Find epic stargazing at ‘New Mexico’s Machu Picchu’

In Chaco Canyon, ancient Native American sites still reflect the wonder of the night sky.

By Nneka M. Okona
Published 26 Mar 2019, 09:47 GMT
Stars whirl in time-lapse above Casa Rinconada, an Ancestral Puebloan site in Chaco Canyon.
Stars whirl in time-lapse above Casa Rinconada, an Ancestral Puebloan site in Chaco Canyon.
Photograph by National Park Service

In August 2017, a national, astral phenomenon swept the United States—a total solar eclipse. Friends and families flocked to cities in the path of totality, trying to get their hands on protective eclipse viewing glasses, most of which sold out in record time.

And in years since, national parks have seen renewed interest in tourists and astronomy enthusiasts alike choosing to pause and look up at a night’s sky.

“Astrotourism” is also on the rise at Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Located in a desert canyon hours outside of Albuquerque, the park is home to centuries-old archaeological wonders including petroglyphs and the ever-popular Pueblo Bonito, an 1,100-year-old Native American great house. Chaco is also renowned for its limited light pollution and unobstructed views of constellations and was officially designated as a Dark Sky Park in 2013, though its stargazing legacy is much older.

Between the ninth and 13th centuries, Ancestral Puebloan people made their homes in Chaco Canyon and other sites in the Four Corners region. Though questions still surround the group’s origins and fate, their descendants among the Hopi, Zuni, and other tribes forge a crucial link to their history.

Ancestral Puebloans looked to the sky and the stars for guidance on when to harvest food or hold ancestral ceremonial events, a reverent connection whose legacy is still alive today.

“Since the creation of our Night Sky Program in 1988, we have attempted to emphasize two aspects or ‘arenas’ of astronomy in Chaco,” park ranger and Chaco Culture interpreter GB Cornucopia said via email. “When we do an astronomy program, we begin with a presentation of how the ancient people made cultural uses of the night sky. [Many] structures show definite relationships with celestial happenings, such as solstices and equinoxes.”

Night Sky programming at Chaco Culture includes full moon walks through Pueblo Bonito as well as walks geared towards the solstices and equinoxes. Astronomy programs are also offered at the visitor center in addition to the park’s more remote archaeological sites. (These are the best stargazing destinations around the world.)

Preserving these important, vulnerable sites is a vital concern for Chaco’s staff, who often limit the number of visitors that can participate in their Night Sky programming as a precaution, according to lead interpreter and park ranger Nathan Hatfield.

“Those programs can be very popular and we need to be mindful of the capacity of our [sites],” said Hatfield via email, adding that potentially increased interest in astronomy-specific programs doesn’t raise preservation concerns.

As it stands, Chaco Culture regularly caps attendance of the summer solstice program at a hundred people and the full moon walks at 50. And popular demand has inspired new programming, including the Astronomy Fest, a 2016 addition that occurs during the autumnal equinox.

Cornucopia believes the park’s strong astronomy legacy makes it special in its own right.

“People who have never seen the Milky Way come away literally with stars in their eyes,” he said. “Whether they view the sky through one of our high-end amateur telescopes or just stand open-eyed under the heavens taking it all in, we do our best to show them how ancient peoples all over the world could see a sky that today is hard to find.”

Planning your trip

When to go: To participate in the Night Sky Programs, plan a visit between April and October, when they are offered on Fridays and Saturdays.

What to see: Don’t miss programming at the astronomy center. Among a number of archaeological sites, Pueblo Bonito, Chetro Ketl, and Una Vida stand out.

Where to stay: Try the Gallo Campground located on the park’s property. Make reservations in advance for individual sites ($15 per night) and group sites ($60 per night), both of which include a picnic table and fire grate with grill.

Pro tips: In desert climate, expect extremes. In fall and winter, dress in warm layers to insulate from the frigid winds. In spring and summer, wear sunscreen and hats to ward off sunburn and hydrate properly—temperatures can sometimes top 100°F.

Freelance writer Nneka M. Okona is based in Atlanta. Follow her adventures on Twitter @afrosypaella.

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