The Milky Way galaxy over Fajada Mesa at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

©Eric Lowenbach/Getty Images

Chaco Culture National Historical Park

Top choice in New Mexico

A 9-mile drive loops through ‘downtown Chaco,’ passing six major sites, with further opportunities to hike to more remote ruins and petroglyphs. You could spend as little as half a day here, though overnighting isn’t a bad idea – you’ll be able to hike and explore when the weather isn’t so hot, and the prospect of driving the rugged dirt roads will be less daunting if you don’t have to do it twice in one day. Multi-roomed Pueblo Bonito is breathtaking

No matter how much time you spend here, almost all of the sites that you’ll be visiting are the ruins of large complexes known as 'great houses' – each a large multistory pueblo, consisting of hundreds of rooms, numerous kivas (circular underground chambers) and a plaza or two. Both archaeological evidence and the precise alignment of the great houses – with regard to astronomy and their spatial relationship to the other great houses and within the landscape itself – indicate that these complexes were not residential, though we can only speculate as to what purpose they did serve.

What is certain is that up until the early 13th century people traveled great distances to get here along a network of 30ft-wide straight-arrow roads (some still visible from the air), stayed briefly and then left. Storerooms filled with turquoise, ceramics, shell jewelry, copper bells and exotic birds from Mexico suggest it was a center for trade, though it’s just as likely that Chaco’s significance was primarily religious – or perhaps political.

In any case, the star of Chaco today is Pueblo Bonito (built 850–1150), the largest great house and the most thoroughly excavated. Visiting the pueblo will illuminate many facets of Chacoan architecture and large-scale engineering, and also provides the opportunity to walk through several original rooms where the ceilings are still intact.

If you have the energy and the sun is not too hot, definitely take the time to hike up to the mesa top (2 miles round trip) to view the Pueblo Bonito overlook – viewing the complex from above provides yet another fascinating perspective. From here, you can hike an additional 1.2 miles (round trip) to Pueblo Alto, a ruined gateway complex on the great north road, with unobstructed views in all directions.

Before you head out on the loop, make sure to pick up one or more self-guided booklets ($1 to $3) from the visitor center for the sites you’d like to visit – they are enormously helpful. Also be sure to check out the informative museum here: although Chaco represents one of the largest archaeological finds in the Southwest (one million artifacts), up until now very little has been on public display – this is a rare chance for a glimpse into the remnants of one of the most complex and mysterious civilizations in North American history.

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