Western New Mexico
Chaco Canyon is a wonderful location that offers a great opportunity to visit one of the largest ancestral Puebloan ruins in the American Southwest. The Chaco Culture National Historical Park is located in northwestern New Mexico, between Albuquerque and Farmington, and is home to the massive Pueblo Bonito ruins which are believed to have been inhabited between AD 828 and AD 1126.
Pueblo Bonito once stood four stories tall and housed up to 750 rooms. It was the major center of culture for the Ancient Pueblo Peoples (Chacoans). The above picture is taken in one of the front rooms in the Pueblo Bonito complex.
I would ask that when you visit Chaco Canyon, please do your best to preserve all aspects of this location for future visitors and always try to leave it in better shape than when you found it.
Trail Difficulty (2 out of 5)
I would rate the difficulty of this trail as a 2 on a scale of 1-5 (with 5 being most difficult). The hike to the location is a very EASY 300yd. walk from the Pueblo Bonito complex parking lot. However, the drive to the Chaco Culture National Historical Park is long (27 miles from the highway) and is a back breaker is several places.
The middle section of the drive can be very difficult to drive on when it is wet. One spot in particular (a wash) is completely impassable after a hard rain. If it has rained recently, it would be best to call the Chaco Culture visitors’ center to see if the road is open.
GPS Coordinates & Elevation
Google Maps Birds-Eye-View
Click link above to view location in Google Earth
CLICK HERE to get driving directions to Chaco Canyon Visitors Center.
There are multiple ways to get to Chaco National Park. The closest cities are Farmington, NM (72 miles north) and Albuquerque, NM (170 miles south). The directions here are from Albuquerque, NM.
From Albuquerque, NM: Travel north 82 miles on US-550 until you reach Cuba, NM (nice little town with a GREAT Mexican food restaurant). From Cuba, drive 49 miles on US-550 until you reach CR-7900 (there is a Red Mesa Store on the opposite side of the road). Mark you odometer at this point.
At CR-7900 turn left (west) and drive 4.9 miles and turn right (north) at CR7950. This road starts off as paved and then becomes a rough dirt road until you reach the Chaco National Park. There will be several forks/splits on this road, but always continue on CR7950 until you reach the park.
Once you reach the Chaco Culture National Historical Park (there is a National Parks sign) you will soon pass a campground on the right. From there, continue on the paved road for another 3 miles until you get to the visitors’ center US Parks service building. Just past the visitors’ center (100yds.) is a gate into the Chaco Culture Park. Stay straight through the gate (it is a one-way loop) for 3 miles until you get to the Pueblo Bonito complex parking lot on the right.
From the parking lot, walk along a well maintained gravel/dirt path to the Pueblo Bonito complex (about 300yds.).
On the gravel path the trail splits when you get to the Pueblo Bonito complex. Continue straight (left) on the trail for about 20yds. and enter the complex through a break in the wall on the right (see picture). Once you have gone through the broken wall, enter the next room through a small door (you will be in room #17). Then walk through a door on the right and you are in room #16. The shot is right in front of you.
Optional Door Shots
The classic door shot is taken in room #16. There is another door shot in room # 15, which is just around the corner. To get there, simply walk through the classic door and take a left through another door. Keep walking to room #15 and then turn around. This shot is more difficult to compose, as you are shooting through three doors that do not line up as well as the classic door shot.
Best Time of Day to Shoot
This shot is totally dependent on the glow on the wall of the back room. The glow only happens in the early morning (from sunrise to about 1.5 hours after sunrise) and on a clear day. Because the glow from the back wall doesn’t very last long, try to arrive the day before and scout out the location and decide on the composition.
VERY IMPORTANT: There is a heavy metal gate (about 100yds. past the visitors’ center) that blocks the entrance to Chaco Culture Park. There is no way to get to the Chaco Culture center until the gate is opened.
Normally, a park ranger arrives around 7am to open the gate.
Best Time of Year to Shoot
You can shoot this location for most of the year. However, the best time of the year would be from mid-September and mid-February (and for a few weeks after daylight savings), as the sunrise is around or after 7am. The gate to the Pueblo Bonito ruins does not open until 7am, and you cannot get to the location before this time.
What Lens(es) Do You Need
The best lens for the shot is a 28-50mm. The image above was shot at 40mm.
A national park service permit is required for entrance to the Chaco Culture National Historical Park ($16/vehicle) and is good for 7 days. If you have the National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Annual Pass, you should be fine. The permit is purchased at the Chaco Culture visitors’ center.
Direction of the Shot
The direction of the shot is east @ 87°.
Special Nuances of Shot
This shot is all about the glowing light on the back wall. And the glow only happens on a clear day for the first couple of hours after sunrise. If the sun is blocked, the glow will not happen.
You would think taking a picture of a door would be as straightforward as it gets. Wrong! The room you will be standing in was build almost 1,000 years ago and the walls, floor, brick, and doors are not level or square. When setting up your camera, pay close attention to the sides of the door, the walls, the floor, and the door jam—and try to get them in some semblance of proportion. You will never get each lined up together, so just pick one that is level/straight. On the image above, I tried to get the left side of the back door straight and let the rest fall in place.
Another nuance of the shot is the distance, height, and placement between the front and back doors. If you move closer to the front door, the back door changes in proportion, and vice versa. If you move to the left, the back door moves to the right, and vice versa. My suggestion would be to arrive as early as possible or the day before to pick your composition. As mentioned, the golden glow does not last very long.
Special Equipment Needed
In addition to a tripod, bring a small broom or towel (as you may need to sweep away footprints that are sometime present).
Number of Other Photographers to Expect
Chaco Canyon has a moderate amount of visitors during the day. But during the first few hours after sunrise, it would be rare to see anyone else at this location.
Spring and fall are great times to visit with moderate temperatures. Summer highs are typically in the 80s to mid-90s, with periodic thunderstorms. Winter temperatures can drop to 10-20° at night. Chaco Canyon is in the middle of the desert in western New Mexico, where rain is normally pretty rare. However, when it does rain, the road can get washed out and makes the drive impassable.
I have Verizon and there is NO cell service anywhere around Chaco Canyon. Cell service improves as you get back to US 550.
The Chaco Canyon National Historical Park is a long way from the nearest town (the closest town is Bloomfield 61 miles north and Cuba 69 miles east). Most people come to this location from either Farmington or Albuquerque.
When I come from Albuquerque, I usually stay in Cuba (mainly to eat at El Bruno’s Mexican restaurant). There is also a nice campground inside the park (Gallo Campground) which has about 50 camping / tent / RV campsites. The cost is $15 per night and it is located just past the entrance to the park. Reservations can be made at www.recreation.gov. Search for Gallo Campground @ Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
Nearby camping and lodging
Camping - click on the campground below for directions
Gallo Campground (1 mile east of the visitors center)
Lodging - click on the lodging below for a TripAdvisor review
415 S Bloomfield Blvd, Bloomfield, NM
Super 8 Bloomfield
525 W Broadway Ave, Bloomfield, NM
6332 US-550, Cuba, NM
As mentioned, the Chaco Canyon National Historical Park is a long way from any town. My favorite restaurant in this area is El Bruno’s Mexican restaurant in Cuba, NM. Family-owned, it has GREAT tableside guacamole, yummy margaritas, and excellent authentic Mexican food. Beware: Some dishes are pretty spicy.
Nearby Restaurants - click on the restaurant below for yelp review
El Bruno's Restaurante y Cantina
6453 Main St, Cuba, NM
The only laundry mat in the area that I know of is the Quick Stop Laundry at 325 N 1st St in Bloomfield, NM
Other Photography Opportunities Around
The closest airport is Albuquerque International Sunport (ABQ) and services most of the major airlines in the US.
Area Guides and Workshops
The Photographer's Ephemeris is a very valuable tool for landscape photographers to determine the direction of the sunrise/sunset & moonrise/moonset from any place on earth on any day (past and future). Click here to take you to The Photographer's Ephemeris for this location.