One advantage of living in the West is the proximity to ancient Puebloan (re Anasazi) ruins. Like Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon is a world class site. If you make any sort of trip to Southern Colorado, try and do both. While Mesa Verde is primarily cliff dwellings, Chaco Canyon is a series of small urban centers out on the plains. These centers consist of multi-story buildings, complete with balconies as well as the familiar kivas. There are so many ruins in Chaco Canyon that you have to pick and choose spots.
Man began to occupy the canyon around 800 AD but by 1050 it was the cultural center for the entire San Juan Basin. Roads fanned out from Chaco to over 150 other sites throughout the southwest.
There is a long dirt road to reach the Chaco National Cultural Center. It is passable with a standard car but bumpy. I would not want to try it in the rainy season. Be prepared to pay the Federal fee or present your annual pass. I went in July and while hot it was not excruciatingly so. A broad hat, sandals, and breathable clothing do help. There is a large water spigot outside of the visitor’s center to dunk you head under or to fill up your water bottles with.
If you really want to learn about Chaco, begin at the visitor’s center and try and sign up for a Ranger led tour. We chose to wander about ourselves and while beautiful, we undoubtedly missed a lot of historical information. It is easy to loose yourself wandering along a 1000-foot wall covered in petroglyps or staring into the remains of a 1000 room “condo complex” built when Europeans were still picking lice from their hair.
There are five major sites, all of which have self guided trails and handy paper guides. We were in transit to Santa Fe and so only did three of the sites including the petroglyph trail. While short, they can easily take up to an hour each.
Next time you are road tripping to Arizona or Santa Fe, take the detour and enjoy some of the cultural heritage of the region by stopping at Chaco Canyon. The stark landscape and agelessness of the wind and sun will bring you back to earth.