Experiencing the Sacred at Chaco Canyon

In an earlier entry, I examined the colonial history of New Mexico as it is represented by several of Santa Fe’s historic churches.  I promised that I would later examine the pre-European history of northern New Mexico, and I got to do just that while visiting Chaco Culture National Historical Park this past weekend.  Located about twenty miles off U.S. 550 between Farmington and Cuba, Chaco provides both historic and natural sites to explore that are absolutely unique.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Park is home to multiple dwellings that were created by the indigenous peoples of northern New Mexico at the time they migrated to the area, mostly between the eleventh and twelfth centuries CE.  They took up residence on the floor of Chaco Canyon near the large arroyo the runs its the central length.

The main attraction of the Park is Pueblo Bonito, which boasts the largest network of stone structures and kivas that are built in the pueblo style that characterizes the architecture of the dwellings around the Park.  Pueblo Bonito is the largest and most visited of the structures, with walls reaching two stories in height and kivas that are over fifteen feet deep and several dozen feet in diameter.  It has been hypothesized that the site was home to only a small residential population, with much of the space occupied temporarily by pilgrims.  Adjacent to Pueblo Bonito is Chaco’s Petroglyph Trail, which follows the base of the canyon walls and includes markers that draw attention to ancient carvings left in the cliff bases by the architects of the pueblos.

Interestingly, many of the petroglyphs at Chaco Canyon deal in some way with astronomy, and some of the dwellings even appear to be situated according to orbital patterns of heavenly bodies.  The heavens were extremely important to the occupants of the area, and this notion is even further indicative of the sacred nature of the Canyon.8.-Pueblo-Bonito-photo-Steve-Collins

An interior view of the towering walls of Pueblo Bonito.  

While Pueblo Bonito and the surrounding dwellings certainly are fascinating, the feature of Chaco that appealed to me the most was Pueblo Alto, which can be accessed through a short hike up the Canyon.  Though it is smaller than many of the other dwellings in the Park, this pueblo sits at the highest point of the Canyon.  After climbing through a narrow passage in the Canyon wall, hikers proceed along an ancient road on the rim of the Canyon that was used for centuries by the Pueblo Peoples.  Unique rock formations greet visitors on one side of the trail, and an expansive view of the Canyon floor greets them on the other, including a direct overhead vantage point of Pueblo Bonito.

After turning off the road, Pueblo Alto comes into view after some additional elevation gain.  Upon reaching it, hikers will find another well-preserved shelter that is far more secluded than the rest of the shelters in the park. The site allows for quiet enjoyment of a panoramic view of the Canyon and desert grasslands that surround it.  The silence and tranquility of the site both truly illustrate the sacred connotations the area held for the Pueblo Peoples.

Pueblo Alto Loop 071

Pueblo Alto sitting atop the rim of Chaco Canyon.  

Chaco Culture National Historical Park represents a major feature in the in the historic landscape of New Mexico, illustrating its existence as a sacred setting for the indigenous peoples who inhabited it.  The sites at Chaco Canyon are just isolated enough from the nearby towns, oil fields, and highways that visitors can still get a sense of this sacred aura, and this experience is well worth the trip to the Park’s remote location.

Patrick Gora, Curatorial Intern