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Between the early 900s and the mid-1100s, Chaco Canyon in northwest New Mexico was probably the center of a far-reaching trade network. Experts think that Pueblo Bonito, the largest of the ruins in Chaco Culture National Historical Park, was a sacred place where Puebloans gathered for trade and ceremonies. The settlement was at least four stories high and had more than 600 rooms and 40 kivas. Many members of today’s Southwest Native American tribes are descendants of the Chaco people. Photo by Jerry Ondash
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Touring the pueblos of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico

Nighttime is resident park ranger G.B. Cornucopia’s favorite time of day. He loves the dark sky and the silence that is his in Chaco Culture National Historical Park when the sun goes down.

“I can walk outside and not know what century I’m in,” says Cornucopia, who has been stationed here for three decades.

That’s because this stark, northwest New Mexico landscape, with its striated rocky cliffs and jutting monoliths that interrupt a seemingly endless horizon, probably hasn’t changed for millennia.

The people of Chaco began building great houses in Chaco Canyon in the mid-800s. The round rooms – ceremonial kivas – once were covered with roofs that had holes in the middle to allow entry and exit via ladders. Photo by Jerry Ondash

But when daylight arrives, Cornucopia has plenty of company.

About 50,000 visitors a year come to the park, popularly known as Chaco Canyon. This number is a drop in the bucket compared to Yellowstone’s and Yosemite’s 4 million visitors, but that’s fine with the ranger.

“People come here to see something they can’t see anywhere else,” he explains.  “(Our visitors) have done some studying and know something about us.”

We grow to understand the fascination of Chaco Canyon as we wander among the ruins of the Ancestral Puebloans on this warm, dry, brilliantly bright mid-May day. We follow the 9-mile loop within the park that takes visitors to numerous sites, some more complete than others. What’s left of these ancient buildings are a testament to the strength, ingenuity and resilience of the Ancestral Puebloans — ancient peoples of the Southwest who lived in pueblos.

Pueblo Bonito’s masons built walls of intricate patterns and precision. Different masonry styles evolved through the centuries. Photo by Jerry Ondash

How they survived here from about 850 A.D. to 1150 A.D. is somewhat of a mystery. With no written language, much of the information archeologists have about the Puebloans is what Cornucopia calls “informed speculation.”

And despite the more than 4,000 archeological sites, “we don’t know why people lived here because there was no river and water was scarce. Perhaps it was a final drought that pushed them out.”

The park also is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site because it is an example of “the densest and most exceptional concentration of pueblos in the American Southwest.”

“If you want to understand humanity, these UNESCO sites are places to come,” Cornucopia says.

Archeologists think Chaco Canyon’s early inhabitants operated under a highly organized society with a centralized government, and that there were at least 20 genetically diverse groups who spoke at least four languages. The largest and perhaps best-preserved of the ruins is Pueblo Bonito, considered sacred by area Native Americans who still hold ceremonial gatherings within the precisely built walls.

Our self-guided, walking-tour booklet tells us some of the history of the archeological excavations, details about the masonry, best guesses at cultural practices, and why the buildings were constructed as they were. Some were oriented according to celestial bodies and the seasons, and we are amazed at preciseness of their stonework and engineering.

Chaco Canyon also is designated an International Dark Sky Park and has a small planetarium where night sky programs are held.

If you visit, three words: water, hats and sunscreen. Camping is permitted in the park, but there are no restaurants or hotels. Best bet is to stay in Farmington, about 90 minutes north and an ideal location for exploring the Four Corners area. Lodging: Courtyard by Marriott (505-325-5111), conveniently adjacent to the beautiful 8-mile trail along the Animus River. Food: Three Rivers Brewery – unbelievable corn-on-the-cob and hundreds of artifacts paying tribute the 1950s and 1960s; Chile Pod — garden-fresh Mexican food created from family recipes; and Clancy’s Pub & Irish Cantina — good grub and locally popular Singo nights (think Bingo meets Name That Tune). All restaurants happily accommodate special-needs diets. Visit More photos at


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