Chaco Culture National Historical Park: Downtown Chaco

Casa Rinconada

We completed our day’s visit to Chaco Culture National Historical Park on Friday, May 20 [2022] with a couple of walks in “Downtown Chaco.” Here in the center of Chaco Canyon we were also in the center of the Chacoan world. There was still a lot to see, but since our time was beginning to run short, we decided to focus on two sites: Peublo del Arroyo and Casa Rinconada, which offered different perspectives on Chaco than what we had already seen.

The parking area for Peñasco Blanco Trailhead was also the parking area for Pueblo del Arroyo, so of course we were going to go have a look at the Great House we had just been staring at as we ate our sandwiches.

Pueblo del Arroyo (Spanish for “Village of the Arroyo (Wash)”) is the only Great House in the canyon that is not adjacent to the canyon walls. It is also the only Great House oriented to the east, and the only one downtown lacking a Great Kiva.

It was built late in the development of Chaco Canyon, and its construction and architectural approach (particularly the three-walled structure pictured above) seem to point north and into the future of Aztec Ruins and Mesa Verde, where the construction of Ancestral Puebloan structures would continue for over another century after Chaco was abandoned.

I was quite amused by the contemporary gutter system on one of the walls, camouflaged to look like stone bricks.


It’s a quirky structure, boasting more habitable rooms than the other Chacoan Great Houses. It also apparently had a macaw room, where the skeletons of four of the bright red parrots were discovered in what may have been their holding pen.

Pueblo Bonito

In its eastern orientation, Pueblo del Arroyo looks directly at Pueblo Bonito.

Smallflower Globemallow



Some of the rooms at Pueblo del Arroyo were clearly for food production, as indicated by the presence of metates, where Chacoan women ground maize.

After strolling around Pueblo del Arroyo, we returned to the car and continued on the loop road as it crossed to the southern side of Chaco Canyon. We parked and walked toward the array of sites near Casa Rinconada.

In this area on the southern side of the canyon is a whole community of small villages that extends from Casa Rinconada east up the canyon. These unit pueblos are contemporaneous to the Chacoan Great Houses.

While it is likely that there was significant status difference between those who lived in the Great Houses—whether they were rulers or priest-like figures—what is less clear is whether these villages were truly permanent or semi-permanent habitations or whether they were housing for laborers constructing the Great Houses or even housing for pilgrims seasonally visiting Chaco.

What we do know is that Chaco was a dazzling place of grandeur. Sean and I walked up a slope and beheld Casa Rinconada (Spanish for “Corner House,” literally, but implying “house where the canyons meet,” in context). Casa Rinconada is not a house at all, it is a Great Kiva, the largest in Chaco Canyon, and one of the largest in the Ancestral Puebloan world. In use, it could have accomodated hundreds of people.

Casa Rinconada’s entrances are oriented on a north-south axis. It is in line with Pueblo Alto on the mesa top beyond Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl (Pueblo Bonito’s neighboring Great House to the east, which we didn’t get a chance to visit). From Pueblo Alto, the Chacoan Great North Road extends north to the Aztec Ruins site. Beyond the roads emanating out from Chaco, the Chacoan world was also connected by a series of signal towers extending as far away as Chimney Rock in the San Juan Mountains.

In The Chaco Meridian, University of Colorado Boulder archaeologist Stephen Lekson argues that the Chacoan Great North Road forms a longitudinal line—the Chaco Meridian—along which the rulers of Chaco moved their cities even as their influence waned and the southeastern Colorado Plateau depopulated. It’s generally accepted that the Chacoans moved north to Aztec Ruins after construction in Chaco Canyon ceased around 1150. Lekson posits that the Chacoans may have moved north again, relatively briefly, to a site near present-day Durango, Colorado. That site was a place of extreme violence, which may tie it to Pueblo oral traditions about the transition to current Pueblo lifeways.

Lekson theorizes that the Chacoans then moved south as drought forced the abandoning of Mesa Verde and the Montezuma Valley by the early 1280s and a mass migration to the Pueblo communities, like Taos Pueblo, along the Rio Grande.

A major archeological site in northern Mexico, Paquimé, is on the Chaco Meridian. Its emergence in the thirteenth century seemingly came out of nowhere, unless it was the next location of post-Chaco migration and an attempt at the continuation of Chaco’s hierarchical culture. After the collapse of Paquimé, Lekson theorizes, the wandering Chacoans—rulers with no one to rule—may have ended up on the shores of the Sea of Cortes near present-day Culiacán, also on the Meridian.

Whether or not these post-Aztec Ruins migrations actually occurred, Lekson points to a huge problem in truly understanding the scope of the Ancestral Puebloan world and that of their neighbors: the border between the United States and Mexico that did not exist at its present location until 1848 (and after). Throughout the twentieth century, many archaeologists have proceeded as if the US-Mexico border were actually a thing with any bearing at all on any of this.

Another blindspot that Lekson and other archaeologists are working to rectify is ignoring the Pueblo, Hopi, Zuni, and Navajo people and their oral and cultural traditions. For instance, some Pueblo oral traditions tell of bad things happening at Chaco or of stories of a White City and a Red City that had to be rejected. These could be echoes of Chaco and Aztec Ruins (or other sites from the turbulent transition period in the late thirteenth century).

What is clear is that Chaco represented a hierarchical societal and cultural structure—with centralized accumulation of wealth and power and influence that was eventually rejected by the Ancestral Puebloans who became the Pueblo people of today.

In rejecting hierarchy and embracing a more egalitarian approach to social structure, the Pueblo people embraced lifeways that resonated through the Pueblo uprising against Spain in 1680 and embrace strong cultural connections. They also actively rejected the general theory of human societal progression, which has long held that cities are the ultimate stage of societal evolution. This theory ignores scores of examples from around the world and across time that contradict it.

Perhaps there are important lessons for the modern world here in the history of a people rejecting intense accumulation of elite wealth in a climate and landscape that can’t support it and instead recreating communities in an egalitarian model near natural resources while using them less intensively.


Pueblo Bonito

After contemplating Casa Rinconada against the weird dusty sky of that May afternoon, the sense of place was palpable. And the contrast with our experience of Mesa Verde was clear. The whole time we were at Mesa Verde, Sean kept saying how much he liked that Park. He commented multiple times that Mesa Verde was a very special place.

But Chaco felt different. Ominous. We were ready to leave.

We decided to head over to the Visitor Center before starting the long drive back to Taos.

Fajada Butte

Fajada Butte

Striking Fajada Butte is off-limits to visitors ever since too much foot traffic marred a Chacoan solstice marker on its summit.

We parked at the Visitor Center at 3pm. Inside we checked out the exhibitions and browsed for more books.

Scale model of Pueblo Bonito

Interesting letter about problems in safely displaying artifacts at the Visitor Center.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Sean was quite taken with this series of posters of the Navajo cosmos.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Image: Sean M. Santos

A wall display handsomely listed all of the Native Nations that trace culture and ancestry back to Chaco.

It also contextualized Chaco geographically within the context of Native Nations.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Outside, a further interpretive display situated Chaco within the context of other contemporaneous World Heritage Sites.

In the Visitor Center, I was quite taken with a small Zuni Fetish carving of a Bison in lapis by a master Fetish carver, Jimmy Yawakia. I hemmed and hawed. I decided not to get it. Then I told Sean about it when we had already gotten back in the car. He encouraged me to get it. So I ran back in and purchased it.

Jimmy Yawakia, Untitled (Zuni Bison Fetish), lapis with inlaid turquoise

The Western National Parks Association staffer at the register said that they had actually had it for a few years. I’m so glad I took it home.

With that, it was time to start the long drive back to Taos.

As we drove out of Chaco, the winds really picked up and the duststorm got more intense. It underscored the feelings we’d felt as we explored the Great Houses that afternoon.

We also saw firsthand the impacts of oil and gas extraction taking place all around Chaco. In June 2023, the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced a twenty-year moratorium on new oil and gas leases around Chaco Canyon. Excellent news.

Back we went the way we’d come, over the Jemez Mountains and the Continental Divide and back out onto the Taos Plateau.

We headed straight into town to get a dinner of beet salad and sausage and green chile pizza at Taos Brewing Company.

Then we headed back to the AirBnB to shower and relax before bed.

Next morning, Saturday, May 21 [2022], I woke up in the 5am hour and climbed out of bed a little after 6am to witness a sky moody with dawn, smoke, and clouds that would drop a bit of rain on us that morning.

We had a lazy morning before heading into town around noon.

First stop was the Harwood Museum of Art for New Beginnings: An American Story of Romantics and Modernists in the West. Although a touring exhibition of works on loan from the Tia Collection, the presentation at the Harwood was a homecoming because the focus of the exhibition was work from the Santa Fe and Taos schools.

During the 1920s and 1930s, Santa Fe and Taos were recognized as two of the nation’s – and world’s – most important art communities. The cosmopolitan denizens of these relatively remote outposts embraced a multicultural America by engaging with Native American and Hispano populations. New Beginnings: An American Story of Romantics and Modernists in the West presents more than 100 works based on artists’ impressions of New Mexico, that were created over the course of a century from the late 1800-1900s. By placing the works of lesser-known artists alongside pillars of the art community, New Beginnings offers a fresh perspective and new dimension to the history of the Taos and Santa Fe art colonies and their enduring legacy.

– from the exhibition information

The show was extraordinary. We both loved it. Sean noted how effective it was that the works were grouped by subject matter, which led to a great mixing of styles in each gallery.

Afterward, we had a snack and explored Taos, with a stop at op. cit Books and a stroll down gallery row. We particularly liked Greg Moon Fine Art. And Sean almost purchased an artist’s book at David Anthony Fine Art.

Mikel Robinson, 3/10, mixed media collage on canvas, 2022

I did buy a piece that afternoon, a mixed media photo collage of a Raven from a Taos-based artist, Mikel Robinson.

We had an early dinner of green chile cheeseburgers and duck fat fries at the Burger Stand and then headed back to the AirBnB.

We spent the long evening reading, relaxing, sipping wine, and enjoying the dramatic views.

Next morning, Sunday, May 22 [2022] was bright and mostly clear. I managed to sleep in until the 6am hour.

Sean cooked up a breakfast of leftovers from our grill meal a few nights earlier.

Bighorn Sheep

Then we drove down to see the Rio Grande Gorge, where some Bighorn Sheep greeted us in the parking area.

Bighorn Sheep

The we strolled over to have a look.

Rio Grande Gorge

Image: Sean M. Santos

Hmm… Image: Sean M. Santos

After having a look at the gorge, we drove over to Ojo Caliente and spend several hours soaking in the mineral pools. It was quite relaxing. Although the crowd was white, straight, and older-ish, we did see another interracial gay couple. Neat.

Afterward, we drove back toward the Sangre de Cristos to the tiny hamlet of Arroyo Seco and the highly recommended restaurant, Aceq. It was probably the best meal of a trip on which we ate very well: “tapas” of Bison poutine, Bison gumbo, lamb lollies, artichoke hearts, and brussels sprouts with a dessert of a chocolate and chile tort and baked pears.

Heh. Image: Sean M. Santos

Back at the AirBnB we watched the sunset light up the Sangre de Cristos one last time.

Next morning, Monday, May 23 [2022], it was time to head home.

For whatever reason, the flights from Albuquerque to Chicago that day were ridiculously expensive. So we had booked our flight home from Denver, a 4.5-hour drive away. But what a drive! I had done it the previous November and was looking forward to revisiting it.

Blanca Peak and Mount Lindsey

We departed at 9am, heading north off the Taos Plateau and into the San Luis Valley. Then we crossed into Colorado and headed straight for the magnificent ridges of the northern portion of the Sangre de Cristos.

Mount Lindsey

Instead of going up the full length of the valley, we headed east past the Spanish Peaks and dropped down out of the mountains before heading north through Pueblo and Colorado Springs.

We were upgraded to First Class for our flight across the Great Plains.

And when we arrived home, Elsa was relieved to see us.

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