Travel tips for Chaco Canyon

This is the last post of my ongoing series about visiting Chaco Culture National Historic Park. If you’re planning to visit the park, there are several things you need to know to have a more pleasant trip. To read my posts about hiking and other activities in the park, here are links to my other posts:

First, you need to know that Chaco is in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t see any hotels or any grocery stores within two hours of driving there from Santa Fe. If you’re coming in from the northwest, Bloomfield is probably the last town with any real supplies. Take what you need with you, especially if you’re planning to camp. Cell phone service is somewhat spotty in the area (and forget about cell service if you have AT&T). The last unpaved portion of the road is really awful. It took me about an hour to drive that little section of road. I ran into a couple who drove in from the south route–they got a flat tire. The southern road is evidently a lot worse than the northern route. Don’t take the southern route if you’re driving an RV or towing anything. I wouldn’t even try it in a car, only a truck. Also be sure to call the park before you head out to check on road conditions.

Road to Chaco Canyon

Beware of taking a cooler or food that needs to stay cold. I thought it would be pretty mild weather while I was there so I took a cooler full of food. I had milk, cheese, lettuce, and a few other perishables. The ice melted in a day. My lettuce wilted and turned into a bag of green mush. The cheese started to smell really, really bad. Luckily, I also had a good supply of dry foods and canned food so I didn’t starve.

Things to bring with you:

Must-haves:

  • Large water container: Individual campsites don’t have water. You can find a water pump near the visitor’s center
  • Small water containers: If you plan to hike or even spend lots of time exploring the ruins, take a small water bottle with you and fill it up before leaving the visitor’s center. No water is available at individual ruins or along trails.
  • Plenty of cooking fuel: If you run out of fuel you’re out of luck. There isn’t a camp store.
  • Food: No food is available at the park, either. Take everything you need.
  • Sunscreen: Even the in cooler times of the year, you’ll get a sunburn!

Nice to have:

  • Binoculars: There are lots of things I wish I could have looked at through binoculars. Staircases on distant cliffs, the ramp up onto Fajada Butte, and distant views while hiking. Next time I’m definitely taking binoculars.
  • Firewood: If you visit in the cooler months, you can bring firewood with you and build a campfire at your campsite. You can’t buy or collect firewood in the park.
  • Telescope: If you have a telescope, this is one of the best places to use it. It’s very, very dark at Chaco and many of the park rangers and campground hosts are astronomy enthusiasts.
  • Tarp for shade: There are no trees or anything to provide shade at the campground. I didn’t haveĀ  a tarp and one hot afternoon ended up sitting on the ground in the little piece of shade my car offered. A tarp/shade tent would have been better.

General tips:

  • Try to plan your visit during the week in the spring and fall if you’re planning to camp. The park is most popular when the weather is mild and the campground can actually fill up. If you can arrive during the middle of the week the campground will likely be pretty empty. If you must arrive on a Friday, try to get there pretty early in the day so you can grab a campsite. The campground filled up while I was visiting. If you don’t mind really hot weather or really cold weather, you can probably find a campsite anytime in the summer or winter.
  • When you first arrive at the park, stop by the visitor’s center and watch the introductory video. It’s really helpful. You can also pick up guides to the various great houses and a wide variety of books.
  • The campground bathrooms don’t have hot water. The bathrooms at the visitor’s center do. I would wash my face in the mornings at the visitor’s center.
  • There are no showers. If you can’t stand going without a shower for a few days, don’t camp. I took a baseball cap to hide my hair.
  • If you’re going hiking on any of the backcountry trails (Penasco Blanco, Pueblo Alto, South Mesa Trail, or the Wijiji Trail) buy the Backcountry Trail Guide from the Visitor’s Center. It’s only $2 and provides an awful lot of information about things you’ll see on the hike. It’s totally worth it.
  • Either borrow or buy the guides to each pueblo. They contain really interesting and useful information.

Helpful books:

The reason I visited this park was because I read Craig Child’s book House of Rain. There are other fabulous books about Chaco, the Anasazi, and modern pueblo cultures. Reading about the area before visiting will help you better understand the culture and get more out of your visit. Some of my favorites are:

Museums:

If you have a chance, visit some pueblo museums in Santa Fe or Albuquerque before heading to Chaco. That way, you can see some of the artifacts recovered from the area before you visit. Ireally enjoyed the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe. There’s also a good museum at Mesa Verde National Park.

Comments

  1. Kelly says

    Hi Jennifer:

    I enjoyed your posts about Chaco. My wife and I are intending to visit there for a few days this October, and I thought I would check to see what the weather was like for you? Were you there in early or late October? It looked like you had sun the whole time. What was the temperature range for your visit?

    Thanks,

    Kelly

  2. says

    Glad you enjoyed them! The weather was great. I was there the first week of October. The days were warm, I’d say around 70 and the evenings got chilly, nice for a fire. One morning I got up (before dawn) and my water was frozen solid! It warmed up really fast though. It didn’t rain, I think that’s the dry season. Take warm stuff to sleep in and lots of layers for hiking. It starts to get cold out there in October so try to go earlier rather than later in the month.

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