Above: Seen from the mesa top, Pueblo Bonito's living spaces and ceremonial kivas give a hint of the region's size and importance. Photographs by Minesh Bacrania.

IT FEELS UNFORGIVING OUT HERE. So hot my movements get slower and slower as the sun rises in the sky. So hot the sunscreen I just applied feels like a pallid attempt at protection in the face of unmediated exposure. The air stands still. I keep thinking I need more water, more salt, more shade. The weather reports say there’s a chance of rain, but I don’t believe it, in the intensity of this heat, until the wisps in the clear sky finally accumulate into billows, darkening at their edges like ripe fruit. Within minutes, thunder cracks somewhere over one of the mesas along the horizon. It rumbles to a crescendo just as the clouds unleash a shock of rain. From my place on the dirt road near the campground, I can see a heavy mist enshroud Fajada Butte, a massive landform that rises from near flatness at the center of Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

Set in the remote and desolate lands between Gallup and Farmington, Chaco Canyon has lured me many times, but never during the monsoon season. In early August, the rutted CR 7900 that turns off from NM 550 in Nageezi and eventually leads to the park entrance gets more precarious with every drop of moisture. Flash floods make it slippery with mud and overrun it in some parts with swift, sometimes impassable currents. As quickly as the rains come, the thirsty ground drinks them up. Water is life in this place, a fact the desert brings into the sharpest relief.

Hikers on a Chaco trail.

Above: Hikers on a Chaco trail.

THE SAN JUAN BASIN NEVER HAS BEEN for the faint of heart. The weather is mercurial, and the Colorado Plateau’s geology sublime, if intimidating. Along the sides of towering mesas, hunks of rock from the Cliff House Sandstone formations seem to barely hang on to their substrate. Elsewhere, gargantuan wedges have crashed down after heavy rains into giant piles, like fallen gods.

Against the odds, Chacoans, ancestors to today’s Puebloans, lived in this harsh and beautiful landscape from AD 800 to 1150. They learned to harness fickle floodwaters into irrigation systems with canals and masonry diversion gates. They built gridded terraces to grow corn, beans, and squash. They recorded stories on rock faces, fashioned black-on-white ceramic vessels, and buried the dead in their greatest finery. They also established roads and trade networks as far south as Mesoamerica and created lasting architecture that aligned with the cosmos. For Ancestral Puebloans, Chaco Canyon was the center of the world.

LATE IN THE DAY, a couple of tourists arrive in the park by way of CR 7900. My girlfriend and I are standing on a bridge while it rains. We watch in awe as the silty brown water etches through the Chaco Wash. The driver comes to a halt and rolls down his window. “Is there another way out?” he asks, as if the rain and the road are giving him second thoughts. I hear regret in his voice. The day drive he thought he was taking is much more involved. We shrug. There’s a road somewhere to the south, but for all we know, it could be even worse.

Chaco Canyon

Above: Choose from a variety of trails and shady picnic areas. 

They take the chance at the thought of another way out and drive off, never having seen a single Chacoan building. But for those who make it this far with the objective of staying awhile, Chaco Canyon has much to offer. It’s a commitment, yes, but one with the capacity to evoke profound curiosity. Chaco Canyon asks visitors to contemplate an age-old question: Why here?

Archaeological theories have changed over the years. Chaco was once thought of as only a center for trade. It’s now considered to have been a ceremonial locus that potentially accommodated thousands of visitors during periods of commerce, as well as a hub that supported year-round occupation. Zuni, Hopi, and other contemporary Pueblo peoples still consider it a sacred point of origin and return for ceremonies, like honoring the solstice. For the Diné who live in closest proximity—and once lived within some of the sites—Chaco Canyon holds a rich oral history.

Ambling through Pueblo Bonito, one of the earliest complexes built at Chaco Canyon, we can only begin to imagine the labor that went into its centuries of construction. Ancestral Puebloans quarried slabs of sandstone from nearby and shaped them by hand with stone tools into individual pieces for the core-and-veneer style of building that characterizes their great houses and ceremonial kivas. The effect is like looking at cells pressing closely against one another. And with no source of lumber nearby, they traveled to the Chuska Mountains to gather ponderosa pine for the vigas that supported the construction of multiple stories.

Until the 19th century, when Chicago’s first steel-framed skyscrapers rose, these were the largest buildings in North America. As park ranger G.B. Cornucopia says at one of the weekend night-sky lectures, “Chacoans obsessively embedded the cardinal directions into their architecture,” including in the orientation of the circular Casa Rinconada, an isolated great kiva on the southern side of the canyon, just across the Chaco Wash from Pueblo Bonito. The north door is almost exactly aligned with true north. This precision can be seen throughout Chaco Canyon, but most especially in Chacoan roads, which almost always followed straight lines that cut through even the roughest topography.

Inside the Chaco Observatory.

Above: The view grows grander inside the Chaco Observatory.

CHACO LENDS A SENSE OF BEING AT THE edge of the earth. But with 400 miles of ancient roads, this complex was and will always be connected in its isolation. Even now, a checkerboard area of state, federal, and tribal lands surrounds the national park. There are homes along the way, sometimes accompanied by hogans—eight-sided buildings that, in Diné thought, bring the cosmos down to architectural scale. Sheep, wild horses, and cattle cross our path.

New developments have appeared: countless pump jacks pecking at the earth and recently drilled oil wells for hydraulic fracturing. They’re hard to ignore, even if painted a hue of green that attempts to blend into the sage-scrub landscape. Signs posted along NM 550, from Cuba to Counselor and Nageezi, read water not oil, and protect chaco canyon. Environmentalists and Native peoples contend that this industry threatens the health of Diné residents who live nearby, as well as the stability of Chaco’s buildings and material culture, and thus the connection contemporary Native peoples have to their ancestors.

Kids at Chaco Canyon.

Above: Trails accommodate most skill levels.

I can’t see the infrastructure from the campground, but the awareness of it lingers at the boundary of my consciousness. I think about how a place’s sacredness sometimes—oftentimes—doesn’t stop certain economic engines, especially those in regions of immense poverty.

Read more: Pueblo Bonito Revisited.

As the sun goes down, the sky is still cloudy and gray, the air cool and wet. Within hours the stars stand crystal clear against the inky darkness, a diaphanous Milky Way traversing the expanse like a ribbon. Maybe it’s midnight when I wake up. The ranger made a comment earlier that I remember as I unzip my tent. While most of the world is “losing their night skies casually,” he said, Chaco celebrates its darkness. “It’s still possible to see the same sky the Chacoans did.” I look up.

Story Sidebar

Chaco Culture National Historical Park is open year-round. Summer and winter months can require a certain degree of hardiness if you’re hiking, biking, or even exploring the sites on foot, but fall and spring are great times to visit. Gallo campground, the only campground in the park, is one mile east of the visitor center.

It has 49 campsites with picnic tables and firepits. RVs are allowed in the larger spaces, but they have no hookups. Score a site at recreation.gov.

At the visitor center (open April to November), you can buy national park goodies and hiking guides, including the Backcountry Trail Guide ($3), which gives a comprehensive overview of the park’s four major trails. It would take years to exhaust all the options, so plan on coming back.

An eight-mile one-way loop leads visitors to many of Chaco’s most significant and visible sites. Most take this by car, parking along the way to explore sites and walk some of the offshoot trails. It makes for a pleasant bike ride, too.

Fully 99 percent of the park is designated a natural darkness zone, meaning there is no permanent lighting. Because of its designation as an International Dark Sky Park in 2013, Chaco is one of the best places for stargazing in the U.S. Don’t miss the rangers’ night-sky programs, which include lectures, as well telescope viewings when the sky is clear, on Fridays and Saturdays, April through October.

Summer solstice events occur annually at Casa Rinconada. There are also spring equinox celebrations, plus an Astronomy Festival on the day of the fall equinox in September. Plan ahead; space is limited.

Chaco Canyon is sacred to Pueblo peoples, the Hopi, and the Navajo. It’s a federal offense to remove or destroy anything at Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Treat it with reverence. —AIG