As we left Farmington, New Mexico the next morning to make our way to Chaco Culture National Historical Park, the weather was again bitingly cold and windy. My one warm sweatshirt, hat and gloves were getting quite the workout! We made our way out to the highway and began the couple hour drive to the park. Where we found that once again it was starting to snow…
As the snow got worse and worse, and started to blanket the fields next to the road, the wind continued and made it difficult to see. We saw a sign indicating that the turnoff for Chaco was 10 miles away, and my heart started to sink. The road out there is not a good one, and with questionable weather it would probably be impassable. We made the decision that we would need to skip our planned visit.
Almost immediately after deciding we wouldn’t go, the snow started to lighten up, and the skies began to brighten enough that we could see blue skies off to the West in the direction of the park. By the time we had driven the 10 miles to the turnoff, it was looking good enough to take the chance. We did decide that if the weather started to turn worse, we would turn around immediately.
Chaco Culture NHP is 21 miles from highway 550. The first 8 miles are paved. The next 13 miles are unpaved gravel, then hard packed dirt road. According to the NPS website, the road is suitable for all passenger vehicles, but the last 4.5 miles are very rough. The Park Service’s warning about the rough road is no understatement. As we jostled around in our rental car, we felt very anxious. There are no fences, and signs warn you about livestock in the road. We didn’t see any animals in the road like we did at Canyonlands, but we saw cattle, goats and wild horses very close to the edge.
The ruts tossed us around, and we had multiple conversations about whether it was better to go faster and take the bumps in one spine compressing fell swoop, or slow down and feel each jarring bounce individually. This, even though we never went more than 20 miles an hour on the rougher sections. There were two discussions about turning around, even though the weather no longer seemed threatening.
Even though it was on Jon’s must-see list for the trip, he was having serious second thoughts. In short, you don’t go to Chaco Culture NHP on accident. You have to really want to go there.
We finally arrived, and what a relief it was to reach the boundary of the park and hit paved road again! We passed the primitive campground; I’m not much into camping, but I would camp there just to experience to absolute silence and the absolute darkness of Chaco Culture at night. I bet the stars are amazing! Then we stopped at the Visitor’s Center.
The Visitor’s Center had the first picture stamp of the trip for my National Parks Passport; it was a picture of Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Culture’s largest Great House, as it would have looked at the culture’s peak. I shopped for some postcards (you didn’t think I could pass up postcards?!) and talked to the ranger about the sites we should visit. And I asked him about the weather forecast and what that would mean for the road, as there was still a chance of rain or snow continuing through the day. He said that it was very unlikely that there would be measurable precipitation, and that the road would be fine. That allayed my fears; but I don’t think it did much for Jon.
I’ll tell you about the historic sites at Chaco next!
Have you been on a road like this? What’s the worse driving experience you have had?