Chaco Culture National Historical Park: Things To Do (2024)

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Want to know how to see all of Chaco Culture in just one day? We’ve got you covered with everything we know from our day trip!

Chaco Culture National Historical Park, also known as Chaco Canyon, is a 1,000+ year old UNESCO World Heritage Site in northwestern New Mexico.

It’s a collection of ruins built by the Ancestral Puebloans that inhabited this region from about 900 AD to 1150 AD.

It can all be visited in just one day and is an easy day trip from places like Farmington, Gallup, Durango, and some other nearby tourism spots.

When we visited Chaco Culture, it was part of a larger road trip around New Mexico.

We had spent the previous night in Farmington after spending the day at Aztec Ruins National Monument, so the drive in was only about an hour and a half.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park

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Chaco Culture National Historical Park

If you’re taking a trip to New Mexico or anywhere near the Four Corners, I highly recommend adding Chaco Culture to your itinerary.

The ruins here are well preserved, so you can go inside many of them and explore many rooms throughout the site.

This site is quite large and requires a little bit of driving to get to each place along the route, but it’s only a 9 mile loop in total.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park - welcome sign

Things To Do At Chaco Culture

When driving to Chaco Culture National Historical Park, the first place you’ll come across is the visitor center.

From there, you can follow the loop drive to each of the pueblos that are still intact.

You can also participate in ranger programs or the junior ranger program if you have kids traveling with you, depending on the time of year.

There’s even a more modern day cemetery just beyond one of the pueblos.

Wetherill Cemetery at Chaco Culture

1. Visitor Center

You always want to stop at the visitor center first when visiting national park sites.

After the long drive in, it’s a good idea to stop for a bathroom break here, as well as get a map of the park, get a stamp in your national park passport, and ask the rangers any questions you have.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park Visitor Center

2. Museum & Movie

At the visitor center there is also a small museum with artifacts that have been excavated around the Chaco Culture site.

You can also watch a 26 minute film about the site.

We personally like to do these things before heading out and exploring the park because it gives us more information and context to what we’re about to go see.

But if you wanted, you could always do this part last.

The beauty of this park is that it all follows a loop, so you can start and end wherever you’d like.

3. Una Vida

The first set of ruins to explore are just beyond the visitor center parking lot.

There is a 1 mile round trip trail that takes you to this “great house”.

Una Vida facade at Chaco Culture National Historical Park

You may also begin to see some of the petroglyphs that are found all throughout the park.

Plan to spend about 45 minutes here on this trail.

Una Vida trail at Chaco Culture National Historical Park

4. Hungo Pavi

To get here, you’ll get back in your car that’s parked at the visitor center.

You’ll drive about 2 miles along the 9 mile loop drive.

The trail here is only .25 miles round trip.

Hungo Pavi is another “great house” site, but this one has not been excavated like the previous one, so it looks a little different.

Plan to spend about 30 minutes at this stop.

Hungo Pavi Trail at Chaco Culture National Historical Park

5. Chetro Ketl

Another 2 1/2 miles on the 9 mile loop drive is Chetro Ketl.

The trail here is about half a mile round trip, but you’ll want to plan to spend about 45 minutes here to explore the ruins.

This is the second largest great house at this site, with many rooms to explore.

If you only do a few stops on the full loop, this has to be one of them.

Chetro Ketl trail and ruins at Chaco Culture National Historical Park

6. Petroglyph Trail

Along the rock wall connecting Chetro Ketl to Pueblo Bonito is the petroglyph trail.

This trail is about a quarter mile long.

If you want to take time to look at the various petroglyphs, you’ll want to plan to spend about 30 minutes walking along this trail.

Depending on the time of day and how the sun and shadows are hitting the wall, some petroglyphs are easier to see than others.

petroglyphs at Chaco Culture National Historical Park

7. Pueblo Bonito

This was definitely my favorite spot in the whole park and it’s the #1 most recommended place to go in the park.

It’s right next to Chetro Ketl, so you don’t have to travel far for this next stop.

The trail here is about half a mile round trip, but you’ll want to spend about 45 minutes to an hour exploring the ruins here because there’s just so much.

Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Culture National Historical Park

8. Casa Rinconada

Another 1.5 miles along the 9 mile loop drive is Casa Rinconada.

The trail through here is half a mile round trip and you’ll want to plan to spend 30-45 minutes here.

This site is also made up of smaller villages you can explore.

Casa Rinconada at Chaco Culture National Historical Park

9. Pueblo Del Arroyo

About a half mile up the road is Pueblo Del Arroyo, the last stop on the 9 mile loop drive.

The trail here is 0.25 miles round trip and you can expect to spend about 30-45 minutes here.

Pueblo del Arroyo signage at Chaco Culture National Historical Park

10. Night Sky Programs

Back in the late 90s a permanent observatory was built by the visitor center.

Dark Sky designations are given to remote areas with clear, dark skies that have virtually no light pollution.

Generally from April through October they host night sky programs in the park on a variety of topics.

On solstices and equinoxes there are special sunrise programs, mostly at Casa Rinconada.

11. Junior Ranger Program

Each park that is part of the National Park Service system hosts junior ranger program activities.

Here, you’ll stop at the visitor center to pick up a booklet or worksheet.

You’ll have to go to the popular sites around the park to find all of the answers.

Once you’re done, you return your complete booklet to the visitor center and you’ll be rewarded with a badge.

The best part is that the junior ranger program is completely free!

Where To Stay Near Chaco Culture

There are not really any options in terms of hotels within about an hour of Chaco Culture National Historical Park, so you’ll have to drive to the nearest cities.

Depending on where this stop is fitting into your itinerary, you could go on to Farmington or Gallup from here.

✅ Camping at Chaco Culture

The Gallo Campground is just outside of the visitor center at Chaco Culture.

It’s open year round, except for on a few holidays.

Campsites are only $20 per night and they offer tent camping and RV camping sites.

You’re also able to just sleep in your car if you wanted to.

The campground has water and restrooms, but no showers and there is no shade.

Farmington – Home2Suites by Hilton

When we did this trip we stayed at the Home2Suites by Hilton, which was built within the last 10 years.

Farmington is about an hour and a half north of Chaco Culture, but it’s closer to places like Aztec Ruins and Four Corners if you plan to have those in your itinerary.

We like these properties because it’s a little more space and amenities than a standard hotel room, but not as expensive as getting a hotel room with a separate bedroom.

Click Here To Book Your Home2Suites by Hilton Farmington Stay Today!

✅ Gallup – Hotel El Rancho

Hotel El Rancho is a historic hotel in Gallup, New Mexico that was built in 1937.

In general, we prefer to stay at Hilton hotels when we travel, but there’s a historic hotel or boutique property that is unique to the destination, then we like to stay at those too.

Gallup is about 2 hours south of Chaco Culture, but if you’re driving along Route 66 as part of your itinerary, then it’s not that far out of the way.

Click Here To Book Your Hotel El Ranch Stay In Gallup Today!

Frequently Asked Questions

These are the most frequently asked questions we see about visiting Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

Where is Chaco Culture National Historical Park?

Chaco Culture National Historical Park is located in northwest New Mexico.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park on a map
Image Courtesy of Google Maps

There are several places you could potentially drive in from, so here are some distances and driving times to get a good idea of how you might want to fit this into your itinerary.

The reason the driving time seems so much longer than it should compared to the distance you’re driving is that a huge portion of the drive in to the park is a very bumpy dirt road.

I think the speed limit is something like 25-30 miles per hour or even less depending on what your car can handle.

The picture below is actually from our drive leaving the park, but the roads are pretty similar.

the dirt road driving in to Chaco Culture National Historical Park

What is Chaco Canyon?

Chaco Canyon is another term for Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

They are used interchangeably.

Why is Chaco Culture National Historical Park important?

Chaco Culture is a primary site for ancient Puebloan culture.

It served as a center for trade and ceremonies, in addition to being architectural marvels.

How much is it to get into Chaco Culture National Historical Park?

The entrance fee for each vehicle is $25.

If for some reason you’re walking through the middle of nowhere to enter the park, admission is $15 per person.

Motorcycles are $20 per vehicle.

If you have a National Park pass, that counts as your admission pass, so you won’t pay anything extra to enter.

There are some free admission days to national parks that are nationally recognized.

These days include:

  • Monday, January 15 — Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
  • Saturday, April 20 — First Day of National Park Week
  • Wednesday, June 19 — Juneteenth
  • Sunday, August 4 — The Great American Outdoors Act
  • Saturday, September 28 — National Public Lands Day
  • Monday, November 11 — Veterans Day

How long to spend at Chaco Culture National Historical Park?

If you want to spend the recommended amount of time at each spot along the 9 mile loop drive and visit the museum, you can expect to spend about 5 1/2 hours or so.

What happened in Chaco Canyon?

Chaco Canyon was actually abandoned long before most of the other ancient Puebloan sites.

To my knowledge there is no conclusive evidence of exactly what happened, but I have seen some sources say that it was due to new cultures moving through the area that had differing beliefs, which caused war to ensue.

Other sources think it is as simple as climate change forcing them out due a drought that lasted for over 50 years.

More Historic Places To Visit In New Mexico

Below are our favorite places we’ve explored all over New Mexico that we highly recommend.

Aztec Ruins National Monument: The Ultimate Guide

In the eyes of UNESCO, which is the organization that designated Chaco Culture as a World Heritage Site, Aztec Ruins is included in the cluster of ruins in this area of New Mexico.

Aztec Ruins National Monument

✅ Santuario de Chimayó

Santuario de Chimayó is a pilgrimage just 30 miles outside of Santa Fe.

The dirt here is said to have healing powers, so it draws hundreds of thousands of visitors per year, especially during Holy Week.

Santuario de Chimayo

✅ Pecos National Historical Park

Pecos is just outside of Santa Fe.

It’s another hidden gem that most visitors to the area don’t go to, but it’s so worth visiting.

Pecos National Historical Park in New Mexico

✅ Gila Cliff Dwellings

Over in Southwest New Mexico are the Gila Cliff Dwellings.

This place is so fun to climb around the caves and spend some time outdoors.

Gila Cliff Dwellings in New Mexico

✅ Guadalupe Mountains To Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Over in Southeast New Mexico is Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

Just on the other side of the border is Guadalupe Mountains National Park, so these two make a perfect itinerary for a weekend getaway.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park welcome sign

✅ The Best New Mexico Road Trip Itinerary

If you want to see all of the above plus a little bit more of New Mexico, I highly recommend this road trip itinerary.

The National Museum of Nuclear Science & History in Albuquerque, New Mexico

Resources For Planning Your Trip To Chaco Culture

If you need help planning your trip to Chaco Culture National Historical Park, check out our Tips For Planning A Trip To Anywhere (A Step-By-Step Guide).

Read our Best Tips For Staying Safe When Traveling During Extreme Weather if you’re traveling during the extreme heat in Summer or the snow in Winter.

Also check out our Best Tips For Staying Well While You Travel if you’re prone to getting colds or have allergies when you travel or have other ailments.

Lastly, if you’re traveling on a budget, read up on our Best Tips For Traveling On A Budget: Your Guide To Planning An Affordable Trip.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park ruins

Conclusion: Chaco Culture National Historical Park

Chaco Culture National Historical Park is a wonderful hidden gem in the middle of nowhere New Mexico.

It’s a must visit if you’re road trip around New Mexico or near the Four Corners.