If you’ve been reading the blog for very long, you’ll know we take an annual summer road trip in the pop up camper. Our first road trip was to Yellowstone in 2014. You can read all about that fantastic adventure here. Last year, we hit the Pacific Northwest, and discovered a love for Oregon. We really never wanted to come home. You can read all about that trip here. After two amazing road trips, I knew this year had to be just as epic. Our ultimate destination this year was Mount Rushmore. Of course, the trip from Arizona to South Dakota is a long one, so we planned quite a few stops along the way. Our first stop was Chaco Culture National Park in New Mexico.
Our main reason for visiting Chaco Culture National Park is that it was designated as a Dark Sky Park–a distinction only a few of our national parks have obtained. That means that it is remote enough to be free of light pollution. Chaco Culture has an observatory, complete with telescope. PopUpBoy has big dreams of a career in astrophysics, so we decided to indulge him a bit and visit this park. Let me tell you, though… the road into Chaco Culture is not an easy one. 🙁 We entered the park through the north entrance, and the 15 miles of rugged, washboard dirt road were almost unbearable. Our average speed was about 12 miles per hour, and we still thought our little pop up camper would shake apart at any moment.Once we finally arrived at our campsite and opened up the camper, there was a thick layer of dust on every surface. It took me quite a while to clean everything up. We also had to tighten a few loose cabinets and the rear body panel. At this point, I was seriously questioning whether I’d just made a huge mistake bringing the camper here. Luckily, all it took was a little dinner to bring out the silver lining.Chaco Culture National Park has one campground, Gallo Campground, located just about a mile east of the visitor’s center. Gallo Campground is open year round, and each site is $15/night. I had made our reservations ahead of time on Recreation.gov, so as to ensure that we’d have a site once we arrived. There are about 50 sites at Gallo Campground (14 are tent only), none of which have hookups. There are also no showers, no firewood available for purchase, and no gas available within the park. It’s a very primitive campground, and we didn’t see many RVs in the park, probably due to the condition of the roads.Each site had a tent pad, a picnic table, and a fire grate with a grill. There were restrooms with flushing toilets and running water. Water was available throughout the campground, and a comfort station for washing dishes and dumping dish water was located in the bathroom building. There was also no shade at the campground. We stayed in site #10, which was spacious enough, but pretty barren. Luckily, we arrived later in the evening and left in the early morning, so the lack of shade was not an issue for us. The site wasn’t terribly level, but we made it work. In fact, one of our adhesive levels fell off during the jarring drive in, and we were still able to level the camper pretty well without it.
Unfortunately for PopUpBoy, I didn’t do a very good job of checking the moon cycle before we planned our trip. It didn’t even cross my mind, but while we were visiting Chaco Culture National Park, the moon was full–and boy was it bright! That meant no Night Sky Programs were running. 🙁 We did attend a ranger-led moonlight hike in Pueblo Bonito (the biggest of the ruins) that explained the astronomy “tools” of the ancient Chacoans, and that was very interesting, but I still felt like the kids were a little disappointed when we went to bed that night.
The next morning, we were up early. There’s a short trail that runs along the cliff overhang just within the Gallo Campground. You can see the remains of an ancient Chacoan house and read a little bit about the history of it. Unfortunately, you also get a prime view of some vandalism that took place a few years back. It’s sad really, but I always like to take those opportunities to reinforce to my children just how important it is to protect our national parks.
The campground trail didn’t take us more than about 15 minutes, and after that we packed up and headed out. Ideally, we would have given ourselves a little more time in Chaco Culture National Park to see all the ruins. One morning really wasn’t enough to see everything, but we were able to go back to Pueblo Bonito to get a better view of it in the daylight. It was spectacular. We were all pretty amazed at just how ingenious the Chacoan people were.I really appreciated the self-guided tour books at the start of the trailhead. We picked up a guidebook (for a small donation) with numbered way-points, and the kids took turns reading interesting facts about life in Pueblo Bonito as we walked around. We could take the ruins at our own pace, and that was a good thing. The kids were fascinated by some aspects and completely disinterested in others. It was also pretty cool to tour the rooms of Pueblo Bonito in the daylight and see the same places we’d seen by moonlight the night before. There was a completely different feel during the day.Once we finished our tour of Pueblo Bonito, we took the circular drive throughout the rest of the park, stopping to see a few of the other ruins from afar. It would have been nice to tour the other sites, but we were anxious to move on to our next destination. We did see four badgers running down the middle of the road, which was so awesome. None of us had ever seen a badger before, and we watched them for several minutes until they scrambled back into their den. Mr. TypeTwoFun and I had also been awakened several times the night before by coyotes, so there is plenty of wildlife in the park.
We hit the visitor’s center on our way out, which was a little small and didn’t have much information for the kids, and headed back out. When we asked about an easier way into the park, one of the park rangers suggested we take the south entrance out, so we did. It ended up being much worse than the north entrance. We are pretty sure that ranger was laughing at us as we left. What a funny joke! There is no easy way into the park. 😛
All in all, though, we really enjoyed our stay at Chaco Culture National Park. If there was an easier way to take the pop up camper in, we would definitely be back… but next time we’d check the moon cycles.
Helpful Tips for Pop Up Camping at Chaco Culture National Park
- The entrances into Chaco Culture include 15-30 miles (depending on the entrance) of infrequently maintained, rugged dirt roads. Depending on the weather, these roads can become impassible at times. Make sure to check the weather and road conditions before heading into the park. These roads were extremely hard on our pop up camper, and we had to take them very slowly. Although the park was amazing, I’m not sure we’d attempt pulling a trailer into it again.
- There are no hookups, showers, firewood, or gas available within the park. Make sure to gas up before you enter the park. Potable water was available at several stations throughout the park, but no food grade ice was available for purchase–so you may want to fill your cooler ahead of time.
- There is no shade in the campground, so if you don’t have an awning or canopy of some sort, you may want to skip this park during the heat of summer.
- Chacho Culture has a great Night Sky Program, and if you are interested in astronomy, it is a great place to visit. There are specific ancient astronomy programs that run at certain times of the year as well. They have a dedicated observatory and run Night Sky Programs on Friday and Saturday evenings. But be sure to check the moon schedule! We found that out the hard way. 🙁 Night Sky Programs don’t run at all during the full moon.
So have you made the trek into Chaco Culture National Park? We’d love to hear about your experiences. Feel free to sound off in the comments section below!
New to The Pop Up Princess? Would you like to catch up on our road trip adventures from the past five years? You can find those links here: