Chaco Culture National Historical Park houses the densest and most exceptional concentration of pueblos in the American Southwest. The park is in a remote canyon in northwestern New Mexico and is cut by the Chaco Wash. The park preserves one of the most important pre-Columbian cultural and historical areas in the United States.
Between AD 900 and 1150, Chaco Canyon is thought to have been a major center of ancient cultures. Chacoan peoples assembled fifteen major complexes that remained the largest buildings in North America until sometime in the 19th century. Many Chacoan buildings seem to have been aligned to capture the solar and lunar cycles, requiring many years of astronomical observations and skillfully coordinated construction. Climate change, beginning with a 50-year draught, is thought to have led to the eventual abandonment of the canyon.
Many of the 13 ruins at Chaco require a significant hike, but a few of the most impressive are just a couple of hundred yards off the road. The night sky watching is exceptional here and there is a small observatory and numerous telescopes, which are brought out for star parties from April through October. Pueblo Bonito the largest and most dramatic of the Chaco Canyon ruins, is a massive semicircular “great house” that once stood four stories in places and held some 600 rooms (and 40 kivas). The park trail runs around the structure and then up a hill that allows a great view over the entire canyon. The trail then leads right through the ruin and several rooms.
It is thought that the Chacoan culture that may once have comprised some 150 settlements. Other fabulous creations such as the Sun Dagger —an arrangement of stone slabs positioned to allow a spear of sunlight to pass through and bisect a pair of spiral petroglyphs precisely at each summer solstice – generate questions about the amazing sophistication of the people that created them.
Operating Hours – General Info
The park may be visited any time of year. Only about 85,000 visitors come to the park each year making it much less congested than some of the less remote parks. The busy season runs from May-October.
The park is located in a very remote part of northwestern New Mexico. Once off Route 550 the roads to the park are mostly dirt and usually pretty rough/slow going especially in winter and early spring. On the upside, the route is clearly signed from US 550 to the park boundary (21 miles). The route includes 8 miles of paved road (CR 7900 & CR7950) and 13 miles of rough dirt road (CR7950). The 4 1/2 miles before entering the park are very rough.
NOTE: Some of the local roads recommended by map publishers and GPS devices are unsafe for passenger cars. Please use our directions below to avoid getting lost or stuck.
Entrance to the park is free. The visitor center is open every day 8am-5pm except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. The campground remains open every day and the park itself is open from 7am to sunset each day.
Pets are allowed in designated areas and on trails. They are not allowed near the ruins. All animals must be leashed at all times.
Location Coordinates 36.06°N 107.97°W
Hiking, biking, exploring ancient ruins and night sky watching are the main attractions for this park. There are also Ranger led activities as well as companies that provide guided tour services. The NPS web site has detailed information on these types of activities.
Of course, the ancient ruins are the biggest attraction in this park. The Six major sites are located along the 9-mile long Canyon Loop Drive and are accessed primarily via self-guided tours. These sites include: Una Vida, Hungo Pavi, Pueblo Bonito, Chetro Ketl, Pueblo del Arroyo, and Casa Rinconada. The visitor center is a good place to star to get a maps and brochures to help you find your way around.
A great time to see the park is at night, the park observatory offers programs for night sky watching and telescope viewings April-October. There are also special viewings for each equinox and solstice. The incredible lack of light pollution in the area makes sky watching a superb experience in this area.
There are four hiking trails in the park. Two of the trails explore Chaco Canyon further upstream and downstream, other two visit backcountry ruins on the mesas to the north and south. Trail maps are available at the visitor center.
Penasco Blanco Trail – is a 3.6 mile one way trail that heads downstream in the canyon. You can see several other ruins, one at the end of the trail is fairly large, and many petroglyphs along the route. The trailhead is at the west end of the park by Pueblo del Arroyo.
Pueblo Alto Trail – a 5.1 mile loop that passes two lesser-known ruins; Kin Kletso and Pueblo Alto, as well as giving good overlook views of Chetro Ketl and Pueblo Bonito. The trailhead is at the west end of the park by Pueblo del Arroyo.
South Mesa Trail – a 4.4 mile loop take you to a crumbling backcountry ruin (Tsin Kletsin) and starts with climbing the cliffs on the south side of Chaco Wash. The trailhead is located at the west end of the park near Casa Rinconada.
Wijiji Trail – is 1.5 miles one way trail that is very easy to traverse. Wijiji after which the trail is named, is a multi-room settlement along Chaco Wash. The ruin dates from around 1100, later than many of the pueblos further west. The trailhead is located in the parking area near the park campground
Camping & Lodging
The park offers only one, reservations only, campground in Nageezi. This is one of the lesser visited parks so the campground availability is generally good. There are times especially on weekends and holidays when the campground fills up – so reserving in advance is probably a good idea. There is some primitive camping fairly nearby (see below) – less primitive and RV camping areas are a further reach (Farmington, Bloomfield), about an hour and a half drive.
Gallo Campground – Open all Year
Tucked among the fallen boulders and cliffs of Gallo Wash, this is a rugged camping experience but has the benefit of being surrounded by petroglyphs, a cliff dwelling, inscriptions, and a high desert landscape. Since there are limited amenities at this campground planning ahead to bring what you need is a must.
There are 49 camp sites available, with 13 being tent only sites. The other sites can accommodate an RV/Trailer up to 35 feet’ There are also 2 group sites. Each campsite costs $15.00 per night. Interagency Senior and Access pass holders pay $7.50 per site, per night. There is a limit of six people, two tents, and two vehicles at each campsite.
Each site has a picnic table and fire grate (with a grill). Bring your own firewood or charcoal. Gathering wood is prohibited and no firewood is available in the park. The campground has water (non-potable) and restrooms with flush toilets. The restrooms are closed from the day after Veterans Day through the end of February but Porta Pottys are available. There are no showers or hook-ups. Drinking water is available 24 hours a day in the Visitor Center parking area. There is no gasoline, auto repair, food, or ice available in the park. Leashed pets are permitted.
Ruby Ranch – Open All Year
Located 16 miles down a pretty rough dirt road (Hwy 57) is a working cattle ranch that invites individuals and groups to camp. This is a unique experience to both camp and see a working ranch in action. There is unlimited primitive camping and you need to be completely self-contained (bring their own food and water, pack out all trash and properly dispose of human waste).
Fees are $5 per person per night. The ranch can accommodate large groups – call ahead to make arrangements (505) 979-0614.
Angel Peak Scenic Area – Open all Year
Managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Angel Peak is located 39 miles north of Chaco, off US 550 on CR 7175 (mile marker 137). This is a primitive campground that has nine sites available for tent camping; each with picnic tables and fire grates. The sites are first come first serve free camp sites. RV’s can not be accommodated.
There are three picnic shelter areas at the campground, two accessible vault toilets and trash receptacles are conveniently located in the campground. No electrical hookups or water are available. A short nature trail leads to an overlook of the spectacular canyon.
Food & Gas
This park is extremely remote and does not have any food or services other than bottled water. Gas up and bring what you need with you – it is well worth the visit to see this park. There is a small gas station & convenience store just 1.5 miles away in Nageezi. Other than that the nearest food and gas is 1 ½ hours away in Bloomfiled or Farmingtion.
Best Time To Visit
Spring and Fall. The weather varies greatly at all times of year, but spring and fall bring the most moderate temperatures. Trails may be closed in winter due to snow fall and of course the ruins themselves as well. Temperatures can soar to 102 in summer but if you don’t mind the dry heat of the desert mornings and late afternoons are not too terribly hot.
During the summer daytime highs average in the 90s (F) while nighttime lows can reach below 50 (F). During the winter daytime highs can be in the 50s (F), while nighttime lows can reach get below zero. The park only has just over 100 frost free nights.
Drives & Scenic Overlooks
There is a great scenic loop through the park with many stops. Check-in at the visitor center and pick up a guide.
Have you been to Chaco Culture National Historic Park? Did I leave any must-dos or must-see sights off the list? Let me know in the comments below.
We Are The Parks
- Follow the Rules. A new story about bad behavior in our national parks comes out almost every day. With people regularly doing things like walking on geothermal features, getting far too close to wildlife, illegally using drones, and vandalizing priceless natural and cultural treasures, NPS resources are stretched. We can all help the NPS and protect valuable natural resources by following established rules.
- Practice Leave No Trace principles. With visitation to NPS sites at an all-time high, it is even more important for all of us to be good stewards of the places we visit. An easy way to reduce your personal impact in learning about and practicing Leave No Trace principles.
- Petition & Vote. In addition to supporting petitions and sending letters to your congresspeople. Consider the preservation, protection, and adequate funding of public lands when voting for local, state and federal officials consider. If these things are a priority for you as well, check in with your local and national conservation organizations to see how politicians in your community view the protection of public lands before you cast your votes.
- Get Involved. There are many ways to volunteer including artists-in-residence and citizen science programs.
- Support. Consider making a donation to the National Park Foundation. The NPF is the official charitable partner to the National Park System.
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