Driving to Chaco Canyon

The car shook violently as I drove across yet another patch of washboard hard-packed dirt on the road to Chaco Canyon. I’d been driving for about three hours when I turned off the main highway onto a small road marked with a cryptic number 7900. A huge brown sign on the highway pointed the way.

The road wound around widely spaced small local homes, rusted out trailers, round plastered Navajo hogans. At one point, I passed a pretty little spotted brown horse wandering down the road. It stopped at a puddle of water and took a long drink.

I’d first heard about Chaco Canyon (really called Chaco Culture National Historic Park) a few years ago and decided I had to visit. It features the remains of massive structures the ancient Anasazi Indians built way back around the year 1,000. I’d seen photos and maps of the area and I could tell it’s a place well worth visiting.

The pavement ended. Ahead, a wide lane of hard packed dirt continued on. I slammed on the brakes and slowed down as my car inched its way onto this new surface. At first, I could keep my speed up to 30, but soon, I hit patch after patch of ribbed washboard bumps. I slowed down even more. Sometimes, I crept along at no more than 10 miles an hour. Pickup trucks whizzed past me as I crept along like a dark desert snail.Road to Chaco Canyon

After what seemed like hours, but was really only about 45 minutes, I finally made it to an official looking National Park Service sign and a beautiful black paved road. As I followed the black ribbon around the corner, I saw my first view of Chaco Canyon. It didn’t seem all that impressive, actually, just a short canyon with a nice butte plopped down right in the middle of an open area.

Fajada Butte, driving into Chaco Canyon

I made a beeline for the campground. It was Friday about 2:30 and so many trucks had passed me on my way I started to get a bit paranoid that the campground would be full. The official park web site said that the campground was rarely full and I didn’t think that this place in the middle of nowhere would be very popular in the middle of autumn. I was wrong. By the time I zipped into the campground, only a handful of sites were left.

Chaco Canyon campground

I pulled into the first one I found without an official little orange strip of paper hanging next to the camping area, an indication that someone had already paid for that location. I was pleased to see that a small ruin graced the cliff very close to my site. Turns out that ruins are everywhere you look.

Campsite at Chaco Canyon

I set up my tent, pulled on my boots, and headed out for my first taste of what I now consider one of the most fascinating places in the country, even if the canyon itself isn’t especially visually spectacular. After setting up my tent, I hurried out to drive around and check out the ruins and hiking trails. It didn’t take long for me to find one of the most spectacular ancient structures I’ve ever seen. I hiked until dark, then returned to camp, excited about all that I’d get to see and do over the next few days.

First view of Pueblo Bonito

Check back for more posts about my hikes in Chaco, a bit of history, and lots and lots of pictures!


  1. says

    What kind of car did you drive? I’m planning on visiting Chaco Canyon this month. I scared my car might not make it!

  2. Jennifer says

    I was driving a Toyota Corolla, so a pretty small car. Just call the park first to inquire about road condition, then drive really slow!

  3. Jennifer says

    I was driving a Toyota Corolla, so a pretty small car. Just call the park first to inquire about road cobditions, then drive really slow!

  4. Darlene Roberts says

    The first time I went to Chaco Canyon was early April 2011. Really not the best time to go, it was very windy in that part of the southwest, and miserable to hike around the ruins. The dirt road in is the worst I’d ever driven. I have a ’97 Explorer and although everything on it is tight and well-maintained, it didn’t keep me from worrying about dropping an exhaust pipe or axle. That would be the worst case scenario. I kept giving my car encouraging words, no I’m not crazy, but finally made it. It’s not so bad if you take it very easy and not too fast over the washboard sections. They are deep. The second time I went was toward the end of July 2013. Much better weather, but still the same road conditions. I saw a speed limit sign for 30 mph and had to stop the car to laugh. There are spots you shouldn’t go anything over 10 mph. I had the same car and gave it lots of words of encouragement. One thing, though, even though I haven’t read it anywhere on line, I would not take a travel trailer on the road. A fifth-wheel might do better. I spent the night in the campground because it was the first night of a full-full moon. I wanted to drive out to the end of the pave road inside the park and take pictures over the largest ruins on the valley floor. But alas the road from the visitor center was blocked off for repaving. The only way you could go in was behind lead car and you had to take the one tour available with a guide. It was a disappointment, if only there was advance warning. I decided not to go in 2014, give the Explorer another 2-year rest. And I don’t know about this year. The road is no different, whoever maintains that is doing it all wrong for a dirt road. I’m researching to go in this year, but it appears campground reservations are required. There are 49 individual sites according to the NPS and 41 require reservations. There are notes the campground fills quickly, but I didn’t see that in 2013; could be because of the time of the year. It is very, very hot, over 100 degrees that time of the year. If you know when you are going to be there, and want to camp overnight, make the call for a reservation. You never know. All in all, it is worth the trip despite the slow time driving, when you see the valley floor with a very large complex of ruins spread out. Breathtaking.

  5. Erika says

    June 2015 report: my husband and I camped last week (June 9-10, 2015) at Gallo campground, in the exact campsite (site #25) shown in the photo above, near the small ruins. It was raining the evening of June 9 as we drove south from Bloomfield to the Chaco Canyon turnoff, and it made for very dicey driving on those awful washboards. We had to take the worst section at 5-10 mph to avoid slipping off the road, and even then my Subaru Outback had trouble holding the road in those deep, slick clay ruts. At one point the car fishtailed and started going into a 360; fortunately, my North Dakota instincts kicked in and I steered into the skid and managed to regain control. (Freaked me out, though!)
    Once we got to the campground and set up, though, we had a wonderful time. Due to all the rain in the past month, the canyon was stunningly green and beautiful, unlike any photo I’ve ever seen. And the night sky was glorious – my astronomer husband and I let the campfire burn down and just admired the show, which included constellations, satellites, and an incredible meteorite with a glowing golden tail streaking across the western sky.
    The ruins were fantastic, and with all the greenery we got some gorgeous pictures. There were sporadic rain showers, but nothing that lasted more than a few minutes, enough to cool the temperature down and bring out the scent of sage. Daytime temps were unusually comfortable for June, and the nights were cool enough to sleep with our bags unzipped.
    We don’t understand why road maintenance is so poor; on the other hand, it was nice to experience ruins without huge crowds. In two days we saw a total of maybe 50-60 people. The 9-mile loop beyond the visitor center is fully open, by the way. fyi, there is no potable water in the campground; however, there is an automated water well in the visitor center parking lot, which is accessible 24 hrs, as well as an ice vending machine. The nearest gas/convenience store is 16 miles from the campground, at the Chaco Canyon turnoff on Hwy 550.
    Great experience, can’t wait to go back!

  6. Erika says

    p.s. For anyone planning to camp at Gallo Campground, online campsite reservations can be made at Recreation.gov. The cost is currently $15/night.


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