Monday, October 22, 2012


The drive from Mesa Verde through Durango and on southward is beautiful. We are chasing the fall colors. The hills vibrate with brilliant yellows and reds under the cloudless azure skies.  Our destination: The Chaco Canyon National Historic Site. There is no easy way into the park, every route includes travel over rough dirt roads.  We call ahead en route to assure that there is room in the first come first serve basis campground. (Dragging and bouncing Dimples through the dirt only to be turned away has zero appeal!) We are assured that there should be space in the campground AND we are warned to drive slow as the road condition is heavy washboard.  Armed with this knowledge we turn off the main Highway onto County Road 7900 – its paved and in pretty good condition… and then onto CR 7950… also paved for a few miles and then turns to gravel and then to dirt…really bumpy dirt!  Now the key to driving a car or truck on washboard is to go faster than you think and pretty much drive on the tops of the divots… this is NOT the method when towing a trailer… when towing, SLOW as in REALLY, REALLY SLOW… it is the only way to avoid serious damage… Since this is the first time that we are attempting to take Dimples off pavement, I volunteer to sit in the back and see how things hold up.   After a few bone shaking miles we stop and assess… The kitchen sink is loose – SO… Slow… as in walking speed is the only way!

We finally arrive at Chaco and secure a space at the back end of the campground. The campground is tucked along cliffs sporting petroglyphs and a few small ruins, there is a spectacular view of Fajada Butte and we are intrigued! This is dry camping but they have a dump station and potable water available.  We plan to stay a few days.  After setting up, we head to the visitor center to pay our fees, check the schedule of Ranger talks, the weather report and information about backcountry hikes.  That evening we start planning.

Hungo Pavi
Our first experience in the ruins is a ranger lead hike through Hungo Pavi.  This is a mid sized virtually unexcavated site. Late nineteenth century, eyewitness reports described a four-story structure virtually intact. The remains now are barely two stories.   Hungo Pavi like all of the sites was a victim of treasure hunters burning the wood vigas and latillas to keep warm while trashing the buildings searching for pottery and turquoise in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Our Ranger Guide G.B. has lived in Chaco for over 25 years.  He points out the construction and talks a bit about the history and speculations surrounding Chaco.  In the end he states that the only truth is, “Once people lived here and now they don’t.”
We now know that a few days will not be enough to even start to explore this fascinating place.  There are nine sites within the canyon and four backcountry trails.  Stopping at the visitor center we extend our stay… we will be here a whole week and still not see it all!
Every day we explore more of the ruins in the canyon and surrounding mesas.  They are crumbling remains of massive stone buildings that soared to as many as five stories, with engineered water collection systems, line of site communication between locations and a massive road system linking them to outlying communities.  Most thought provoking is that many are built along celestial alignments. 
Casa Rinconada
Pueblo Bonito
Penasco Blanco
The backcountry hikes are the best.  The four and a skosh mile South Mesa Trail climbs a cliff for a spectacular view of the great kiva at Casa Rinconada and on up to the high point on South Mesa where we explore the Great House Tsin Kletzin.  The Pueblo Alto Trail leads up the canyon wall via skinny rubble “stairs” in a crack for a spectacular view of Pueblo Bonito and the heart of Chaco.  And our favorite hike; The Penasco Blanco Trail, takes us to… you guessed it… Penasco Blanco a distant unexcavated site that seems to be melting into the landscape.  When we arrive we are alone… well there was this really lovely rattlesnake, but he left shortly after we arrived.  Along the way we pass walls of petroglyphs and the “Super Nova Pictograph.”
Super Nova Pictograph
We celebrate National Fossil Day with a hike guided by the park’s resident paleontologist who explains the park geology and points out fossils.  From this point on, everywhere we look there are fossils embedded in the rocks and littering the roadsides and trails. They are also seen disembarking from tour busses… but that’s another story for another day…
Astronomy is also a huge part of Chaco.  The night skies are dark and well suited for stargazing.  Dale, one of the campground hosts is an amateur astronomer.  On Tuesday and Wednesday nights he sets up his large computer controlled telescope and invites all who are interested to take a peek – or two or ten… it’s really cool!  We also attend a talk by Ron Sutcliff an archaeoastronomer who explains the celestial alignments in Chaco.  Specifically the Great Kiva at Casa Rinconada that is aligned to both the moon and the sun. His book “Moon Tracks, Lunar Horizon Patterns” now holds the distinction of being one of the very select few non-digital books we own. Chaco also has the distinction of being the only national site with it’s own observatory.  After Ron’s talk we are treated to views from the observatory telescope and two other large telescopes set up nearby.
All in all, Chaco is a fascinating and intriguing.  There are as many opinions about Chaco as there are visitors… (Google it and waste a day or two scratching the surface.) Yes everyone has an opinion as to the why and what about Chaco.  Our take on Chaco… It is testament to the observational skills of humanity and the ability to translate those observations into the physical.
So enough of this dry camping in the desert… we need to brave the washboard road, crawl out of here and seek some citification… Santa Fe sounds pretty good….

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful photos, looks like you're having a grand time! Did you know we now live in Round Rock, TX?

    - Lynn & Romeo


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