I am an archaeologist who has lived in the desert for almost 50 years so let me start off by clearing the air: I hate snow!
Yes, I know it looks pretty on the mountains, like the powdered sugar you sprinkle on your French toast. And, yes, it is magical to stand out amid the whispering of light flakes spiraling gently from the gray blanketed sky.
After that delightful experience is over, I want it gone!
I doubt there is an archaeologist worth his trowel that likes the idea of snow covering the ground but part of my ‘curmudgeon-y’ attitude comes from my years as a tour guide.
And one of my first trips to Chaco Canyon came the day after a major snowstorm.
If you live in or have visited in the southwestern United States and are interested in Indian culture, or ruins, or rock art, or hiking and you haven’t been to Chaco; shame on you! First reported to the United States government in the mid-1800s, Chaco is the heartbeat of prehistoric archaeology in the southwest. The small sampling of photos that I have included here barely begin to convey the vast array of fascinating places to see in this World Heritage site.
The park was first established back in the early 1900s and originally included only the massive 800-room Pueblo Bonito. Gradually more of the current park was added until it included all the major ruins and dozens of outlying prehistoric communities and resources. 1)
Originally access to the canyon was only by two primitive roads. However, today you can drive nearly any vehicle into the park by way of the “Pueblo Pintado” road coming either from Bloomfield or Cuba, New Mexico. 2)
Ah, you say but what was that I said about about snow?
Okay, I better fess-up. Back in the day, and I’m talking mid-80s here, I decided to begin offering tours of archaeological sites and Indian reservations as part of the Community Outreach program at Pima Community College in Tucson. I am also trained as an educator and it just seemed a natural outgrowth of my various careers to visit the places I liked to go and take others with me. It became the perfect second job.
In scheduling my first tour into Chaco however, I made the mistake of setting it in February.
I live and work mostly in Tucson, Arizona in the great Sonoran desert. It is hot. We received a dusting of snow this winter and also last year but that is an infrequent occurrence at best.
Chaco Canyon though is 40 miles from anywhere in northwestern New Mexico. True it is located in a desert but it is the Great Basin; a high, cold desert.
In February they get SNOW! The day we were scheduled to leave Tucson a massive storm had settled over the Four Corners area.
Choosing discretion for once, we waited a day longer before leaving to head north. When I got there I saw that it had been quite a storm. Snow blanketed everything. Realizing that the south road into Chaco was definitely the worse of the two main routes available to me, I chose to enter the canyon from the north. In those days, from the north you could select either the road at the Blanco Trading Post or the one at the Nageezi Trading Post as both eventually hooked up to the Park Service road and the canyon. In good weather I always chose Blanco to go in and Nageezi to return so that we would get a different look coming and going.
Blanco it was.
Turning off NM 44 I was surprised to see that no one had as yet driven on the gravel road once it passed the trading post buildings. The snow covered it uniformly though I could vaguely see the outlines of the ruts. I was not too concerned, I had driven the road many times, I was in a high clearance vehicle and it was only 25 miles to the park. The proverbial piece of cake — ice cream cake!
In very short order I realized the road beneath the snow was frozen solid, if I drove over 10 miles an hour the van would begin to fish-tale and slide off the road into the ditches on either side. Two and a half hours and several badly bitten fingernails later, we arrived at the park entrance where I faced my next crisis.
The old park service road into the canyon was cut down through the sandstone talus and was about one and one third lanes wide. If someone was leaving by way of this road, which was still frozen; and we happened to meet . . . well, I didn’t really want to think on it further, I had come this far — down I went.
I, of course, shared very little of this with the people in my charge, though I had casually mentioned earlier that usually it took only about forty-five minutes to reach the Visitor’s Center once we left the highway; they couldn’t help but notice the time discrepancy.
My luck held, we arrived at the Visitor’s Center in one piece and amazingly enough we were the only sightseers at that hour and for much of that day. Who would’ve thought?
Everyone loved the canyon’s picturesque sandstone walls topped all in white. The sun came out, the trails drained and it was a chilly but wonderful day.
Later as we were leaving the Visitor Center to return to our motel in Farmington, I happened to mention how bad the Blanco road had been. The Park Service ranger behind the desk laughed and replied, “Oh Blanco, nobody uses ‘that’ road in the winter!”
OK then, in leaving I would use Nageezi. In retrospect I guess it was the right decision, the Nageezi road was not frozen . . . it was mud! Two and a half hours later I was thrilled to see pavement!
Today you will probably have no such adventures arriving safely at Chaco but if I were you, my trips would be confined to spring and summer.
2) from the Park Service Guide: The preferred and recommended access route to the park is from the north, via US 550 (formerly NM 44) and County Road (CR) 7900, and CR 7950.