Chaco Canyon Service, New Mexico

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 13270A, Service/ Volunteer


  • Work in Chaco Culture National Historical Park, a magical place of mesas and multi-story ruins
  • Help conserve the irreplaceable remnants of a vanished society
  • Learn about Native American culture and prehistory


  • Work tools and instruction
  • Campsite
  • All meals, stoves, pots, and cooking utensils


DatesJun 8–15, 2013
StaffKaren Greif

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Trip Overview

The Trip

Chaco Canyon lies about four hours northwest of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and three to four hours south of Durango, Colorado. With its distinctive Pueblo architecture and remote location, Chaco Canyon retains an air of mystery more than 1,000 years after its construction. For hundreds of years, it served as a trade, ceremonial, and administrative center for the ancestral Pueblo peoples. Its grand, ghostly ruins are unmatched across the Southwest. Now, here in New Mexico's high desert country, you can work to help preserve this fragile reminder of ancient Native American culture. 

The Project

Last year, crews cleared brush for fire suppression and flood control, cleared kivas in the ruins of brush and debris, re-vegetated the area around the new visitor's center, rehabilitated a shade shelter and began reconstruction of a new one in the volunteer campground, and carried out woodshop projects. We are often asked to carry out tasks that allow participants to see parts of the Park not open to tourists (covered with potsherds and other artifacts), and to enjoy the Park's wide-open spaces with spectacular 100-mile vistas. In all cases, participants can experience the great satisfaction of seeing one's handiwork serving to protect the fragile legacy that is Chaco Canyon. Other tasks in past years have included collecting seeds from native grasses and working with boundary fences. Since we are prepared to assist the Park Service in whatever work it deems high priority, it is likely that another broad range of activities will take place this year.


Every effort will be made to assign everyone to at least two activities, and to balance more mundane tasks with interesting ones. We will also try to balance the physical demands of each task and individual interests. You will find that even if you have been assigned a rather boring task, the supervisor will be happy to answer your questions, give you an informal lecture on pictographs and petroglyphs, or give you a personal tour of the site at which you are working. We will work Monday through Friday, leaving late-afternoon hours for exploration each day. Weekend days are free for you to explore the canyon on your own. We also try to arrange special evening events in addition to the rich offerings already offered in the Park.



Getting There

The last 20 miles into the Park are on dirt roads, which are passable for two-wheel drive vehicles except immediately after a rainfall, when the roads turn into seas of mud. The main route into the Park is from the Northeast off of Highway 550 (formerly NM 44) south of Nageezi. There is also a southern entrance from Crownpoint; the trip update will include more information. Transportation to and from the Park is not included in the cost of the trip and is your responsibility. You are strongly encouraged to share transportation (carpooling, car rentals) with other participants; please indicate your interest to your leaders. We will collate all information and send it to all participants. Parking is very limited near our campsite.

Accommodations and Food

We will be camping in a volunteer campsite complete with shade shelter, cook trailer, and bathrooms. Consider bringing a sun-shower—we will set up a site in camp. You will not have to carry your gear more than a few feet to the campsite. We will meet at our campsite no later than 3:00 p.m. on Saturday, June 8. We will have a light lunch available for early arrivals. The last meal will be a bag lunch on Saturday, June 15. If you plan to arrive early or stay after the trip, be aware that there are no services in the Park. Bring your own food and gear. You will need to camp in the public campground, which fills early during the spring and summer season.

Cooking will be a communal activity, supervised by the leaders. Menus include both vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes, but all meals include vegetarian options. Please notify the leaders of your specific needs. Stoves, pots, and cooking utensils will be provided. You must bring your own cups and dishes (unbreakable), cutlery, and plastic storage ware (to pack your lunch).

Trip Difficulty

The keys to making this trip a happy and memorable experience are an awareness of the need to adjust to the 6,000- to 6,500-foot altitude, extremes of temperature, low humidity and most importantly, the lack of shade. If you know your personal limits, there are no special skill requirements for this moderately strenuous trip. Temperatures can range from hot days in the high 90s or low 100s to chilly nights and mornings (to 40 degrees or below). Strong winds with blowing sand are a common occurrence in late afternoon, and thunderstorms with flash-flooding occur with some regularity. Many trip participants find, even when it is not very hot, that the relentless desert sun is the greatest challenge.

Equipment and Clothing

As we will be car camping, no special gear is needed beyond that noted below. Since extreme weather conditions are possible, be sure to bring layered clothing and raingear. Work tools and commissary gear will be provided. If in doubt, bring it, since there are no stores of any kind in or near Chaco. Please consult with friends or camping stores for advice on purchasing new camping equipment. Big items, such as tents, often can be rented. Invest in some extra-heavy tent pegs for your tent; we promise you will be glad you didYou must bring personal water containers and carry at least three quarts (or liters) of water with you at all times. Heat exhaustion is a real danger, but is easily preventable! Please bring: sturdy work/hiking boots, leather work gloves (two pairs if possible; remember that your hands will swell in the heat, so buy big), a broad brimmed hat (with a chinstrap, or it's gone with the wind), sunglasses, sunscreen (SPF-25 or higher), and skin moisturizer. Although your leaders are medically trained, bring a personal "ouch kit" for minor injuries, whatever medications you normally take (see the Medical Form), a day pack, a sealable container for lunches, and at least three water bottles (one-quart size). Please make sure your immunization against Tetanus (a genuine risk in barbed wire country) is current. 


The following are classic background reading on Southwestern Prehistory, the Ancestral Pueblos, and the Navajo Nation. Consult your local library for other titles.

  • Frazier, Kendrick, People of Chaco Canyon: A Canyon and its Culture.
  • Lister, Robert H., Those Who Came Before: Southwestern Archaeology in the National Park System.
  • Lister, R. and Lister, F., Chaco Canyon.
  • Kluckhorn, Clyde, and Dorothea Leighton, The Navajo.
  • Hillerman, Tony, A Thief of Time. (For lighter reading)


For those of you who can take the time, there is a lot to see elsewhere in New Mexico. The Tourist Information Bureaus in Albuquerque and Santa Fe have excellent brochures that they can send you, and of course there's always the AAA guide. Don't miss the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque; their exhibit on Native American prehistory is superlative!


Our work in Chaco Canyon is directed toward protecting and preserving the irreplaceable remnants of a lost civilization. Despite Chaco's immense historical significance, the Park Service is seriously understaffed, and relies on the Sierra Club and other volunteers to help maintain the Park. The work we do would probably not get done without us! Everything we do, whether mundane or inspired, is intended to improve the Park: by protecting it, reclaiming it, or improving the educational experience of its visitors.



This will be Karen Greif's 22nd consecutive year in Chaco, her 21st in a leadership position. After extensive backpacking experience in the past, she fell in love with the Southwest after a number of trips in the area. Chaco has become her Mecca, for its exceptional beauty, its sense of history, and for the opportunity to work with the Park Service. She is a Professor of Biology, and can provide information on desert ecology and wildlife to interested trip participants. She is also an experienced camp cook, and promises memorable and savory meals to be enjoyed by all. She will be the principal contact person for the trip. Please feel free to get in touch with her for further information.

Assistant Leader:

Karl Kilborn will join us again this year as Assistant Leader. He assisted on the trip last year. He brings skill with tools, and great management skills. Karl is co-President of a scientific imaging firm in Los Angeles.

Assistant Leader:

Kate Lowerre will return as Assistant Leader this year, after a one-year break. Kate’s organizational ability and droll humor are assets to us all. She is both a musicologist and researcher in public health!

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