The Best Hikes in Chaco Canyon

Walking through Pueblo Bonito, the largest great houses in Chaco Canyon, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico
Walking through Pueblo Bonito, the largest great houses in Chaco Canyon

We found Chaco Culture National Historical Park because of a photo on our official courtesy AAA Road Map – New Mexico Edition.  In 1995, Pueblo Bonito as seen from the Pueblo Alto Trail was the featured color photo on the cover of the map.  So despite the fact that we’d never heard of the place, and the roads to it were all dirt, we stopped in on an impromptu trip across the southwestern US.

And we loved it.

We’ve been back several times since, always hiking new trails.  Favorite memories include meeting a family who was stranded at the campground while their van got fixed (they’d accidentally left all of their homeschool supplies in the van in the shop) and celebrating my sister’s first birthday on the Pueblo Alto Trail (she had no idea why we were singing around her backpack, but she liked the attention!)  Since I consider Chaco Culture National Historical Park one of the best (or possibly the best) ancient American park in the US, I thought it would be fitting to suggest my favorite trails to the ruins in Chaco Canyon.

Best Hikes in Chaco Canyon

Doorways in Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico
Doorways in Pueblo Bonito

1. Pueblo Bonito.  If you visit no other trail or ruin in Chaco, you’ve got to visit Pueblo Bonito.  Besides being the biggest and most historical complex, it’s also the most interesting.  You can literally walk through the ruined pueblo, past the kivas and through stone doorways, with photo opportunities galore.  There’s even a room that’s pretty much in the same condition it would have been in when people lived here!  About 1.25 mile lollipop loop.

A wall at Penasco Blanco, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico
A wall at Penasco Blanco. PC Duane Burdick CC-BY 2.0

2. Penasco Blanco Trail.  Considered one of the best long hikes in Chaco Canyon, the Penasco Blanco Trail takes hikers to three great houses and two petroglyph panels – one of which depicts the supernova from 1054.  A free permit (available at the trailhead) is required for the hike. 8.2 miles out & back.

Pueblo del Arroyo at sunrise, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico
Pueblo del Arroyo at sunrise

3. Pueblo del Arroyo. I visited Pueblo del Arroyo just after sunrise, which might be why I found it so impressive.  T-shaped doors and kivas mark this great house’s construction. 0.33 mile lollipop loop.

Walking toward New Alto on the Pueblo Alto Loop, Chaco Culture National Historic Park, New Mexico
Walking toward New Alto on the Pueblo Alto Loop

4. Pueblo Alto Loop. My favorite longer hike in the park, the Pueblo Alto Loop circles the Kin Klesto Great House before zigzagging up a rockslide to pass through a very narrow canyon up to the mesa-top.  After that, the trail loops across the mesa, passing two ruins and great views across the surrounding country – including Chetro Ketl and Pueblo Bonito.  A free permit (available at the trailhead) is required to hike the trail. 6.0 mile lollipop loop.

Kiva in Chetro Ketl, Chaco Culture National Historic Park, New Mexico
Kiva in Chetro Ketl. PC taylorandayumi CC-BY 2.0

5. Chetro Ketl. Only slightly less impressive than Pueblo Bonito, Chetro Ketl is the second-largest great house in Chaco Canyon.  There are petroglyphs on the nearby cliff, as well as an elevated kiva within the structure.  0.9 miles out & back

Rock art near the Gallo Cliff Dwelling, Chaco Culture National Historic Park, New Mexico
Rock art near the Gallo Cliff Dwelling. PC gjhikes.com, All Rights Reserved

6. Gallo Cliff Dwelling.  While it’s not as big as many of the other ruins in Chaco Canyon, the Gallo Cliff Dwelling is notable because it’s not a great house: it’s a cliff dwelling.  There are also quite a few petroglyphs in the area.  The cliff dwelling is a short stroll from the campground if you happen to be spending the night.  0.6 miles out & back.

Pueblo Bonito from the overlook, Chaco Culture National Historic Park, New Mexico
Pueblo Bonito from the overlook

7. Pueblo Bonito Overlook.  You really haven’t seen Pueblo Bonito until you’ve seen it from above.  This is the most famous view of the pueblo, and rightly so.  You can really get an appreciation of the construction of the building from up here.  2.5 miles out & back.

Honorable Mention:

Ruins of Una Vida, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico
Ruins of Una Vida. PC jb10okie CC-BY-ND 2.0

8. Una Vida.  The path circles a small great house and visits a rock art panel. 1 mile lollipop loop.

Trail around Hungo Pavi, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico
Trail around Hungo Pavi. PC Duane Burdick CC-BY 2.0

9. Hungo Pavi.  The great house has never been excavated, so it’s still like it was when settlers came to the area. 0.3 mile loop.

Views from South Mesa, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico
Views from South Mesa. PC gjhikes.com, All Rights Reserved

10. South Mesa.  There really is nothing remarkable about South Mesa, other than a few ruins.  But it’s a good long hike with great views over the surrounding area.  A free permit (available at the trailhead) is required to hike the trail. 4.9 mile loop.

Lodging in Chaco Canyon

There is no lodging in Chaco Canyon other than the Gallo Campground. For more comfortable accommodations, you’ll need to drive out to Farmington, some 70 miles away.

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For trails and tales of history, check out this book dedicated to covering the famous and not-so-famous trails and ruins of Chaco Culture National Historical Park.