Chaco Culture National Historical Park
Chaco Culture National Historical Park is a major unit of the United States national park system located just outside Navajo Nation in New Mexico. It preserves extensive ruins of prehistoric American Indian communities. Chaco is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Flora and fauna
Chaco, like most of northwestern New Mexico, has a high desert climate with four distinct seasons. Spring is dry and windy, with high temperatures rising rapidly from an average of 60 degrees Fahrenheit or so in March to over 80 F in June. Summer is hot, with highs frequently above 90 F, and with much of the average year's precipitation falling in isolated, brief but violent thunderstorms. However, it's the legendary "dry heat" that doesn't feel nearly as hot as in regions with higher humidity. Cooling starts in August and leads to a dry, temperate fall season that is usually a good time to visit Chaco. Winter is also pleasant with highs around 50 F and clear skies, although there are usually three or four frontal storms each winter that bring snow, usually in small quantities but with the occasional major snowstorm. The remoteness of the park is such that it's a good idea to check a weather forecast before visiting in the winter; Farmington, about 60 miles away, usually experiences similar weather, and its current conditions and forecast are updated regularly. If there's significant snow (say 6" or more) in the forecast, it's wise to defer your trip unless you're particularly well prepared for snowy roads.
Drive. The nearest city with air service is Farmington (New Mexico), about 60 miles north, which is served by a commuter airline (Mesa) that is a partner with United Airlines. The nearest major airport is in Albuquerque about 150 miles southeast. There is no rail or bus service in this remote region.
Older maps of the Chaco area may lead drivers astray owing to a road closure. This quote from the NPS web site (link below) gives current driving directions: "Hwy 57 from Blanco Trading Post (on US 550) is permanently closed at the park's north boundary. Do not take Hwy 57. From US 550, go to mile 112.5 (3 miles SE mile of Nageezi) and turn onto CR 7900 and CR 7950. Follow signs to the park. Hwy 57 south is open from the park boundary to Hwy 9. There is 20 miles of rough dirt road. Not recommended for RVs."
Entrance fees for the park are $4 for individuals, $8 for cars, and are good for seven days. The National Park Service's "Park Pass" ($50/year) secures unlimited repeat entries for this and other National Park Service units. Campsites (see below under "Sleep") are $10/night, with a $5 discount for holders of a Park Pass.
Permits are required for backcountry hiking. They're free and available at the visitor center.
The main sites are reached via a short loop road that is suitable for bicycles as well as cars; in fact, it's quite a comfortable ride that gives a more intimate sense of the canyon than you'll get from a car. If you are biking, make sure your tires resist punctures, as all manner of plants with thorns and spines grow in the park.
The short trails to the sites along the loop road can be visited in street shoes, but hiking boots are a good idea if you're planning on visiting any of the more remote areas described under "Do." Some but not all of the sites are wheelchair-accessible, as is one of the campsites at the park campground.
While there is a visitor center with exhibits (open 9-5 except major holidays), the park's trademark attraction is the collection of major ruins along the loop road in the canyon bottom. Some can be seen from the car, but more rewarding is to follow the short, easy trails at each that lead to and through the ruins. Pamphlets explain the important features of the sites. The ruins trails are open from sunrise to sunset; visiting with the sun near the horizon yields particularly appealing opportunities for photography.
There are four trails leading to remote ruins, all available for day use and closed after sundown. Probably the most interesting is the trail to Peñasco Blanco ruin, which has become famous for a well-preserved pictograph thought by some to represent the great supernova of 1054. This pictograph is under a rock alcove below the main Peñasco Blanco structures. Please treat it respectfully; this is a rare find in the world of anthropology.
All trails require free permits available at the visitor center. Hiking boots are a good idea, and carry plenty of water.
The exceptionally dark night skies of Chaco provide good opportunities for amateur astronomers who bring their own telescopes, but even better, in 1998 the park opened its own observatory with a large (25") telescope and modern equipment. During the summer there are interpretive programs by park staff, supplemented by members of The Albuquerque Astronomical Society who bring equipment, give lectures, etc. Information on the program may be available at the Society's web page, http://www.taas.org , but the Chaco information does not appear to have updated since 2004.
The visitor center includes a small gift shop and book store. For more elaborate memorabilia, stop in one of the towns you passed through on the way in, or if you're fortunate enough to be there at the time of a Navajo rug auction in nearby Crownpoint, give it a try (see under "Get out").
You'll have to bring your own food, as there is no food service at Chaco. Farmington/Bloomfield/Aztec, Gallup, and Grants, at least one of which you'll have to pass through en route to the park, have the usual restaurants and grocery stores. Crownpoint, the town nearest the park, has very basic food service.
There's no night life at the park; that's why it's there. The nearest town with any night life is Farmington. Note that alcoholic beverages in any form are prohibited within Navajo Nation, which occupies the area immediately west of the park.
The park includes a single, rudimentary campground. Fee $10/site/night ($5 with NPS Park Pass). There is no potable water, but bottled water may be purchased at the nearby visitor center. Vehicles (RVs, trailers) must be no longer than 30 feet.
No backcountry camping/backpacking is permitted within the park.
There are no significant safety issues with the park itself (usual warnings about wildlife, sunscreen, etc.), but its remoteness means that you may want to pay a little extra attention to road safety while getting there and back. Northern New Mexico is notorious for problems with drunk drivers. Areas near Navajo Nation, as Chaco is, are particularly worrisome around payday (Thursday or Friday), as the prohibition of alcohol on the reservation drives alcoholic residents, of whom there are too many, to drive into Farmington or Gallup to indulge. Terrible accidents have happened involving Navajo Nation citizens on the way home after an evening of drinking; be extra cautious at such times.
Be alert also for livestock on the roads, particularly sheep. It's wise to fill your gas tank in Farmington or Gallup (or Grants or Thoreau) before heading for the park, as services are sparse indeed once you get off the main roads.
http://www.nps.gov/chcu/index.htm Park home page