Chaco Canyon (2023 National Historical Park Visitor Guide)
👉 Jump to: About Chaco Canyon | How to Visit | Things to Do | Where to Stay | Tips | FAQs
Chaco Culture National Historical Park, which contains Chaco Canyon, is one of the most impressive national historical parks in the United States. Not only does it inhabit 34,000 acres of protected wilderness, but it also houses 4,000 archaeological sites and is an International Dark Sky Park.
I’ve explored most national parks in the U.S. and Chaco Canyon comes out on top as my absolute favorite. Because the park is so far north in New Mexico and has no cell service, I’m here to help you plan your trip to a T.
Before we get started, bookmark our guide to all the national parks in New Mexico.
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About Chaco Culture National Historical Park
History of Chaco Canyon
Chaco Culture National Historical Park was established in 1907 as a way to protect the grand archaeological features of the park, such as the great houses. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 to recognize the incredible architectural and engineering achievements of the Chacoan people.
The architecture was constructed from the 9th to the 12th century and the site was once the center of social, political, and architectural sophistication, all present in the superb structures.
Chaco Canyon may be off the “beaten path,” but it is well worth the journey. It’s far less visited than other New Mexico national parks and therefore retains some of its natural, prehistoric mystique, making it a top place to travel.
Terrain in Chaco Canyon
The archaeological features of Chaco are quite impressive, but so is the scenic valley in which the site is located. It sits in a high desert canyon with little annual rainfall, little to no shade, and high summer temperatures in the 100-degrees with the occasional surprise monsoon.
The geology of Chaco Canyon in the San Juan Basin was formed 75 to 80 million years ago, with many marine fossils, like shrimp burrows, found atop its buttes and mesas.
Chaco Canyon embodies three different vegetation zones: pinyon-juniper woodland, semi-desert grassland, and the riparian zone. These areas are home to different fauna like gray wolves, coyotes, mountain lions, bobcats, and rocky mountain elk.
Why Visit Chaco Canyon
A Machu Picchu of the Southwestern U.S., Chaco Canyon was an epicenter for trade among several different Ancestral Puebloan groups like the modern-day Hopi and Navajo.
Huge ceremonial complexes, decorative pottery, great houses, and central plazas a thousand years old can all be viewed at this site. Rare Southwestern constructions called kivas can also be viewed here.
Pueblo Bonito is the most visited site at Chaco Canyon; the biggest complex at the site. Over 50,000 pieces of turquoise were found in a single room in Pueblo Bonito, which is more than was found in all other archaeological sites in the American Southwest combined.
Besides the incredible archaeological remains of the Chaco site, the towering mesas and red sandstone walls surrounding the site are other top reasons to visit this national monument.
How to Visit Chaco Canyon
How to Get to Chaco Culture National Historical Park
The biggest concern with traveling to Chaco Canyon National Monument is the road leading into the site. You must drive 13 miles on a dirt road that can take cautious travelers up to 2 hours to complete.
I visited Chaco Canyon in a 22-foot motorhome and the dirt road took me 1.5 hours. While it’s wise to take it slow to avoid a flat tire, you should have no problem in a high-clearance vehicle.
The most popular route into the park is from Santa Fe, a 3-hour adventure. Take the US-550 North to Indian Service Route 7900, followed by County Road 7950, wherein the dirt road begins.
Try to avoid visiting the park during bouts of wet weather unless you have 4WD because the road may be impassible at this time.
🚗 Need a Rental? You can rent a 4WD vehicle in New Mexico with Discover Cars.
Entrance Costs, Hours & Details
🎟️ Entrance – $25 per vehicle, good for 7 days. Purchase tickets at the visitor center upon entry. The entrance is free with an America the Beautiful national parks pass.
🕖 Operating Hours – The visitor center is open from 9 am-5 pm daily. The Loop Road (the main road into the park) is open from 7 am-9 pm daily, and 7 am-5 pm during the winter.
🚙 Parking – There is parking at the park visitor center for any size rig, RVs and buses included. Additionally, there is parking at each archaeological site trailhead.
🖥️ Website – Chaco Culture National Historical Park
📝 Reservations – No reservation is needed for day-use park entrances. Same-day campsite reservations can be made at the visitor center although it is recommended to reserve ahead of time, especially in the summer, to secure a spot. This can be done via Recreation.gov.
Things to Do in Chaco Canyon
There is so much to do in Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Hike to the top of a mesa overlooking major archaeological sites, take a scenic loop drive through prime desert landscape, camp next to ancient petroglyphs, and scout the open terrain for native wildlife.
🏜️ Pueblo Alto Trail – I cannot imagine visiting Chaco without hiking the Pueblo Alto trail. This is the best trail in the park in my opinion and takes hikers to an aerial viewpoint of both the Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl ruins.
This magical, 5.1-mile trail also winds past the hilltop Pueblo Alto ruins site, one of the lesser-visited but incredibly scenic sites with shattered pottery dispersed throughout the whole area. In addition, the trail winds past the Jackson Stairway feature and follows some of the original alignment of the 400 miles of Chaco roads.
👉 Pro Tip: You can opt for a shorter hike to only the Pueblo Bonito Overlook, a 2-mile round trip endeavor.
🌙 Peñasco Blanco Trail – This is the longest backcountry hike in the park but can be divided into shorter sections. Starting at the same trailhead as the Pueblo Alto Trail, the Pueblo del Arroyo parking lot, this trail is 7.2 miles roundtrip past petroglyphs, through the wash, and finally to the Peñasco Blanco ruins.
If you don’t have time for such a long hike, you can opt to hike only the 4-mile Petroglyph Trail from the same trailhead. Be sure to bring your binoculars because some ancient rock art is more than 30 feet high.
🥾 South Mesa Trail – Starting from the Casa Rinconada Trailhead, the South Mesa Trail is a 3.6-mile loop that takes hikers to a high point on the South Mesa with spectacular views.
Pueblo Bonito, Chetro Ketl, Pueblo del Arroyo, and the San Juan Basin are all visible while ascending on the South Mesa Trail. This is the perfect hike for individuals who prefer short hikes.
🏚️ Wijiji Trail – The last of the backcountry hiking trails, the Wijiji Trail is only 3 miles roundtrip and takes hikers past remains of Navajo communities and wagon roads from the mid-1700s.
The Wijiji ruins contain 225 uniformly sized rooms, the most precise symmetry of all great houses in the national park.
This trail is accessed 1.25 miles east of the visitor center or you can catch an extended trailhead from the Gallo Campground.
🖌️ Una Vida – This trail isn’t considered a backcountry trail, so no pets are allowed on this one. This 1-mile hike is the perfect trek for the whole family, although it does have a slight incline.
The Una Vida trail begins at the visitor center and is the best way to view petroglyphs in the national park. There are also small ruins at this site but the rock panel of ancient art is the biggest draw to the Una Vida hike.
The only way to access the top sites at Chaco is via the scenic Loop Road. There are 5 stops along this one-way road and parking lots with restrooms at each trailhead.
There are two scenic stops on the way back to the visitor center: Casa Rinconada and a historic Staircase stop. Take your time while cruising around the park and be sure to look under the wash bridge to find a flowing stream, depending on the season.
- Hungo Pavi – The first stop on your self-guided Loop Road tour is Hungo Pavi. Be sure not to miss the small dirt parking lot as you drive along. Viewing the site is only a ¼ mile round trip excursion and is the perfect introduction to Chaco ruins.
This site has over 150 rooms, a great kiva, and an enclosed plaza. I recommend taking the right fork on the trail to climb to a viewpoint and see the typical D-shape architecture of the period.
- Chetro Ketl – Your next stop on the scenic loop is the Chetro Ketl ruins. Take a ½ mile trail to a fragile site that was constructed in AD 1010. This giant establishment once held 450 rooms and stood as tall as four stories tall.
The famous Pueblo Bonito can be accessed from a trail hugging the sandstone rocks on the side opposite the trailhead. Walk between these two sites slowly, as there are petroglyphs along the sandstone walls.
- Pueblo Bonito – No trip to Chaco Canyon is complete without seeing the great houses of Pueblo Bonito. The “mother site” of the national park, this iconic establishment contained almost 800 rooms, 32 kivas, and 4 great kivas.
Thousands upon thousands of artifacts were recovered from Pueblo Bonito like pottery, shells, and precious gems. This site also has a large, castle-like complex that you can walk through.
- Pueblo del Arroyo – This short yet steep archaeological site is the fourth largest of the Chaco great houses and displays the ancient organizational and engineering abilities of the past inhabitants.
There are 300 rooms at this site with 20 kivas and is connected by roads to other great houses. This site is unique because you can view original plaster on some Chacoans quarried sandstone blocks.
- Casa Rinconada – The last stop on the Loop Road, besides a quick roadside attraction of Chacoan stairs, is Casa Rinconada. This site differs from the other great houses because it has only a kiva, not an associated great house.
There is only one official campsite in Chaco Canyon National Monument, Gallo Campsite. This is one of the coolest national park campsites I’ve stayed in, and one of the best campsites New Mexico. What’s so cool? Well, it had ruins and petroglyphs within walking distance of the campsites.
Campfires are allowed in this campground, a major plus on cold winter nights. There are dumpsters, a group fire ring, two group campgrounds, space for RVs under 35 feet, a free dump station, and potable water.
It costs $20 per night or $10 with a national park pass and is open year-round. You can reserve a campsite on Recreation.gov or do a walk-up reservation at the visitor center. Be sure to bring all the camping essentials because there are no stores inside the park.
👉 Pro Tip: All of the water spigots are turned off during the winter because they freeze. Ask an official national park service ranger about the residential-only spigot and they will be happy to help you fill up your rig!
Chaco Canyon is located in northwestern New Mexico with no major cities around. This national park is an official International Dark Sky Park with 99% of the park a natural darkness zone.
In other words, Chaco Culture National Historical Park has killer views of night-time astronomy. The park also hosts night sky programs for communal stargazing with the rangers at the Chaco Observatory.
Chaco Canyon New Mexico is a prime wilderness area for wildlife to thrive. Some of the fauna in the park include elk, mule deer, coyotes, mountain lions, American badgers, gray wolves, and bats among others.
Wildlife can best be spotted on the backcountry hiking trails and sometimes even wandering around the great houses. These trails usually have high vantage points where you can see the whole valley below. With a good pair of binoculars, you may just luck out.
- Aztec Ruins National Monument – Only 70 miles north of the great Chaco Canyon sites, this national monument is closely related to Chaco with ancient roads connecting the two sites.
Aztec Ruins National Monument is far smaller than Chaco but has a reconstructed kiva, one of the coolest parts about the site.
- Mesa Verde – An easy 141 miles northwest of Chaco, Mesa Verde is another sister park. Famously known for the cliffside ancestral dwellings, Mesa Verde is one of the coolest things to do in Colorado.
- . Four Corners Region – Located in the Navajo territory of Teec Nos Pos, the Four Corners Region is only 136 miles northwest of the great houses of Chaco Culture Park.
For a small $8 fee, you too can stand in 4 U.S. states at once: New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and Utah. This is a unique excursion that should be done at least once while in the area.
Where to Stay in Chaco Canyon
I recommend spending at least one night at Gallo Campground so you can experience all the glory of the surrounding Chaco area. Some of the best options for staying outside of town include:
- Bloomfield: 61 miles from the park, here are the best places to stay in Bloomington.
- Aztec: 69 miles from the park, here are the best places to stay in Aztec.
- Farmington: 74 miles from the park, here are the best places to stay in Farmington.
- Albuquerque: 151 miles from the park, here are the best places to stay in Albuquerque.
- Santa Fe: 178 miles from the park, here are the best places to stay in Santa Fe.
Here’s some more helpful information on where to stay in Albuquerque.
Tips for Visiting Chaco Canyon
Purchase a Guidebook
There are few informational plaques at the Chacoan sites so you will want to purchase a guidebook for helpful information about the history, archaeological sites, and hikes for the best Chacoan Culture experience.
Always Bring Enough Water
Chaco Culture National Historic Park regularly experiences temperatures above 90 degrees in the summer. Even when I visited in the winter, temperatures were hot under the direct sun. Always carry enough water to prevent dehydration while exploring this desert park.
Visit During the Off-Season
Winter deters many national park visitors and is the prime time to visit Chaco Culture Historic Park to avoid crowds. Night temperatures will be freezing at this time but the hiking trails will be empty, a good trade-off in my opinion.
Be Prepared to Hike
Almost every site requires at least a small hike to get to. Be sure to wear your most comfortable hiking shoes when visiting this national park.
Keep Your Distance From Wildlife
Wildlife is just that, wild. The national park service recommends always viewing wildlife from afar, safe distance in Chaco Culture Historical National Park.
FAQs About Chaco Canyon National Park
What happened at Chaco Canyon?
Chaco was the center for trade enterprises from 850-1250 CE but has since been abandoned due to drought and other unknown reasons.
Why is Chaco Canyon sacred?
Pueblo indigenous peoples have inhabited Chaco Canyon for thousands of years. It was once a huge ceremonial center that connected different people from different locations.
How many days do you need in Chaco Canyon?
2-3 days is recommended when visiting Chaco Canyon. This gives you enough time to see all the ruins via the Loop Road and hike different trails around the park.
Can you drive through Chaco Canyon?
You can drive through Chaco Canyon via the Loop Road, the only road in the park.
Now you’re ready to hit the road and explore one of the greatest national parks in New Mexico, Chaco Canyon! While you’re in the area, check out the top things to do in Santa Fe for a cool overall New Mexico experience.
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Impressive travel info for Chaco Canyon, McKenna. I had my fire for Chaco Canyon reignited today at a program then fanned into a flame of “I can do it,” by your info. Thank you.