Camping in Chaco Culture

When we planned out which parks we thought we could feasibly visit in 2013, Chaco Culture National Historical Park was barely on the list. We knew we wanted to visit because the coin had already been released; however, it’s also one of the most difficult parks to visit, logistically, for a weekend jaunt.

The closest airports to Chaco Culture are Farmington (NM), Gallup (NM) and Albuquerque (NM) or Durango (CO). The closest of those (Farmington) is 80 miles from the park, but we prefer to take direct flights whenever possible so that left us with Durango and Albuquerque, which are 114 and 162 miles, respectively.

Once you get to Chaco Culture, the only lodging available within the park is first come, first serve camping. The closest hotels are 61 miles north, or an hour and a half away when you consider the bumpy dirt roads one needs to navigate to get to Chaco Culture.

The fact we needed to camp in order to be near the park for sunrise/sunset meant that we probably would need to drive there from Dallas, which is why we didn’t have it on our short list for places to visit in 2013. We figured we’d visit next time we took a road trip, possibly when we visited the various national parks in Utah.

Anyway, sometime during April, Travis found an opportunity to go to Albuquerque for a convention, and decided we could somehow merge Chaco Culture into this trip. In the end, he opted out of the convention but we decided to go to Chaco anyway.

We ended up choosing to fly into Albuquerque, which, although is a bit further than Durango, we had more flight options which made it easier to fit into a long weekend. To solve the lodging problem, we packed our tent and sleeping bags into one large suitcase and then bought a Styrofoam ice chest and other camping needs once we got to New Mexico.

We initially planned to go to Chaco Culture for two nights, but our flight was delayed from DFW so we wouldn’t have had time to get to Chaco Culture to claim a campsite and set-up before sunset. Instead, we opted to explore the Sandia hills on the east side of Albuquerque and stay in Old Town. This turned out to be a great decision, because the following day we realized exactly how rough the roads are leading into Chaco Culture — it would have been a nightmare to navigate in the dark.

Anyway, in the morning we did our grocery run (steak, garlic bread, chips, s’more materials, wine) and bought some miscellaneous camping tools. (Note to self: set aside a box of airline-friendly camping utensils so we don’t keep buying the same things over and over). We hit the road and aimed to get to the park around noon to ensure we got one of the limited camping spots.

The trip was pretty standard until we got to the last 13 miles, which was extremely rough dirt road. We were gratefull Travis had rented a 4wd SUV (in case we wanted to sleep in it instead of the tent) because we would have felt pretty insecure about driving a little rental sedan on those roads. They were unpaved washboard roads and the car still felt like it was sliding sometimes despite the 4wd. After 13 miles of bouncing and gripping the edge of the seats, we were so happy to reach the park and finally be on smooth road again.

Upon reaching the park, we immediately investigated the campgrounds. Check-out was 11am, and we were arriving around noon so we could get the best available options. They had group sites, RV/camper sites and tent-only sites. We checked the tent-only area and there was only one spot remaining, which we quickly claimed.

We set up our tent and paid our dues (and bought a fresh 2013 National Parks annual pass for our future travels). After that we headed out to visit the main park loop.

 

The park has a variety of pueblos throughout, some big, some small. Some you can walk through, some you can hike to the top of the canyon walls to view from above.

We drove the loop and visited the easily accessible pueblos before heading back to the campsite until closer to sunset.

After lazing around the campsite for a few hours, reading books and enjoying nature, we decided to hike up the canyon to see the Pueblo Bonito overlook and Kin Kletso.

We waited on the canyon edge for sunset but the clouds were pretty thick so we decided to head down before it got dark. Chaco Culture is yet another park with a closing time (8pm) so we knew we needed to get off the canyon fairly quickly.

As we approached the bottom, the sun finally appeared from beneath the heavy clouds and cast a lovely glow over the valley.

We quickly headed over to Pueblo del Arroyo to watch the sunset.

After the beautiful sunset, we migrated back to our campsite to (finally) eat our steaks and garlic bread.

We don’t camp very often, and when we have it’s not always dark enough to see many stars; however, Chaco Culture had plenty of stars for me to mess around with.

The only other time I’ve really tried star trails was in 2009 in Death Valley National Park. This attempt was far more successful.

I was also planning to take photos of the milky way, but by the time it rose the skies were pretty overcast. In fact, they stayed overcast for much of the next morning until we were about to leave to get to the airport. Oh well.

Final shot of Pueblo del Arroyo on our way out of the park.

We were pleasantly surprised by the park, and we were excited the weather cooperated enough to get some decent photos from the weekend. The camping left something to be desired (it was really windy/noisy and hard to sleep), but all and all it was a good weekend getaway.

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