I first heard about Chaco Canyon in I think 1994, when I was working for the Charleston Post Courier. My editor there told me about Chaco and jokingly told me I was never allowed to go because I wouldn't come back. Thirteen years later, I finally got the chance to see the place, and he was certainly not exaggerating.
Chaco Canyon National Park actually represents just a portion of the sites of the Chaco culture, with literally dozens of Chacoan Great Houses, which are large pre-planned multi-storied public buildings with distinctive masonry, formal earthen architecture and a Great Kiva, in the surrounding area. There are at least twelve Great Houses within the park, the largest of which is Pueblo Bonito.
We started out at Una Vida, which is located right behind the visitors' center. It was named by Lt. James Simpson during a military expedition to Navajo lands in 1849. Construction began at Una Vida in 850 AD and continued for more than 250 years, concurrent with construction at the other sites in the canyon. It has not had much excavation, and is pretty much a natural state of preservation.
Me on the slope above Una Vida with Fajada Butte in the distance
Next we visited the ruins at Hungo Pavi and then headed to Chetro Ketl. This is one of the larger Chacoan structures with a massive Great Kiva.It had about 500 rooms and 16 kivas, and underwent a major, 30-year construction phase around 1020.
The Great Kiva at Chetro Ketl
We finished the trip with a guided tour of Pueblo Bonito, the center of Chacoan culture and the largest of the Great Houses at more than 600 rooms and 40 kivas. Our guide told us that more than 85 percent of the site is original, with only about 15 percent having to be reconstructed. There is still wood that once formed roof beams there (desert archaeology makes me really jealous...the stuff that preserves in the dry climate makes the stuff we are able to recover in the Southeast seem sad!). In one room, the roof is still completely intact, including the straw covering! The Great Kiva there is massive, and even the smaller kivas are pretty impressive. Most of the rooms, however, had no ventilation and were therefore unihabitable. I wonder whether it was an administrative center and the inner rooms were used primarily for the storage of goods for use in the future. Of course, what can be known there is limited because when the place was excavated in the 1920s, none of the more than 100 thousand TONS of fill was sifted. In fact, it was dumped in a nearby wash, so all of the information was literally washed away. Today, we could have searched for the tiniest of seeds to see what was in the rooms. Sad.
One funny thing happened while we were waiting for the tour to begin. M was coming out of the restroom right as a little chipmonk ran out of the bushes. It saw her, and went to run away as she whispered to me to look. Just then, it turned around and ran towards her. She said, "It's charging me. Do you think it is rabid?" It stopped and staired at her, less than 3 feet from her. I said, "No, it thinks you have food." In fact, I am pretty certain I heard it demand, "Where's my cookie?" M didn't have any food to offer, so it turned and left.
By the end of the Pueblo Bonito tour, we were too tired to visit the rest of the ruins there. I can certainly see needing to stay for a while to see it all. One trail alone is 7 miles long and has lots of ruins to explore. But neither of us were up for that after a few days hiking in the desert heat! And we needed to save some energy for tomorrow's trip to Mesa Verde!