Canyon
This “kiva” was probably used for meetings or dances.


What did I learn?

One of the best reasons to travel is to learn new things. This site was not one of those “I always dreamed of” places and in fact, I knew nothing about it prior to zooming in on the western United States on UNESCO’s awesome interactive map.

Petroglyph - Chaco Culture
The side petroglyph trail was definitely worth the ever so minor detour. This carving is over a thousand years old.

The most interesting thing I learned at the site was about current “Pueblo Indians” centered in the New Mexico city of Taos. Despite being called “Pueblo,” most archaeologists now believe that through the facilitation of sites like the Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde, modern Pueblo are in fact, a mixed race of different ethnicities and cultures that lived in the area. Because of the lack of records (as Pueblo history is passed down orally), we might never know for sure.


What is the best thing to do?


Supernova Petroglyph
The supernova drawing comes with a hand print and a moon beside the explosion. It is believed that the moon was to show how bright the explosion was and the hand is a symbol showing this is a sacred site. Many birds also make their homes along the cliffs in some interesting wall nests.

The thing that caught my eye the most of UNESCO’s description online and after browsing the National Park Service’s website was the “Supernova Petroglyph.” I must say, it definitely did not disappoint.

 In 1054, Chinese astronomers record a grand explosion of a star in the sky. At the same time, Pueblo Natives noticed the same explosion. With a more limited understanding of the cosmos, they thought this to be a sacred moment and drew a picture of what they saw on a wall in Chaco Culture. That drawing is incredibly well preserved and visible today after a brisk 2 hour hike (one way).

Photo Credit: Some NASA dude... I mean STScl
Photo Credit: Some NASA dude… I mean STScl

Not only did two people on opposite sides of the planet witness the same event, but given what we know today, the explosion has been accurately linked to the creation of what we now know as the Crab Nebula. While it is difficult to spot with the naked eye, the explosion is said to have been so bright, it was visible for about a month during the day!

Desert life in Chaco Culture is beautiful in its own way. While I couldn't photograph the super cute desert mouse, I did find this cool cactus.
Desert life in Chaco Culture is beautiful in its own way. While I couldn’t photograph the super cute desert mouse, I did find this cool cactus.



1) Completeness and Originality (7 out of 15): While we are far more conscious of this today, early explorers were not very concerned with the fragility of the area after many hundreds of years. Because of it, many parts have been destroyed. Furthermore, the old culprit of erosion by wind and water strike again.

Peñasco Blanco - Chaco Culture NP
The longest trail in the park ends here. The magnificent Peñasco Blanco Great House is not excavated completely and gets about 5 visitors a day. Wind has had its way with this one.

2) Extensiveness of the Site (9 out of 15): You can definitely get the gist of it in about 5 hours. However, due to the many wonderful hikes, I suggest you camp one night and do more than one.

Chaco Culture 2

3) Cultural Significance (10.5 out of 25): While this definitely is not a paradigm shift type of site, it is nonetheless incredibly interesting to explore.

4) Personal Impact (11 out of 15): I must admit to a little bias here given the “unexpected delight” effect it had on me. Nonetheless, I would definitely recommend this to any of my friends.

Chaco Culture 3

5) Logistics (1.5 out of 10): Even as an American who has traveled extensively in the western United States, this site is a cause for concern. I am trying to take the view point of an international visitor and I imagine it would not be easy. First off, the nearest large city is Albuquerque, a good 3 hours / 150 miles away. Second, there is no public transportation that leads to it. Furthermore, if you get a rental, be aware that the last 15 miles or so that lead to this park are on a dirt road. I drove my mom’s car, which is a Honda Civic and was thinking the whole time “I’m so glad I didn’t bring a rental in here.”

Almost none of the park is marked and you have to rely on these books to borrow at the trailheads. Unfortunately, many people don't just "borrow" these and many trails have no guides or explanation at all.
Almost none of the park is marked and you have to rely on these books to borrow at the trailheads. Unfortunately, many people don’t just “borrow” these and many trails have no guides or explanation at all.

At times, the road was unbearably bumpy going anything above 5 mph. In addition, there are no accommodations besides camping on site. Given the dirt road, you either bring a tent, an RV, or settle for a long, single day visit. I would not advise putting your vehicle through that more than once and do suggest you camp. The park itself is $10, which is pretty reasonable, and campgrounds for tents go for $15 a night. Due to extremely limited sites, booking in advance is suggested (maybe a week or two).

Dirt Road - Chaco Culture
During flash rains, you literally have to wait for the wash to clear out before proceeding. That means you could be trapped either inside or outside of the park.

6) Uniqueness (11 out of 20): While ruins are relatively common, Native American historical sites like this are hard to come by.

Chaco Culture 4

Combined Score: 50/100

Is this a good score? Find out how it compares with other UNESCO World Heritage Sites in our rankings.

Curious how the scores are derived? Check out the scoring criteria.

Julio Moreno
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2 thoughts on “Chaco Culture

    • April 26, 2014 at 12:09 am

      I actually found this out yesterday as I was cross checking my facts writing an article on Mesa Verde (which I see you have visited too).
      I did pass by it but didn’t realize it was that important. I will definitely swing by again to visit Taos and the Carlsbad Caverns, so I will give it a shot.


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