Visiting Pueblo Bonito

One of the main reasons I wanted to visit Chaco Canyon was to see and explore Pueblo Bonito. I’d read stories about people wandering around in the ruins, admiring the beautiful masonry and contemplating the people who built such a gigantic structure so long ago. When I got to Chaco, Pueblo Bonito was even better than I thought it would be. In addition, the other pueblos in the park were even better than expected. Here are some descriptions and photos of visiting Pueblo. The next posts will describes some of the hikes to more remote ruins.

After I finally arrived at Chaco, I threw up my tent then made a beeline for Pueblo Bonito. As I drove down the main road through the canyon, I passed one other parking area to a smaller ruin, then passed the ruins of Chetro Ketl, then finally saw the sign I was looking for. Pueblo Bonito straight ahead. I parked the car, grabbed my camera, and headed down the trail.

The ruins doesn’t look very impressive from the parking area. Some walls jut out of the ground, jagged segments of ancient walls silhouetted against the blue sky. As you walk closer, you can see how truly massive the structure actually was. This pueblo is estimated to have had up to 800 rooms, making it the largest pueblo in Chaco Canyon.

Pueblo Bonito from the trail

You start to see details of the ruin. Doors exposed to the sun that used to be hidden deep in the interior of the pueblo. You can tell the walls used to support a structure at least three stories tall. When you’re close enough to the ruins to start seeing real detail in the ancient stone walls, you encounter a plaque describing the seven excavation projects the National Geographic Society and the Smithsonian Institution conducted between 1920 and 1927.

Plaque about Pueblo Bonito

When you get close enough to touch the walls of the ruin, you really can see how massive the building was and also how exquisitely designed.

First view of Pueblo Bonito

I walked along the front wall until I saw a hole in the wall, a small walkway leading inside the ruin. That’s what I really wanted to see. I veered off onto the trail, ducked my head to avoid whacking my head on the top of the small door, and emerged in a small room. I was inside Pueblo Bonito.The very first room I entered had one of the main architectural features I really wanted to see: a T-shaped door.

T-shaped door at Pueblo Bonito

I’d read all about these strangely shaped doors for a couple of years. People speculate about what they mean. Why are some doors regular rectangles and others this interested, but harder to build shape? When I visited Mesa Verde later in the week, one of the park rangers told me an interesting theory. He said one day while he was working at one of the cliff dwelling, a Hopi woman, a descendant of the people who built these massive structures, visited the cliff house. The two of them were discussing various aspects of the architecture and the ranger asked the woman why some doors were shaped like a T. She said that the doors were wider up top so the spirits had enough room to move through the door. This actually does make a certain amount of sense. Many of these beautifully shaped doors are adjacent to kivas, the round underground structures the ancient Chacoans, and pueblo cultures today, use for ceremonies. Today’s pueblo cultures often wear elaborate costumes as part of the ceremonials. Perhaps these doors are larger at the top to allow people wearing elaborate costumes to easily fit through doorways without mussing up the features adorning their costumes. Just a theory, but an intriguing one.

I walked through the T-shaped door, wondering what it meant. I found myself in a series of rooms. I could easily tell where the ceiling used to be. Rows of ancients tree trunks, both large and small, lined the spot where the ceiling of the lower level and floor up the upper level would have stood.Looking up, I could see doors that used to provide access to rooms on the second floor. I noticed several doors built in the corner of a room. I wondered what on earth those were for. The architectural mysteries of this place began to build up in my mind.

Pueblo Bonito interior

In some rooms, I saw the remnants of a third floor.

Pueblo Bonito third floor remnants

As I wound my way through the rooms, now mazy and complex, I also wondered what on earth the Chacoans used these rooms for. What I’ve read indicates that there are very few signs that these rooms were living spaces. There aren’t many hearths that would indicate that people cooked or made fires for warmth. There isn’t much domestic debris. What excavators did find were rooms packed full of exquisite pottery, rooms with parrot bones, rooms with turquoise. I turned the corner and found one of the rooms that I really wanted to see, the room with a series of doors leading off into the distance.

Doors in Pueblo Bonito

I also found a room with really huge tree trunks supporting the upper floors, as well as small ventilation holes in the upper floors. Many of the rooms in the pueblo were deep inside the structure. Small holes in the walls helped air circulate inside the hidden interior.

Interior room Pueblo Bonito

I visited this series of rooms many times during my three-day visit. The second morning, I drove out to Pueblo Bonito at dawn and walked to the ruin. I was shocked (and surprised) to discover I was the only person there. I wandered through the rooms, stopped to contemplate the building and the people who used to wander these rooms, drank in the beauty of the place. I had the entire place all to myself for two hours.

After exploring the series of rooms, you duck into a very narrow corridor, climb up a short staircase, and emerge on what once a plaza. A giant plaza. In front of you, several small kivas poke into the earth. You can’t climb down into them, but you can walk along their edge and peer inside. The kivas are perfectly round and sometimes ringed with a narrow bench. All of the kivas have a a few things in common. They all have an area to build a fire, a vent to provide excellent air circulation, an upright stone that’s a “deflector” for the air vent (the deflector is thought to protect the fire from the ventilator breeze), and a small hole called a sipapu. The sipapu represents the place where the pueblo people emerged from the lower worlds into this world. Very cool mythologies.In the picture below, note the people on top of the mesa. They’re hiking the trail to Pueblo Alto.

Pueblo Bonito Plaza

Kivas are all over the place. Over 30 small kivas and one “great kiva” have been identified in the complex.

Kivasat Pueblo Bonito

Pueblo Bonito is intriguing, mysterious, maddening to unravel. But it’s also one of the absolutely best places I’ve ever visited. But I found equally tantalizing places as I explored even more of Chaco. See my following posts on some of the other ruins in the canyon and hikes to more distant destinations.


  1. Kendrick McMahan says

    Awesome blog. Wondering about the camera equipment you used. Very nice photos.

    I am interested in doing some night photos there – think Milky Way above Pueblo Bonito. Is it possible to hike there in the evening to do something like that ?


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