Driving on a long dirt road actually is the only choice for getting to the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, yet this minor setback does not decrease the number of visitors. Fortunately, there is more than one way to get to Chaco Canyon and some of the dirt roads are smoother than others.
Most visitors enter the park on Indian Service Route 7061, which runs west from Highway 550. This route is paved part way, then the rest of the 20 mile ride will be over a very rough dirt road. The second most popular way to get to Chaco actually is the smoothest of the three dirt roads. Coming up from the south on State Road 57 is a good option and the scenery is interesting along the way. The third way to get to Chaco is to chart a course going east from New Mexico State Road 371 near White Rock. This is a very risky way to get to Chaco Canyon, so it is officially not recommended.
The National Park Rangers officially do not recommend driving from White Rock to Chaco for many good reasons. The terrain along this route is very rough and a sudden storm can dramatically change the landscape. The area between White Rock and Chaco is extremely remote, so there will be very little hope for a rescue. Another negative aspect has to do with rattlesnakes. The area west of Chaco has a high concentration of these deadly vipers, so a vehicular breakdown can result in doing the proverbial snake dance all the way back to civilization, which is not a good way to survive the day.
In big bold letters, traveling from SR 371 in White Rock to Chaco Canyon is NOT RECOMMENDED! For those who cannot resist a four wheeling adventure, the park service does recommend traveling in pairs of vehicles when taking on this route. Packing a three day supply of food and water is recommended in case a survival situation arises. Wearing snake boots or protective leggings is also highly recommended. As can be imagined, with recommendations like these, very few people are willing to attempt the overland route from White Rock to Chaco Canyon.
On the day that I drove from White Rock to Chaco, a fast moving storm was passing through. By the look of things, I had a narrow window of opportunity to make it to Chaco before buckets of rain came down, which was forecasted to happen around sunset. This provided four hours to travel about 27 miles in very slow going rough conditions, which actually was just enough time to get to Chaco ahead of the storm.
Four hours to go 27 miles may seem like plenty of time, but when going from White Rock to Chaco the duration can seem like an eternity. The dirt roads are very rough, so going five to ten miles per hour is par for the course and there are all sorts of extra delays that must be figured in. One of the time consuming responsibilities along the way involves opening and closing cattle gates. The rule of thumb is if the gate is open, then leave it open and if closed, then close the gate after passing through.
Another time consuming detail to negotiate is the livestock that stand still on the road. Cattle tend to congregate on the road in some areas and sometimes these huge beasts are in no hurry to move. The ranch horses and wild horses in this area are less of a problem, because they scurry off in the presence of humans. Wild horses do frequent this region, so be sure to bring a camera along for the ride!
The scenery certainly is picturesque along the dirt roads from White Rock to Chaco Canyon. Some of the landscape is a continuation of the Bisti Badlands, so a few mushroom rock formations can be seen. For the most part, the trip goes through grassy high mesa plains and ancient farm land, which is quite intriguing to view when storm clouds are on the horizon.
Near the Chaco Culture Historical Park, the landscape changes once again to being a vast valley floor between tall mesas. In this area the dirt road passes by the Kin Klihzin great house pueblo and it is well worth stopping to take a look! After Kin Klihzin, it is just a few miles to the end point where the dirt trail meets State Road 57 on the south side of the National Park and it is an easy drive to the visitors center from there.
For those who wish for a detailed travel route, that request is not really possible. The dirt road conditions in this region can change overnight, so it may be impossible to travel the same road twice on separate days. I had to do a change of route in mid course, because one road was impassible, which is not much of a problem when using a GPS device. A smart phone mapping system will fail if a route change is necessary, because there is no data service anywhere in this region, which is important to keep in mind.
Once again, this travel route to Chaco is not recommended, but if all precautions are taken, a 4x4 trip from White Rock to Chaco can be safely done. This is Navajo tribal land, so it pays to be respectful and not stray off the trail. This is a dangerous ride in more ways than one, yet the benefit will be a chance to learn something about the ancient Chaco Culture agricultural practices. The pathways from White Rock to Chaco pass through many ancient farms, so some insight can be gained along the way!
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