While down in New Mexico, I visited Chaco Ruins with my family. It had been twenty years at least since I had last visited so it was almost a whole new experience for me. There are so many fascinating things about these ruins, and even though there were about 20 people sharing the ruins with us when we walked through, it was still quiet and pensive enough to hear the echoes of that ancient past bouncing off the mesa walls.
Chaco Canyon rests in the San Juan Basin, atop the vast Colorado Plateau, surrounded by the Chuska Mountains in the west, the San Juan Mountains to the north, and the San Pedro Mountains in the east. The terrain is arrid and flat, covered with sage, cacti and a few sparse pinon trees and brush located farther up on the bluffs. The ancient Chacoans had to go about 40 miles to find timber for construction purposes. The ruins themselves are made primarily of sandstone and mud mortar. The masonry skill used to build was impressive.
The positioning and vast space between the southwestern cliffs and canyons apparently help propel rain-bearing storms into the canyon to allow for optimal precipitation levels within the canyon itself. The giant Chaco Wash snakes through the canyon floor, a wide arroyo that catches water during rainstorms. We saw little evidence of water in it while we were there, although the thickers trees and brush in the arroyo indicated enough precipitation to keep them green.
A history of the people per Wikipedia:
Those who resided in the Basin were hunter-gatherers: the Archaic. These small bands descended from nomadic Clovis big-game hunters who arrived in the Southwest around 10,000 BC. By 900 BC, Archaic people lived at Atlatl Cave and like sites. They left little evidence of their presence in Chaco Canyon. By AD 490, their descendants, called the Basketmakers by archaeologists, farmed lands around Shabik’eshchee Village and other pithouse settlements at Chaco.
A small population of Basketmakers remained in the Chaco Canyon area. The broad arc of their cultural elaboration culminated around 800, when they were building crescent-shaped stone complexes, each comprising four to five residential suites abutting subterranean kivas,large enclosed areas reserved for rites. Such structures characterize the Early Pueblo People. By 850, the Ancient Pueblo population—the “Anasazi”, from a Ute term adopted by the Navajo denoting the “ancient ones” or “enemy ancestors”—had rapidly expanded: groups resided in larger, denser pueblos. Strong evidence attests to a canyon-wide turquoise processing and trading industry dating from the 10th century. Around then, the first section of Pueblo Bonito was built: a curved row of 50 rooms near its present north wall.
The Chacoans built their complexes along a nine-mile stretch of canyon floor, with the walls of some structures aligned cardinally and others aligned with the 18.6 year cycle of minimum and maximum moonrise and moonset. Nine Great Houses are positioned along the north side of Chaco Wash, at the base of massive sandstone mesas. Other Great Houses are found on mesa tops or in nearby washes and drainage areas. There are 14 recognized Great Houses, which are grouped below according to geographic positioning with respect to the canyon.
There are also petroglyphs, some reinforcing the Chacoan’s knowledge of astronomy.
Some scholars suggest that violence and warfare, perhaps involving cannibalism, impelled the evacuations. Hints of such include dismembered bodies—dating from Chacoan times—found at two sites within the central canyon. Yet Chacoan complexes showed little evidence of being defended or defensively sited high on cliff faces or atop mesas, and only several minor sites at Chaco evidence the large-scale burning that would suggest enemy raids. Archaeological and cultural evidence leads scientists to believe people from this region migrated south, east, and west into the valleys and drainages of the Little Colorado River, the Rio Puerco, and the Rio Grande.
There is a road that connects all of the sites so you can visit them all if you’d like. Be prepared to bump your way into the park. Much of the road is dirt and washboardy. There are no services out there either. Bring water and sustenance.