Nature

Camping at Chaco Canyon

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Chaco Canyon stands alone as the most impressive pre-Columbian site in North America. This vast ruin was constructed by the mysterious Anasazi culture that flourished around 900-1150 AD.  Why these huge stone structures are in an area of the Colorado Plateau within 20 miles of the continental divide at over 6000 feet with less than ten inches of precipitation a year is a further mystery. Despite over a century of archeological investigation, there’s much that is still unknown about this setting and the people who lived there.

stonework
One of the later stonework patterns. You can still see thousand year old finger impressions in the mud mortar.

Back in the 1990s when we were dashing around the country we visited Chaco for the day, not nearly long enough to get more than a glimpse of the ruins. I determined to return after retirement and spend enough time to really get to know the place. Day trips are all you can do without camping equipment- the nearest hotels are dozens of miles away. With an RV, you can camp right in the canyon, which gives you a completely different experience than the day trippers get.

scale
The scale is impossible to appreciate until you visit.

There are two main reasons why Chaco Canyon National Historical Park only gets half a million visitors a year compared to 3 or 4 million for Yellowstone and Yosemite. One is its remote location in northwestern New Mexico, and the other is the entrance road: 17 miles of washboard. This drive is not for the faint of heart. Some choose to rattle along at 40 mph or so and get it over with as fast as possible; I prefer the deliberate approach, slowing down until the loose objects in my vehicle stop moving around so much.  It’s an ordeal, either way, but the park rangers I talked to love it – it keeps the riffraff out.

fajada
Fajada Butte, with a small structure I found on a walk along the canyon rim.

This is a sacred site to the Hopi and Pueblo people, the direct descendants of the Anasazi, and they’re probably happy about the lack of easy access as well. Things have changed recently, and archeological work has shifted from invasive excavation to remote sensing and the study of Hopi and Pueblo oral traditions. Most of the structures in Chaco Canyon remain unexcavated.

campsite
Our campsite at Gallo Campground.

Remember, you are miles from nowhere, so come prepared. There’s nothing to buy once you get to the park except books at the visitor’s center – no ice, no milk, no groceries of any kind. I don’t even remember seeing a vending machine. The campground is called Gallo Campground and is about a mile from the visitor’s center, and a bit farther than that from the main ruins. Don’t despair, though – there’s a tiny one-room ruin right in the campground.  Rates are in keeping with the level of amenities – $10 a night, $5 for Senior Pass holders. Water is available at the visitor’s center and there’s a dump nearby, so bring groceries and you can stay a week or two. There’s a 35 foot limit, so there are no Class As. It’s all tents, popups, class Bs and truck campers. Generator use is limited to an hour at a time, so solar capability is a definite plus.

smallruin
Closeup of small ruin at the campground.

Chaco Canyon is about as isolated as you can get in the lower 48 as far as amenities go – there’s no cellphone coverage, no over-the-air TV, nothing out there.   The campground host was most appreciative of me letting her use my satellite internet. We were there in April and had reasonable temperatures – it goes over 100 degrees in the summer and far below zero in the winter, as you would expect this high and far from the ocean, so try to hit the spring and fall windows of decent weather if you go.

kiva
One of the larger kivas in Pueblo Bonito.

The beauty of camping at Chaco is you have all the time in the world to explore the ruins, which are huge and sparsely populated during the week.  There are half a dozen “great houses”, including the largest, Pueblo Bonito, which has over 650 rooms.  In addition to the great houses, the landscape is littered with smaller structures – I found some just walking along the canyon rim. It’s hard to comprehend the worldview of the inhabitants, who showed a sophisticated knowledge of astronomy, including the solstices and the 16.8 year lunar excursion cycle. Building walls are aligned with the directions of significant astronomical phenomena. The Anasazi concept of “road” was completely different from ours and had ceremonial significance over and above the utilitarian value. They laid out roads which were perfectly aligned for dozens and even hundreds of miles, going straight up and down cliff faces.

petroglyph
Petroglyph of bighorn sheep. This was on the cliff face behind our campsite. They’re all over the place here.

Camping at Chaco allows you to see the valley at night, which is a completely different experience as the moonlight shines on the ruins, and the spirits of past inhabitants seem near.  The elaborate culture necessary to support this highly organized and productive society in this marginal setting may never be completely known to us, but you can get a feeling for it as you look out over the valley and listen to the night wind.

23 thoughts on “Camping at Chaco Canyon”

    1. yes, pets are allowed, and must be on a leash at all times. Fiona the Fearless Kitty enjoyed rolling in the dirt during our visit, and even managed to (briefly) hold on to some poor rodent who blundered into her path. be advised, though – this is wild country. i was sitting in our rig at dusk with the lights out, and a coyote walked right by our side door. if i hadn’t been watching, i’d have never known he was there. do not leave any pet unattended at any time, or they’ll join the local food chain in a hurry.

      1. Hey I appreciate your response… I realized I could have looked at the Chaco canyon website… But getting your experience of having a pet there while traveling was much better. We travel with our dog in our sprinter camper conversion, and find we can always find places to throw a ball for her…. But I like to know how hospitable a place is for our furry friend… We went from Santa Barbara to Santa Fe a few months back and discovered some nasty thorny balls on the ground surround all the rest areas in the desert… My poor dog had about 15 thorns in her paws after running off the pavement on for a second! After the third time it happened, we both got a lot more cautious where we played!

  1. Hi Campskunk, sounds really interesting–kinda like a remote version of Mesa Verde. How bad was the road in and which way did you enter. I have driven some dirt roads with our Rt190P. Seems ok if one goes slowly. Road into Bodie, CA is a rough washboard the last 3 miles.

    1. i came in off 550 – the dirt portion is longer that way but the road is better maintained. as i said above, you may get lucky and hit it right after they grade it. otherwise there are sections you have to slow down to 10 mph or so to avoid bone-jarring vibration. it takes at least an hour if you do it the slow way, which i recommend. for a day trip that’s a lot of hassle – stay a week or two to make it worthwhile.

  2. Campskunk,

    Chaco is a definite must see. You just have to stay a few days to let the peace of the place soak into you. Relax. Being connected isn’t all that important…… To retirees like us.

    To the Navajo, all is beauty and we need to walk in beauty. The operative word seems to be “walk.”

    Thanks,

    Bill

  3. We camped there in a tent several years ago and loved it. I thought there was power and water in the RV area?

  4. Well, this goes straight onto my bucket list. What a fantastic mystery this place seems to be and so much to see. Thanks for letting me know about it. I think part of the attraction to Chaco Canyon would be the fact it is so isolated and difficult to drive to and the peace and quiet once you arrive.

  5. Louis Goldman

    Chaco is a wonderful place and well worth the time and effort to drive there. If you are fortunate you may get to hear the Range talk about astronomy

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