On August 15 I left El Malpais and headed up to Chaco Canyon. This was my third time there, but every visit is always fascinating.
The drive to Chaco Canyon National Historical Park took about 6 hours. I rather took my time since I had campground reservations. This was a change since the last times I’d been there—they had now joined the Recreation.gov website.
There was another reason for taking my time: the road. Chaco Canyon is in the middle of nowhere, and the last 20 miles is on a dirt and washboard road. It regularly gets washed out and becomes a challenge to drive. In fact, the Chaco Canyon website recommends calling them first to check on the road condition.
At least the road was dry . . . when I started. Almost immediately I passed through a section that was barely a single vehicle wide. From then on it wasn’t too bad, just very slow. You really cannot go much above 30mph. Or if you do, you suddenly realize that the washboard surface means your tires aren’t doing a whole lot of gripping. (For those of you unfamiliar with washboard surfaces, they are rock/gravel/dirt that develops grooves perpendicular to the direction of travel. It’s something about the way the vehicle bounces up and down on the surface that creates and then digs the grooves deeper and deeper).
About six miles from Chaco Canyon there was a large pool across the road from some recent monsoon incident. The pool area was easy to see since there was a car stuck in it, and the driver walking around in desperation.
I got out (barefoot, of course!) and walked through the pool to get a feel (yay bare feet!) for the surface underneath the water. It turned out that it was goopy on the left (where the car was stuck—my feet sunk about 3-4 inches on every step), but fairly firm on the right. So I drove through on the right (had no problem), picked up the driver of the other vehicle, and then headed to the ranger station at Chaco.
Unfortunately, the driver of the other car had intended to visit for just a day and had gotten a rental. He’d wanted something more than a low-slung sedan, but he’d been pooh-poohed. And so he ended up spending the day arranging to get the car towed out of the mud. Did I mention that Chaco Canyon is in the middle of nowhere? (The nearest gas station in 21 miles away, and for a tow, they have to come from either Farmington or Gallup.)
I was at Chaco Canyon over a full moon. If I got up early enough I could see the moon setting behind the canyon wall of the campground as the sun rose.
The campground (which was never very full) also had some interesting residents. They lived in that kind of rounded gap/crack up the cliff wall to the left.
Maybe you can see a bit more with a closer look?
Do you think you see something there? OK, let me get out my good zoom lens.
Those are barn owls, with at least one fledgling.
Did you know that the fledglings screech all night, calling “Feed me! Feed me!”? I was happy that’s I’d brought good ear plugs with me. They were officially for drowning out the snores of other campers, but they work on owls, too.
Here’s one more picture of the owls at the campground.
On my previous trips to Chaco Canyon I had done many of the hikes (and visited many of the sites). On this trip, though, I wanted to make sure I hit all of the spots I’d missed before, along with revisiting old favorites. That was one reason I scheduled a long stay there (6 nights).
Another reason was just so I didn’t feel rushed. I wanted to be able just to soak in the feel of the place. It was really weird to see people come into the campground late in the evening, and then pack up the next morning. What could they possibly be seeing? What all were they missing?
Anyways, there was an overlook trail that left right from the campground that’d I’d never gotten to hiking on my previous visits. So I did that late in the day that I arrived. Here’s the topo map showing that trail. It’s the trail that leaves the campground and heads west (and south).
I usually tried to do my hikes in the morning or a fair bit later in the afternoon, to avoid the mid-day sun and heat of the day. And I had the time to do that (and laze around in the shade when it was hottest).
Here’s Fajada Butte as the sun was working on setting.
Along the route there were also a bunch of the trace fossils you find all over the place at Chaco.
Those are shrimp burrows. They’re not the shrimp themselves (from about 60-80 million years ago), but what remain after their burrows filled in with a different material and fossilized.
If you look at the map, you’ll also see the trail to the Wijiji ruins. (They were another place I hadn’t visiting on my previous trips and had on my agenda.) The Overlook Trail gave a nice view up the Chaco Wash at them. I ended up taking quite a few pictures up that way as I headed back to the campground.
Here’s the first one.
You can see my shadow lengthening with the setting sun.
Here’s a slightly different perspective as I headed back to the north and east.
Even farther along I’m not even looking up the canyon any more.
But in front of the cliff face you can see the Wijiji trail, which is an old two-rut road.
If you go to a National Park, always check out the Ranger Programs. At Chaco the following evening, they were doing a special program to take advantage of the (nearly) full moon.
It was a really nice program visiting Pueblo Bonito under strong moonlight.
As the sun set the sky darkened, but there was still plenty of light from the moon for walking around the ruins and to hear the excellent descriptions and history from the Ranger. The only time they used a flashlight was as folks ducked through very low doors.
I did have one gripe with the Program/Ranger, though. In talking about the moon she told us that the moon subtended 1° of arc (about the width of the tip of your pinkie finger with your arm extended). I was pretty sure that was wrong—I thought it was half a degree, and said so. (After all, I’ve been messing around with the alignment of the Newark Earthworks with the moon and had been using that figure a lot.) But she insisted, and I didn’t want to make a big deal about it (and disrupt the program).
But later I checked. The Visitor Center’s bookstore had a number of astronomy books (partly because, so far from light pollution, the night skies are spectacular) so I looked it up. Yup, it was half a degree. So I brought that to the Ranger’s attention, and she burbled about how it’s measured differently, and that it varies with apogee and perigee (yeah, between 0.48° abd 0.55°). But she would not back down, and even said that she had taught astronomy. In the end she just said, “Well, we’ll have to agree to disagree.” Pfft. One does not “agree to disagree” about whether 2+2=5 or not. It was frustrating.
The Rangers do a great job and impart a lot of information (which also means they have to learn a lot for each assignment). But you’d think they would also be open to making sure all their information is correct.
But that’s just me. (And I can hear my wife and kids sighing right now.) 🙂