James C. Wilson’s Hiking New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon: The Trails, the Ruins, the History is a straightforward guide to a locale characterized by endless complexity. As Wilson writes in the introduction, “The trails take you through 1,200 years of Ancestral Puebloan history.” At Chaco, visitors will “stand before ancient shrines and open kivas where religious ceremonies were performed by priests a thousand years ago.” But first, you have to get there — no easy task, considering that Chaco Canyon is a three- to four-hour drive northwest from Santa Fe, and the last 16 miles are mostly unpaved and deeply rutted. It’s a journey Wilson has made twice annually for 40 years. Short of talking to Puebloan ghosts, his are among the most intimate insights a new visitor could hope to receive.
The Albuquerque-area writer breaks down the Chaco trails by chapter, beginning each with a quick description of access points, the time it takes to complete, and alternate routes. The former journalist then goes into greater detail about what you will see along the way and provides historical and geological information, studded with gently poetic prose. Of the ceremonial kiva Casa Rinconada, on Chaco’s South Mesa, he writes: “A stone bench for sitting encircles the underground structure, large enough to accommodate dozens of celebrants. Stone stairways lead into the north and south antechambers from which the priests or dancers would emerge.” Wilson delves into the roadside ruins, local campground facilities, and Outliers (kivas, or Great Houses) in the region that connect to Chaco by networks of old roads.
Without overwhelming his hiking guide with too much scholarship, he succinctly educates readers about different groups that have occupied Chaco throughout the centuries. Hiking New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon: The Trails, the Ruins, the History (2019, 97 pages, $16.95) is published by Sunstone Press.