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Chaco Canyon

The Chaco Culture National Historical Park is located between Farmington? and Gallup? in the Four Corners area of northwestern New Mexico.

There are two or three ways to reach the park, and each route is paved until 15 to 30 miles from the park's entrance. Those last miles are very rough, red dirt roads. The best route is from the north via Routes 550, 7900, and 7950. The 16 miles of gravel road is a pretty rough washboard, but is better than the other routes, according to one park ranger who shredded a tire on another route.

Chaco Canyon is a collection of ruins of "great houses" and villages built and inhabited by the Chacoan people between 800 and 1200 A.D. They were quite advanced in their knowledge of engineering, building thoroughfares 30 feet wide connecting all of their villages and aligning all of their dwellings to take advantage of the rising and setting of the sun and moon.

The Chacoans were very concerned about the physical shape of their villages, and they took great care to build each one in a similar fashion with a long rear wall, a plaza with several circular structures, and three to four stories of living quarters.

They built numerous perfectly circular stone structures, kivas, with roofs of timber supported by huge beams. These kivas are thought to be Chacoan worship sites. Each kiva features a unique, keyhole-shaped entry and most kivas were built below ground level, though some were elevated and enclosed in tower structures. One of the largest excavated kivas is a communal kiva at Casa Rinconada.

The park contains several of the ruins left by the Chacoans. Seven of these ruins are within a half mile of the paved "loop road" and four or five other sites can be reached by hiking into the back country but require a hiking pass from the visitor center. Many more ruins are located outside the park boundaries.

When planning a visit to the park, be sure to stay for the sunset and stars. The park rangers hold night sky programs at the observatory on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays in the summer. Join other park visitors and gaze through three telescopes pointed at the likes of Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter and its four moons.

Chaco Canyon is also famous for being very dark, on account of the park's dedication to preserving the night sky through its Night Sky Darkness Project. With no lights in the park other than those of an occasional vehicle, the sky is a veritable Milky Way display. The enormous number of stars visible in the darkness combined with the bigness of the sky creates awe-inspiring moments.

Admission to the park is reasonable at $8 per vehicle for a seven-day period, or $4 per person for bikers and cyclists, also good for seven days. The visitor center includes artifacts found in the ruins and a small theater. The park contains a campground with 47 sites that are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Each site costs $10 per night.

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