Chaco was also made a World Heritage Site in 1987. Chaco Canyon houses several ‘great houses’ – huge Pueblo cultural and ceremonial dwellings that represent a unique cultural growth from 850 – 1150 ad. Chaco canyon became a significant regional trading center (goods from as far away as the Pacific NW and Central America!) and spiritual center. Roads linked other great houses in the region as well as leading to spiritual places. The building here was on a scale not seen before and showed sophisticated planning and architecture (building often occurred in cycles of 4-5 years for decades before a complex would be completed – but clearly showed that the designs had been done up-front. As an example, Pueblo Bonito stands over 3 acres, with over 600 rooms, 40 kivas, and that, in some places, stands over 4 stories tall! Many of the great houses are only partially excavated, leaving most of the structure covered with dirt that will protect the fragile structures.
An overview of Pueblo Bonito – over 3 acres. Note the big plaza in the middle.
A lower level showing a series of doorways between rooms (probably the only access points to these rooms). Researchers postulate that some of the lower levels might have been built solely to support upper levels – these Great Houses were more about showing technical skill, creating grandeur and impressing than just storing goods and housing people.
A window in an upper story room – this type of corner window is often aligned with the rising sun and researchers believe it would have been used by a ‘sun watcher’ who would wait for the sun to appear at a particular point as a signal of when to start various ceremonies. It is thought that people gathered at the Great Houses at important astronomical points in the year to pray for good weather, crops, etc..
Some of the canyon walls look pretty unstable today – and researchers have found evidence of reinforcements that the Pueblo people used to buttress up the rock walls (even buried with prayer beads, etc.) so the Pueblo people were clearly worried too.
And sure enough, in 1941, part of the canyon wall did fall – crushing about 50 rooms in Pueblo Bonito. Some of the rocks were as big as a school bus!
Some of the great houses butt up to the canyon wall – where you can see the remains of structures that had been built into the canyon walls as well as a large number of pictographs and petroglyphs running along the canyon walls. You can also see the remains of rain catches and irrigation canals through fields that had been farmed as well as remnants of the roads they created.
Petroglyphs along one wall. It was hard to get good pictures in the mid-day sun.
A kiva – there were many, many kivas in all different sizes and styles in all the great houses. They were generally built underground, aligned to various astronomical points and all roofed over. These were very spiritual places and you can still see prayer niches, rectangular pits thought to have been used for drumming, fire pits, circular structures that held roof beams and sometimes even the remnants of a false floor (for dramatic entry of spiritual leaders perhaps).
The area is truly impressive! Unlike most sites of this importance, visitors can wander around the sites on self-guided explorations (although I highly recommend the ranger tours!). You have access to interior spaces and other than being asked not to pick stuff up or destroy things, you are free to really enjoy the sites.
I would have liked to have spent more time hiking to some of the more remote sites. However, getting to the park is not easy. Repeat: NOT EASY! There is a campground – but I would hesitate to tow my trailer over the 13 miles of excruciatingly rough dirt road to get to the park. Even driving it (very slowly and with all-wheel drive) was painful and not an experience I will be willing to repeat any time soon.
So, go early, stay late and try to get as much done in one day as possible!