It’s early September and the summer tourists have abandoned the 130,000-square-mile red rock landscape known by geologists as the Colorado Plateau. It contains the largest concentration of scenic wonders in America. Roughly centered where the states of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Arizona meet, the plateau was once home to the Anasazi, a largely vanished Native American culture that began living in this arid environment as early as 1200 B.C. The prospect of seeing archeological remnants of these ancient Puebloan people promises to make this trip an unforgettable adventure.
The Colorado Plateau
Hundreds of millions of years ago, shallow seas deposited layers of sediment several miles thick. Over the eons the seas receded and those sedimentary layers were forced deep into the earth where intense heat and pressure fused them into rock. Later, tectonic plate movement caused the entire western US to begin rising some 5-to-10 million years ago, forming the Rocky and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges. But the thick rocky crust of the Colorado Plateau didn’t bend and fold from those forces. Instead, it was uplifted largely intact and then eroded into the dramatic red rock landscape we see today.
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From Cuba, NM, my nephew Steve Brown and I travel northwest into an enormous landscape that’s largely devoid of modern civilization. A thin ribbon of two-lane asphalt snaking its way across the plateau seems a tenuous human lifeline in this world of stone. Although the temperature is in the 80s, the combination of very low humidity and an altitude ranging from 6,000-to-7,000 feet makes travel and on-foot discovery quite comfortable. The feeling is both exhilarating and humbling, out here where the colossal forces of nature rule over mankind.
Into Chaco Canyon
At the turn-off from US 550 to Chaco Culture National Historical Park, a sign indicates that there’s no food, gas, or hotels from here on. All but 8 miles of this 21-mile road are dirt and gravel. We fly over the rutted-out, washboard roadway, and splash through a shallow water crossing, sending spray onto the dry desert surface. Then, the road subtly winds its way onto a dry wash canyon floor and we’re soon surrounded by Chaco Canyon.
Chaco Culture National Historical Park has one of the most extraordinary collections of ancient ruins north of Mexico.
Chaco Culture National Historical Park has one of the most extraordinary collections of ancient ruins north of Mexico. The park’s mission is to carefully manage the exploration and preservation of these ancient dwellings.