Visiting Chaco Canyon

Chaco Canyon Walls

Complex Masonry in Chaco Canyon

One of the Southwest’s most intriguing historical sites sits tucked into the reaches of a canyon in northwestern New Mexico. The distinctive and monumental architecture found at Chaco Canyon, a U.S. National Historical Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site, is well worth a day trip from Albuquerque or Santa Fe.

It is believed that buildings in Chaco Canyon were inhabited or used between the mid-9th century and the 13th century. Although its people seem to have gone, the mystery of the place remains.

Archaeologists and anthropologists have theories and ideas as to the site’s uses. Evidence in the well-planned complexes, in the network of perfectly aligned roads around the site and in artifacts found across the site point to Chaco’s importance as a commercial, political, ceremonial and social center for Ancestral Puebloan people who lived in the Four Corners region. However indisputable proof telling us of the site’s specific significance through the ages has yet to be publicized.

Although today’s visitors may not know exactly what went on in Chaco’s numerous kivas or why thousands of people seemed to congregate in the area, they can gaze in awe at the remnants of life in Chaco Canyon.

Today, the site draws archeo-astronomers interested in the way certain windows and crevasses align with the positions of the sun and moon at different points of the solar and lunar calendar. Solar alignment seems to be a theme found all over Chaco Canyon, with certain buildings in the canyon and even some far from it falling on the same axes.

Chaco Canyon 1

Kiva in Chaco Canyon

The remaining multi-story buildings also feature sophisticated masonry featuring regular stonework patterns (some so distinct that experts believe they can be attributed to specific masons), perfect right angles, straight walls and doors, windows and other openings in perfect alignment. The iconic T-shaped openings found in some Chaco Canyon buildings speak to the sophisticated design and mystery surrounding the place.

There are a few things to know before you go.

The roadways to the site are not paved and passage due to mud or washout may be possible in a low-clearance vehicle. Turning back is preferable to getting your vehicle stuck along the remote route. The roadway also passes through tribal, farm and ranch land.

Wear comfortable walking shoes, layered clothing a hat and sunscreen, and bring water. There is little shade in the canyon, and you’ll will want to shield yourself from the sun and stay hydrated.

You’re likely to spot sherds of pottery or other interesting teasers to the past you’ll be tempted to bring home, however anything you pick up should be returned exactly to where it was found. You can give in to temptation at the site’s gift shop, where many wonderful books and movies about the site as well as fun keepsakes can be found and purchased.

Chaco Canyon serves as the inspiration for Hotel Chaco, the newest Heritage Hotels & Resorts Inc. property, to be located where Albuquerque’s historic Old Town meets its up-and-coming Sawmill district. This luxury hotel was designed by the legendary firm Gensler with the architecture and allure of Chaco Canyon in mind. It will open in 2017.

Learn more about Chaco Canyon and start planning your visit here:

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