A visit to this National Historic Park offers a glimpse into the rich history and culture of northern New Mexico

Looking out over Chaco Canyon National Historic Park, there’s a sense of magic and discovery. Even though I visited the national park as an adult, I picture a younger version of myself exploring the place as I duck through doorways and gaze through windows. Historical places like Chaco Canyon pique our curiosity and inspire us to ask questions about the people that built the impressive structures that Chaco Canyon is known for. We wonder how they lived, what they believed and why they left. Such places cause us to say deep and inspired things like, ‘woah’ and ‘cool.’

Located in a remote area of New Mexico, Chaco Canyon has dark skies that are perfect for stargazing; in fact, an observatory was built in 1998. The night sky at Chaco Canyon is bound to take your breath away.

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Sunset over the Fajada Butte, site of the Sun Dagger.Brenda Bergreen

Chaco Canyon is fascinating from an architectural perspective. In fact, my first introduction to this place was from a college architecture class. One can see the changes in construction, material and design based on the year a section was built and the advances in technology over time. Beyond construction, the design itself shows complexity and seems to be inspired by the cosmos. In addition to the buildings, an area known as the Sun Dagger rests high on one of the buttes. A set of petroglyphs are struck with light shafts on the summer and winter solstice, and again on the spring and fall equinoxes.

The effect of the Sun Dagger can no longer be seen due to the rock slabs shifting, possibly due to erosion from too many visitors. It makes me question the delicate balance between my desire to see such spectacular sites and the impact that I have on them. Disappointment in not seeing the Sun Dagger is overcome by just knowing that it exists and is a part of this complex and mystifying place.

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The wide open road to Chaco Canyon.Marc Bergreen

The road to Chaco Canyon is a long and dusty one filled with bumps, and yet the park still draws 80,000 visitors per year. There is endless discovery for archaeologists, and also a deep spiritual connection of Indigenous peoples to this place. Therefore, disagreements and compromises around excavation and whether it’s disrespectful or educational have occurred. In the ‘80s, large-scale excavations ceased in place of remote sensing as a way to gather information without disturbing the buildings and disrespecting the beliefs of Native American tribes.

There also seem to be varying accounts of what Chaco Canyon was. Were the Great Houses like small towns? Were they houses for the elite? Or was it more of a religious site? It seems that it’s protected because of archaeological significance, but a side benefit is the protection of the biodiversity of the area that might account for its long track record of inhabitation. However, if there’s one thing that I imagine supporters of Chaco Canyon would agree on, it would be the importance of preserving what’s left of this historical, archaeological and spiritual site.

chaco canyon pueblo bonito historical site
Looking into the past through doorways in the Pueblo Bonito restored archeological site.Brenda Bergreen

Despite the obvious intention and foresight put into the design of both the buildings and the culture, the site was eventually depopulated around 1200 AD. It’s suspected that people left for a variety of reasons: possibly social, environmental or both. Tree-ring dating points to a series of droughts.

While we were there, we encountered a few school buses taking kids on tours through the buildings. It became a game to pick which site to visit based on where the larger groups were. If we saw a school bus parked in a lot, we would continue on and come back later knowing that we might get the next spot all to ourselves. There was something special about the solitude and silence of standing alone amongst so much history.

chaco canyon petroglyphs kin kletso
Petroglyphs near Kin Kletso, an Ancestral Puebloan Great House.Marc Bergreen

Leaving the Great Houses behind, you can hike over rocks and through canyons alongside what was an ancient road to further sites. It’s like walking back in time as you get a sense for the scale and grandeur of the prior civilization. I respect the need to honor the beliefs of the Indigenous peoples, and I am also grateful to have the opportunity to visit such places and walk in someone’s footsteps. It’s a different feeling than seeing something from behind a roped barrier. 

New Mexico and the Southwest have a lot to explore especially if you’re interested in Native American architecture and the history and culture of the Ancestral Pueblo people. And for everything we are able to see and visit, it’s clear there is more hidden below the surface pulsing with mystery and wonder. Go back in time, have the curiosity of your younger self, learn about history and look up at the dark sky in awe and reverence.

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The author hiking to Pueblo Alto.Marc Bergreen

BRENDA BERGREEN is a storyteller and photographer living in Evergreen, Colorado, with her family. When she’s not writing or taking photos, you might find her exploring amazing places like Chaco Canyon.