Today is the 102nd birthday of our National Park Service, so in celebration I thought I would share another one of our adventures to a National Park… Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico.
My husband has always been an adventurer and loves to explore near and far. So when he said he wanted to take me on a day trip to some ruins he had researched, I thought, okay let’s go!
On Aug 11, 2013, we loaded the car and headed out early for another adventure.
The drive was long… 3 hours to get to Chaco. And the last 16 miles of the drive was on a gravel road. Yes, a gravel road. This was an out-of-the-way, you REALLY want to go there, park. And we wanted to see it.
Chaco Canyon was inhabited by the ancestors of the Hopi, Navajo and the New Mexico Pueblo Indians more than 1000 years ago. The Chacoan people began using this canyon as a cultural center in the mid-800’s and for 300 hundred years it was inhabited. There were many Great houses built by and for those who stayed here or just traveled through. These Great Houses were used for ceremonies, storage, burial and hospitality among other things. This valley was the cultural center for hundreds of miles.
As we drove into the park, where the road was finally paved, I couldn’t help but wonder about those early people who lived here…. And how they lived. This was such a harsh desert environment.
Our first stop, as always, was the visitor center where we were able to see and learn a little more about these long ago people.
We then drove further into the park, stopping at Pueblo Bonito, the largest of the Great Houses here in Chaco Canyon and it was impressive. In its heyday, Pueblo Bonito had 500 rooms and 16 kivas (ceremonial rooms). We were able to walk in and around the ruins, seeing for ourselves the incredible architecture of those ancient people who used sandstone to build their buildings and kivas and then held it all together with mud mortar. Incredible! And enough was still standing for us to see and imagine what a magnificent building this Pueblo must have been.
We explored Pueblo Bonito for quite some time and then walked down to the next Great House, which was smaller. This one, Kin Kietso, had at one time 100 rooms and 5 kivas. It was easy to imagine the people wandering around here, socializing, trading and celebrating.
After exploring the ruins, it was time to go on a hike…. To the top of the mesa above the ruins… where the park ranger said there was a great view of the canyon and the pueblo ruins. And she was right. But…
She didn’t tell us that the hike was so steep or that it was a trail from an ancient trail to the top. Talk about fear of heights! Of course, I had imagined the trail going up would be like most trails we had hiked in the past and be a path to follow, well maintained and though steep, fairly uneventful. And then I saw this….
And I told my husband there was no trail. Really, where was that trail? It was just rocks with no safety holds…. Ummm…. We started up. It started off okay, there was a path to follow and then…..
When you see huge rock walls with cracks in them, you ask yourself when will the day come that that rock sheers off (and I was just praying today was not that day)…. and never think that oh, yeah, lets hike through that crevice in the rock….what? And that is where the trail took us. When we got to that point we stopped for a minute (I needed to figure out how I was going to do it, as my heart was already racing and my head felt light from the height and knowing that one wrong step, one loose rock and there I would go, falling down the cliff-side…). While I was gathering my courage, we were joined by a young father with his kids. He was from the Laguna Pueblo and had brought his children here to show them their ancestral heritage. Today, Chaco Canyon is a sacred site that is revered and honored by the Hopi, Navajo and Pueblo Indians of New Mexico and they often come to learn and connect with their ancestors. And that is what this young father was doing with his children. He told us a little about his life in the Laguna Pueblo and a little of his heritage and then the five of us finished the climb. My husband and this young man helping me and the children up and over the rocks, through the tiny crevice and onto the top of the mesa. At the top we said goodbye to this nice young family.
And then I looked at my husband and said there is NO WAY I am going back down that path. NO WAY! I was still shaking and had to sit a minute to calm my trembling legs. We had forgotten to bring the map with us but we remembered that the map in the visitor center showed that there was another way down at the other end of the mesa, which would mean a longer walk back to the car but that was okay because it would be on flat ground.
We had each brought a bottle of water with us, I had my camera and there was a marked trail. Did I mention this was August in New Mexico? In the middle of the day? On top of a mesa with no shade on a bright sunny day?
Off we went. I was determined to find less treacherous, less scary way off of this mesa top.
The views were absolutely spectacular. We could see forever. And looking down on the Great Houses allowed us to see just how enormous they really were and the amazing architecture. The view was worth climbing up to the top for!
We followed the path….. and followed the path….. and began to wonder when we might start going back down…. This was pretty flat. And then we came to a spot where we started to descend, it was a little scary but nothing like the climb up…. And then the descent became gradual…. And then we started to go back up again? What? Okay, we should be going down by now….
By this point I was hot! The sun was beating down on us. I had finished my water. My husband still had some of his. Good thing!
We continued following the path until we found ourselves right back where we had started… right back to the spot where I said I would NOT go down. Crap! It was the ONLY path down from this mesa and I couldn’t stay up there…. We had just finished my husband’s water but there was more water in our car, waiting for us in the cooler.
I began to panic. I was shaking. I was petrified. I knew how steep that path was and that one wrong step would mean certain death…. But I had no other choice.
So with my husband guiding me down, we began the descent. And YES, it was just as frightening as I thought it would be. I was holding back the tears. DANG, that was a long way down.
And then we made it. I wanted to kiss the ground! But we were hot, sunburned and thirsty.
Back to our car for some cold water and a look at the map to see how we missed the way down on the other end…. Oh….. there was no other path down. Had we known that we would not have hiked the mesa top and then we would have missed the views and the fun we had. I am glad we didn’t know before we hiked.
We did learn that day, though, to always take a map with us and to carry more than one bottle of water each when hiking in the middle of the day, in the summer in the southwest. That could have gone terribly wrong for us. God was watching out for us that day!
Chaco Culture National Historical Park is worth the many miles it takes to get there. To see ruins from more than 1000 years ago and to imagine what life was like back then, and to see the harsh environment was worth every step taken on our hike. After visiting Chaco Canyon and learning about the Chacoan culture I can’t help but admire the people that lived there over 1000 years ago, their creativity, their strength and their resilience in such a harsh environment.
That summer day in August, 2013, we went on an adventure to learn about the past. We drove 6 hours round trip and spent 4 hours walking through the ruins and hiking atop the mesa. At the end of the day, after hiking 5+miles, 17,000+ steps and up 39 flights of stairs, this girl was VERY sore, exhausted and sunburned….. It was an AMAZING day!
We would love to go back again and see this amazing cultural center and piece of our countries history. But I think I will stay firmly down in the valley next time….been there, done that and I don’t need to do that climb again!
And we checked another National Park off our bucket list!