Who would expect a UNESCO World Heritage site at the end of a rough road in the middle of a desert wilderness? This is Chaco Canyon, the center of the Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway. A remote place like Chaco may seem like a strange place to start your journey, but this byway isn't tidy - it has roads sticking out all over the place. Chaco is as good a place to start as any.
The best route to Chaco Culture National Historical Park is San Juan County Road 7950 south from U.S. 550; the route is clearly marked and safe for any vehicle. The 26 miles to the Visitors' Center allow time to reflect on how this barren landscape could have supported a community as large as Chaco Canyon. A paved road near the Center loops through the arid canyon, providing access to six monumental sites and to trail leading to other sites.
Between 850 and 1250 A.D., Chaco Canyon functioned as a ceremonial center whose influence was felt for hundreds of miles. Its remains still inspire awe. Undulating two-foot thick walls, constructed of small, thin tablets of sand-colored stone, loom in front of the massive canyon walls in an uneasy coexistence. Big slabs of canyon wall appear ready to fall onto the buildings, and indeed, this isn't an idle threat. It has happened before.
Driving south out of the Park, you'll pass through some of the loneliest country you're likely to find anywhere. Once on N.M.371, drive south to Crownpoint, well-known for its monthly Navajo Rug auction (http://crownpointrugauction.com/). South of Crownpoint, the Byway leaves N.M.371 to follow Navajo Road 48, which dead-ends at McKinley County Road 19. Here the Byway turns right and winds through sandstone buttes right out of a John Wayne western. You'll arrive at Casamero Pueblo, a Chacoan outlier occupied circa A.D. 1050-1100.
Follow N.M.122 to Grants, originally a coaling station for the Santa Fe Railroad. The discovery of uranium in the area in 1950 boosted the economy. The New Mexico Mining Museum (800-748-2142; adults $3.00) recreates a uranium mine. Grants is located at the northern end of El Malpais (“the badlands”) National Monument; the Byway passes through it on N.M.53. El Malpais, created by lava flows as recent as 3,000 years old, provides unique recreational opportunities (505-783-4774 for more information). Prehistoric volcanic activity also created the Ice Cave and Bandera Volcano (1-888-ice-cave; adults $8.00). From Bandera, you can see more than a dozen cinder cones aligned in the "Chain of Craters". The insulating properties of the surrounding lava and the shape of the cave combine to maintain the freezing temperature in the ice cave.
Driving west, El Morro (“the headland”) appears suddenly on the horizon like a huge ocean liner. Its waterhole made El Morro an important stop for travelers in the region, who often carved their names in the soft sandstone walls of the butte. Now a National Monument (1-505-783-4226; adults $3.00), its history is written in stone for all to see.
N.M.53 passes through Zuni Pueblo on its way to the Arizona border. The six original Zuni pueblos were the legendary “Seven Cities of Gold” sought by Vasquez de Coronado. The present pueblo was settled in 1699. The murals depicting Zuni's summer and winter religious observances in Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission provide a unique insight into the pueblo's culture (505-782-7238 for guided tour).
Heading north on N.M.602, Gallup is the next destination. Gallup is famed for the pawn shops selling Indian crafts that line its streets. The Visitors' Center hosts Indian dances from July to September (free; 7:00-8:00 p.m.). A mural honoring the World War II Navajo Code Talkers is located on South Second Street. Classic movie fans should visit the El Rancho Hotel (505-863-9311), where many actors stayed while filming near Gallup. Photos of them and their movies line the walls of the mezzanine. Information about Gallup's early coal-mining history is presented at the Rex Museum.
The drive on U.S.491 north out of Gallup leads to two trading posts famous in the history of Navajo weaving, Toadlena and Two Grey Hills. Toadlena is run like an old-time trading post: it supplies cash, services, goods for about 1,500 Navajos living nearby in return for rugs.
The Byway heads to Farmington on U.S.64. The Navajo name for Farmington is Totah – “the meeting place of waters”. Two thirds of the surface water in New Mexico flows through Farmington in the La Plata, Animas, San Juan rivers. Five miles of trails on the Animas River offer recreation for nature lovers and cyclists (800-448-1240 for information). The Farmington Museum (505-599-1174; free) provides information on the city's history, with exhibits about the oil and gas industry and a reproduction of a trading post.
With its wealth of water, it's not surprising that the Farmington area was a busy place in prehistoric times. The ruins of two pueblos are open to the public: Aztec Ruins National Monument (505-334-6174; adults $4.00) in nearby Aztec and Salmon Ruins (505-632-2013; adults $3.00) near Bloomfield. Both of these Chacoan outliers were settled in the eleventh century.
If you've always wanted to go to the moon but never had the opportunity, visit New Mexico's badlands. The Bisti Wilderness Area, the De-Na-Zin Wilderness, and Angel Peak National Recreation Area (505-399-8900) can all be accessed from the Byway. The fantastically-colored and shaped formations of the badlands were created by the erosion of geological strata of varying colors and resistance.
The drive west on U.S.64 to the Arizona border captures the essence of the Trail of the Ancients. The road descends a canyon filled with yellow- and gray-striped hills. The bright green swath of a wash dazzles among subtle earth-tones. Knobby red sandstone formations guard the Navajo community of Beklabito, where traditional hogans dot the landscape. Shiprock stands at 7:00. A sign at the border reminds you that you're in the Land of Enchantment.