On the Road is a weekday feature spotlighting reader photo submissions.
From the exotic to the familiar, whether you’re traveling or in your own backyard, we would love to see the world through your eyes.
We are adding On the Road After Dark for a couple of weeks of catch-up.
On the Road: Week of July 6 (5 am)
Albatrossity – Chaco Canyon, Winter
way2blue – Venezia Before the Flood
BillinGlendaleCA – Ryan Mountain Trail, Daytime
frosty – Coronavirus and the Road
otmar – Festung Hohensalzburg, Part 1
On the Road After Dark: Week of July 6 (10pm)
Albatrossity – Chaco Canyon, Spring
Origuy – Carmel Mission Basilica
BillinGlendaleCA – Ryan Mountain Trail, Night Sky
Emma – Mt. Pleasant Iris Farm, WA
otmar – Festung Hohensalzburg, Part 2
If you have traveled much in the southwestern US, you may have heard of Chaco Canyon and the Chacoan culture. But probably not, for lots of reasons. The main center of Chacoan culture is preserved in Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico, and it is very isolated. You have to drive on a rutted dirt road for about 40 miles to get there, and you will need to camp because there is no lodging and no food available. The canyon is on the Colorado Plateau at about 6,000 ft above sea level, and can get very cold in winter as well as very hot in summer. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating place to visit, both in terms of the history and in terms of the flora and fauna.
The story of the Chacoan culture is still being unraveled, but beginning in the mid 800’s, construction of large buildings (containing hundreds of rooms), probably ceremonial centers, began in the canyon. These are impressive in their architecture and in what they imply about the people who built them. The structures are oriented to take advantage of the canyon features in terms of astronomical sightings, allowing the inhabitants to define the equinoxes and the solstices with great precision.
They were trade centers as well; items from Mexico and elsewhere have been found in the excavation of the ruins. By 1050 or thereabouts this site was the center of a civilization that stretched across the San Juan basin, with more than 150 widely spread Chacoan “Great Houses” linked by excellent and arrow-straight roads to Chaco Canyon itself. And then, probably as a result of droughts, it all collapsed in the 1200’s, and the inhabitants dispersed to other sites. The Puebloan Indians of the Southwest descended from the Chacoans, and their architecture retains many of the same features seen in Chaco. If you are curious to learn more, I can recommend “House of Rain”, by Craig Childs.
I have visited Chaco Canyon multiple times, in winter, spring, and summer (not yet in the fall). It is a magical place, and worth going out of your way for if you are ever in that part of the world. My first visit was in winter, New Years Eve in 2006, and here are some images from winter visits there.
The high Colorado Plateau does not get a lot of moisture, but even a little bit in the winter can transform the place. Here are some trees and shrubs after a snow storm and then an ice fog the next day. I’ve used this image on Christmas cards in the past!
This is a view of one of the ruins. These stones are fitted exactly to make straight walls and round kivas. In the heyday the walls would be covered with stucco and paint. This kiva complex is special to me because we were volunteers there during the winter solstice of 2012, when the Mayan calendar said that the world was ending, remember? The park management wanted to ensure that none of the ruins would host unauthorized ceremonies or other activities the day before the solstice sunrise, and we volunteered. Our job was to get to this kiva before dawn (it was -12F that morning) and watch over it. We had radios to communicate with rangers if we saw strange people there. We saw nothing, the sun came up gloriously and warmed us up, and the rest of the day was remarkably uneventful. If the world was going to end, there would have been worse places to be than Chaco Canyon.
The center of the canyon is dominated by Fajada Butte, which you can see from everywhere you go in that canyon. At the top of the canyon was a rock formation and petroglyph site that was used to predict the summer and winter solstices. Google “Sun Dagger” to get more information about this archaeoastronomical wonder. Sadly it appears that foot traffic along the trail leading to the site has caused some of the rocks to shift, and the formation does not function as a solstice predictor any longer.
One of the oldest houses in the canyon is Una Vida, which is a short hike from the visitors center. This Scaled Quail (aka “Cottontop”) was one of a small covey that greeted us there on New Years Eve.
Another common winter bird on the Colorado Plateau is the Gray-headed subspecies of the Dark-eyed Junco. This handsome specimen was perched in a snowy bush, eating the seeds from the dried seed heads.
A year-round resident of the canyon, this Rock Wren can find plenty of rocks to perch on, nest in, and hide in. Like many wrens they sing cheerfully during just about every month of the year.
This bird was not technically in the canyon; we saw him on the way out once we got back to a highway with some utility poles. This is a Ferruginous Hawk, a large raptor (it probably would be called an eagle if it occurred in the Old World) who strikes fear into prairie dog towns throughout the Southwest.
The final shot is from my first hike on a winter’s day down the canyon to see its most famous rock art, the Supernova pictograph (painted rather than pecked into the rock like a petroglyph). It is thought to depict the supernova of July 4, 1054 AD, which was visible during the daytime. See here for additional information!
On my bucket list. Recently I was looking at it on Google Maps and saw that a horde of RVs had made it down the unpaved road, which surprised me somewhat.
Wowser! All lovely photos – I’m very fond of quails, and the tree you used for a Christmas card is stunning. Looking forward to following all the links sometime this week when the news gets to be too much. I had a friend who went there a number of times in the 70s and rhapsodized about Chaco Canyon. I am sorry I never went with.
Thanks for taking us all to this fascinating place. I love the Southwest, travel there as much as possible, and have driven from Durango to Albuquerque a number of times, not knowing what I was so close to. Will have to dig into the history and find more pics of those fascinating buildings. Their collapse came at about the same time as the same thing happened to the Anasazi at Mesa Verde.
Thanks! Would I ever have loved to join you there on that 2012 solstice. What a morning to be connected to something ancient – and real.
Fascinating place, great shots.
Wonderful pictures and the hawk is beautiful. We have a lot of red shouldered hawks in this neck of the woods and I’ve never seen one with a white breast.
Once again, a workshop in composition and light. Thanks!
I’d never heard of Chaco Canyon but now I’d love to see it. Wonderful pictures.
I definitely need to go back to Chaco. I went there in the late 70s with my parents, and it was a fascinating place. Unfortunately, we didn’t have much time, and didn’t get to explore very much.
Greg Childs is a great writer. I’ll look forward to looking for that book. Another book of his that I would highly recommend is The Secret Knowledge of Water. It is a beautifully written description of water and all of its forms in the Southwest.
Gorgeous pics as ever, thank you!
Thank you, thank you. I love Chaco Canyon and was lucky enough to go there many times. When I was doing oilfield work, I sat a lot of wells down around Cuba, New Mexico in Jicarilla Apache country. Whenever we had a long time off (but not long enough to drive back home in Colorado), I would go to Chaco. Culinary aside: the carne adovada at El Bruno in Cuba instilled in me a life-long love of the chili pepper.
This was the mid to late 70s and we rarely saw any other people there when we went. The hike to see the “supernova pictograph” is well worth the effort if the weather isn’t oppressively hot. In my second career teaching high school astronomy, I discussed that pictograph in my lesson on prehistoric astronomy.
Interestingly, one time we were driving back to the drilling rig late at night after a long day at Chaco Canyon. Ahead of us, as we bounced down the dirt rig road, my partner and I saw what appeared to be a constellation of stars that was moving slowly as a unit through the sky. A few months later, the failed rescue attempt of the Iranian hostages took place. I’m can’t be certain but after reading about the mission and the training leading up to it, I have always suspected that the moving constellation was composed of helicopters doing night training over the New Mexico desert.
Anyway, thanks again, those are, as always, wonderful pictures.
@cope: Wow, what a great story. The night skies in that part of the state are still something to behold, and the park had a long-time ranger, GB Cornucopia, who was into archaeoastronomy big time. He just retired, but they have a nice telescope and observatory there, and his lectures about the night sky and ancient astronomers were legendary.
@Albatrossity: Wow, I would love to have heard/seen one of those lectures. The more I taught astronomy, the more interested I became in archeoastronomy. It’s an amazing subject.
Fascinating! And love, love, love the pics of the junco and the hawk.
Thanks for sharing!
Oh, Chaco Canyon! Definitely one of the coolest places in NM. My sister took me there – she knew the whole area from having lived in Pecos so long. Our family gathering was fortunate enough to have the whole place to ourselves when we went – it was the height of summer, that probably had something to do with it.
Thank you for the informational commentary as well as the wonderful pictures!
Love your photos. Now I really want to see Chaco Canyon in the snow. New Mexico is so beautiful and sometimes otherworldly.
And every morning is good for a quail.
J R in WV
Pretty amazing place, Chaco Canyon.
The nature photos are great, I had trouble taking my eyes off the archaeological artifacts laying all around.
We didn’t find the road into the park to be poor… unpaved, sure, but in pretty fair shape for that time of year, was spring, I’m thinking around Memorial Day. Perhaps because our farm roads are gravel on dirt, and you need 4×4 to visit many of our friends’ farms. Or walk if it’s wet.
Thanks for the outstanding photo set and all the information about the site.
Great stuff – thanks albatrossity!
Reminder: We’ll see Chaco Canyon though Albatrossity’s eyes again tonight in On the Road After Dark. But this time we’ll see it in the Springtime!
(The post won’t appear at the link until it’s published tonight.)
Steve from Mendocino
Nice work. I especially like that first shot of the tree, but I’m predictable that way.
Next time you’re at Chaco Canyon, say hello to Ranger GB if he’s there. He’s my uncle, my mom’s younger brother.
If you go and are in something less than high clearance 4×4, check the recent weather. Most of the time that road is merely rough and might require a bit of dodging of ruts, but with moisture, it turns treacherous. Deep mud, some water holes, and uncertain bottoms followed as it dries by ruts 12-16 inches deep. I’ve never been there in hard freezing weather, so I would imagine that those ruts come and go with the freeze/thaw cycle. Wonderful place to visit, particularly in the off seasons.
@ShadeTail: Elizabeth had a phone conversation with GB earlier this year; he is retiring, so we won’t be able to say hi to him next time we’re there. He is an amazing person, warm and witty and smart and a bit curmudgeonly. A perfect uncle!
Beautiful place and beautiful birds! I’ll be following some of the links you provided, albatrossity — thank you!
@central texas: the road was rough and washboardy when i went there but not that bad. After a few days, it snowed and then thawed. That road gets really bad when it is muddy. The road is probably more maintained these days but i hope they never pave it. There is no other place like Chaco.
@Albatrossity: Ah shoot, that sucks, he hadn’t told us yet. Not surprising, though. He’s in his 70s and his health isn’t the greatest anymore. He was actually hospitalized briefly in June due to a recurring problem. I’ll have to text mom about it.