Pueblo Bonito is both the largest, as well as the best known great house in Chaco Canyon (now the Chaco Culture National Historical Park), New Mexico — but that doesn’t mean that there’s agreement on just what it is!
Built by, and (to at least some degree) occupied by ancestral Puebloans between 828 and 1126 AD, Pueblo Bonito covers almost two acres (8,000 square meters) and at one point had at least 650 rooms. Parts of the structure next to the rear wall (so, lower in this image) were 5 stories high, supported by walls up to 3 feet (1 m) thick at the base.
All in all, an impressive structure — but what was it? At one point, Pueblo Bonito was thought to be a village or small city — but its relatively small number of hearths has forced a re-think of just how many people ever occupied this structure. This huge building could have been home to as few as 12 households at its peak. Was it a sort of temple, with a resident caretaker population? Or was it instead a palace, the home seat of a powerful and wealthy clan? Or was it something entirely different that we haven’t puzzled out yet?
Sadly, the ancestral puebloans didn’t develop a written language, so these questions will likely be argued about for some years to come, based on indirect evidence from excavations.
But in the meantime, you can swing by to marvel at the work of the ancients on your own. Chaco Canyon is a bit off the beaten path — in a fairly remote part of northwest New Mexico, at the end of a sometimes-punishing 14 mile (22+ km) dirt road off a state highway. So the good news is, you won’t likely have to fight crowds to see any of the sites here (not at all like Mesa Verde in that regard). It’s also cheap to visit, costing only $8 for up to a 7 day stay — note that camping at Chaco is recommended if you want to see anything beyond just the highlights. Make sure you follow the official directions if you want to visit, the mapping software in most GPS devices has a maddening tendency to direct you down “short cuts” to Chaco that aren’t driveable by normal vehicles.
I took this shot from the Pueblo Alto Loop Trail — a fairly straightforward 5.1 miles / 8.2 km (about 3 hours if you do the entire loop), but make sure you take plenty of water.