The other Mesa Verde: Chaco center of trade

Ruins at Chaco were constructed between 800 and 1100 AD. Enlargephoto

Cortez Journal/ Jim Mimiaga

Ruins at Chaco were constructed between 800 and 1100 AD.

Chaco Canyon, N.M. - For a unique and less crowded archeological excursion, visit the "Capital of the Ancient Southwest" known as Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico.Mesa Verde National Park has the amazing cliff dwellings, and that is all good, except its crowded popularity - 500,000 per year - forces managers to limit access into the structures. But at Chaco, with just 30,000 to 50,000 visitors per year, people are allowed to more freely explore inside ancient buildings and along the edge of huge kivas dating from between 800 and 1100 AD. And you don't need a tour guide, although those are available for free.

Pass through a succession of small doorways at the famous Pueblo Bonito ruin, ending in a pitch black, tiny room. Huh? Don't worry, "experts" can't figure it out either. It was for food storage, or religious ceremonies, or something really cool nobody has thought of yet, not even Robert Redford who hosted a rather spectacular PBS documentary detailing the celestial alignments of Chaco's great houses.

"If it is unknown then it must have ceremonial purpose," quipped CU professor Steve Lekson, during a recent talk about Chaco in Dolores.

The kivas here are exceptionally large and numerous, many with their original walls, and some still coated with painted stucco. Ceiling beams date to 1000 AD, and were carried from up to 100 miles away by foot, perhaps using relays, from the forests of Mount Taylor and the Chuska Mountains.

The buildings show progressively refined architecture, and were built with bricks made from a blond sandstone quarried from the top of area mesas. In some rooms, stone masonry imbedded with fossils 70 million years old are prominently placed.

Chaco is thought to be the center of a vast trading network that may have reached as far as the Toltec Culture in Mexico. More than 400 miles of roads are known, with the longest connecting to the Salmon Ruins in Aztec, N.M.

"Trade included live macaws and chocolate from Mexico," said volunteer ranger Kayla Lanoue. "Turkey feathers blankets were exchanged along with turquoise and copper bells."

Chaco has a direct connection to Mesa Verde. Richard Wetherill, the first nonnative to explore and document Mesa Verde, also lived and excavated at Chaco. He was murdered there in 1910 and is buried at their cemetery.

"It was a misunderstanding about the treatment of a horse," Lanoue said.

Chaco is tough to get to and is delightfully bare bones. Off Highway 550, a partially paved road turns into to 13 miles of rough, often rutted dirt road that is heavily washboarded and sandy. If not muddy, most cars can handle it, but the tough approach wards off most RVers.

There are no hotels at Chaco, no food or restaurants, gas, or supply stores. There is a newly built visitors center with drinking water, detailed maps, informative rangers, and a gift shop. A museum is planned.

"When they built the new visitors center, they ran out of money for the museum," Lanoue says. "There is a space for it at least, it's just empty."

Many of the artifacts from Chaco are housed in the Maxwell Museum in Albuquerque. But much of it was lost early on.

During early archeological digs, the excavation process was to dump wheelbarrows of less interesting material into the washes, explained another ranger.

"A lot of Chaco's history was washed away and is now at the bottom of Lake Powell," she laments. "The poor techniques were the standards of they day, and led to the creation of our nation's first law protecting antiquities."

Chaco is welcoming for campers. The Gallo campground has heated bathrooms with flush toilets. The 50 spots are first come first serve, another plus.

The minimal services are intentional, giving visitors a more authentic experience. And the lack of development combined with a rural location creates one of the darkest night skies in the country.

One of the best things about Chaco is the hiking. Two rugged five-mile loop hikes traverse across slickrock plains and through slot canyons reminiscent of southeast Utah's canyonlands. Explore Pueblo Alto ruin along the way, and imagine the prehistoric roads that led to it.

Hikers are rewarded with a close-up of the Chacoan Stairway, a succession of long steps chopped into a sheer cliff.

Chaco is famous for the Fajada Butte Sun Dagger site, a clever arrangement of spiral pictographs and natural shadows that precisely record solstices.

"But it is not working anymore," ranger Lanoue says. "The rock making the shadow shifted. We think the Chacoans may have repositioned the rock when it moved, but we left it."

Chaco is also bike friendly and a great way to experience the park. Tour the eight-mile, one-way paved loop, stopping to explore ruins along the way. Biking is also allowed to the Wijiji ruin, and there is ample mountain bike touring on surrounding roads.

Visitors to Chaco are privileged to walk freely in and out of most buildings. The remote park sees far less people than Mesa Verde National Park. Enlargephoto

Jim Mimiaga/Cortez Journal

Visitors to Chaco are privileged to walk freely in and out of most buildings. The remote park sees far less people than Mesa Verde National Park.

Enlargephoto

Jim Mimiaga/Cortez Journal Volunteer ranger Kayla Lanoue explaines lifestyles of the ancient cult

Cortez Journal/Jim Mimiaga

A hiker negotiates a slot canyon at Chaco. Enlargephoto

Cortez Journal/Jim Mimiaga A hiker negotiates a slot canyon at Chaco.