New Mexico: Chaco Culture National Historical Park

Fajada Butte
Fajada Butte at Sunset

Courtesy of National Park Service

Chaco Culture National Historical Park lies in a long, shallow canyon atop the Colorado Plateau, centrally located within the San Juan Basin of northwestern New Mexico. People have occupied this area of high desert landscape with long winters, short growing seasons, and limited rainfall for over 10,000 years. About 1,000 years ago, a remarkable urban center of politics, economy, ceremony, and culture evolved in this desert landscape by the ancestral Pueblo people.

This vast pre-Columbian cultural complex dominated and influenced much of the southwestern United States from the mid 9th to the mid 13th centuries. Because of the outstanding importance of this thriving cultural system, Chaco Culture National Historical Park was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its remarkable architecture, carefully engineered and constructed roads, significance in the lives of the ancestral Puebloan peoples, and its elaborate cultural system that influenced the Four Corners region for centuries. The park contains over 4,000 cultural sites associated with Paleo-Indian, ancestral Puebloans, Navajo, and Euro-American occupation of the canyon. 

From 850 A.D. to approximately 1250 A.D, ancestral Puebloans constructed buildings and managed an extensive cultural system throughout this area. At its peak, a few thousand people may have lived in Chaco Canyon, while thousands more were drawn to the ceremonial gatherings and trading events staged throughout the Chacoan system. To house and host these great numbers, the people developed a well-organized community.

To construct their communities, the ancestral Puebloans created specific styles of masonry, unique for their time, which allowed them to build multi-storied stone structures on mesa tops and on the canyon floors. The “great houses” and other village clusters found throughout the region feature this style of masonry. Some of the buildings had hundreds of rooms and included kivas, terraces, and plazas. To build these impressive structures, the ancestral Puebloans quarried sandstone blocks and hauled timber from great distances. They drew upon dense forests of oak, pinon, ponderosa pine, and juniper to obtain timber to construct walls that were broad at the base and narrow toward the top. They built in this way to distribute the weight of the walls and the structure. The structures served public and ceremonial purposes. The high concentration of these buildings suggests that this area served as a regional religious, administrative, commercial, and trading center.

During the mid to late 800s, construction began on the great houses of Pueblo Bonito, Una Vida, and Penasco Blanco. Construction later followed on Hungo Pavi, Chetro Ketl, Pueblo Alto, Casa Chiquita, Kin Kletso, Pueblo del Arroyo, Tsin Kletsin, Casa Rinconada, and Wijiji. Visitors can view these sites from hiking trails in the park today. The great house closest to the visitor center is Una Vida, which is accessible by taking a short walk from the parking lot. For 250 years, ancestral Pueblans continuously planned and built at Una Vida and eventually constructed about 150 rooms and five kivas. Visitors can also follow a short trail from Una Vida to view petroglyphs and pictographs on the sandstone walls of Chaco Canyon.

While Una Vida was under construction, work was also taking place on Pueblo Bonito and Penasco Blanco. Pueblo Bonito was the center of the Chacoan world. The enormous, well-planned Pueblo Bonito took decades to build. At its peak, this D-shaped building stood four to five stories tall, covered 3 acres and contained over 600 rooms, 40 kivas, and two plazas. Pueblo Bonito was the focus of ceremonial functions, administration, trading, storage, hospitality, communications, astronomy, and burial of the honored dead. After touring the ½-mile long trail through Pueblo Bonito, visitors can follow the cliff face trail that connects Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl to view more petroglyphs.

Many of the buildings throughout the Chaco system were oriented to solar, lunar and cardinal directions. The likely reason for the alignments was to capture the solar and lunar cycles. Astronomical markers, communication features, catch basins, canals, check dams, and ditches surrounded clusters of buildings connected by over 400 miles of prehistoric roadways. These roads, some of which were as much as 30 feet wide, linked dozens of Chaco Canyon’s great houses to over 150 great houses in the region. 

The extensive road system ensured Chaco’s role as the center of a far-reaching trade network. Chacoans traded pottery, turquoise, seashells, copper bells, macaws, and parrots among themselves and with groups as far south as Mexico. Chaco pottery, a distinctive Cibola black-on-white pottery, was an important item of trade throughout the system. Likely, the pottery actually originated in an outlying community because only an estimated 20 percent of the pottery found at Chaco was made there. Chacoans used pottery for food preparation, serving, and storage; they also fashioned turquoise into beads, ornaments, and jewelry and traded it throughout the Southwest.

The ancient roadways carried goods and linked Chaco to outlying communities and resource areas beyond Chaco Canyon. While not a part of the main unit of Chaco Culture National Historical Park, the sites of Kin Klizhin, Pueblo Pintado, Kin Bineola, and Kin Ya’a are also part of the park. Visitors can view these sites and find impressive tower kivas, examples of Chacoan masonry, and evidence of the extensive reach and influence of the Chacoan culture and system. 

After prevailing for 300 years, new construction slowed at Chaco and its influence as a regional center began to decline c. 1100 or 1200. While Chaco’s role as a regional center shifted, it still influenced places such as Aztec, Mesa Verde, the Chuska Mountains, and other centers to the north, south and west. Eventually, the people shifted away from their Chacoan ways and migrated to new areas in the Southwest.

By interacting with other groups and then with foreign influences, the Chaco culture ultimately evolved into new cultures. Their descendents are the modern Native Americans of the Southwest including the Hopi, the Pueblo peoples of New Mexico, and the Navajo Nation. Chaco Canyon and its many great houses are a sacred and special place for many southwestern Indian peoples. Please remember to respect and honor these sacred ancestral homelands.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park, unit of the National Park System, is located in Nageezi, NM. The visitor center is open from 9:00 am until 5:00 pm everyday of the year except Thanksgiving Day, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. Sites and trails are open from sunrise to sunset. For more information, visit the National Park Service Chaco Culture National Historical Park website or call 505-786-7014.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park has been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey and is featured in the National Park Service American Southwest Travel Itinerary as well as a Museum Management Program online exhibit. Chaco Canyon is also a designated World Heritage Site.

Last updated: August 7, 2017