Chaco Canyon: The Animals and The People

Chaco Canyon. Barren and desolate, leaving visitors asking, “Why here?”

The San Juan River Basin is a massive, 150 mile oval depression that originates in Colorado, and snakes through New Mexico and Utah on its way to the mighty Colorado River, through the Grand Canyon, and finally to the Pacific Ocean.

Within this mighty basin we find thousands of archaeological sites reflecting the ancient civilization known as the Anasazi. Chaco is a remote tributary of the San Juan, a desolate 20 mile section best described as a sandy wash, draining north into the San Juan River.

The southwest USA is usually thought of as a hot, dry climate, when in fact it is amazingly diverse in geology and geography. Chaco Canyon has an unforgiving climate, with bone chilling winters featuring sharp, biting winds, and roasting summers that can send the hardiest souls scurrying to the cover of shade in the mid-day sun. At 6,200’ above sea level, Chaco is colder, longer, than most people would assume. According to the data collected between 1941 and 1970, the canyon averages only 150 frost-free days per year; (Vivian and Mathews 3). Staying warm would have required continual fire, clothing, and shelter.

The Anasazi Indians that occupied this canyon are commonly referred to as “Chacoans”. To these resilient residents, there were two overwhelming concerns to their daily existence that would have ultimately meant the difference between life and death; water and warmth. Imagine what it would take to obtain, store, and judiciously use water in an environment such as this; one with less than 9” of annual rainfall.