The deserts of New Mexico have some of the darkest night skies in the country. Out in the middle of an open plateau, you’re finally able to get away from the overwhelming light pollution and see the cloudy-looking dust of the Milky Way with your own eyes. At least, that’s what Jon told me as we planned our trip to Santa Fe.
Eager to take photographs of the Galactic Center, he found a great campsite in a National Park outside of the cities, thinking we’d camp overnight and he could creep out of the tent at 2 a.m. to take pictures. Night photography requires a little more technical skill and planning, but after the relative success of our northern lights photos, he studied up and was determined to give it a real shot. Meanwhile, I actually enjoy camping – having been a Girl Scout growing up – as long as I know when it’s happening and can come prepared, I like to do it. So that settled it: one night of camping in the New Mexico desert, weather permitted.
Chaco Culture is a National Park and Unesco World Heritage Site about 3 hours north west of Santa Fe. It’s the site of ancient ruins of the Chaco people, who built on a grand scale in the 800’s AD. It’s a big night photography location, so I was looking forward to seeing what it was all about.
The day before we left we were joined by Jon’s longtime friend, Brian (also the officiant of our wedding). After he arrived, we loaded up on food, water, firewood (they were very strict and insisted you had to bring your own rather than gather), and anything else we thought we might need. Jon did a lot of research before we left home, so we had a new tent, sleeping bags, and all the cooking utensils we could ever need. We also borrowed a few things, like coolers and toiletry items, from the AirBnB we were staying at with Brian. The next morning we got breakfast and headed out with a literal car full of gear – one night of camping sure required a lot of stuff!
There are two routes to the Park, one via the faster, larger highways, and one through the center of Valles Caldera National Preserve, a windy, two lane road through Native American reservations, towns called Coyote (or similar), and spectacular scenery.
The mountains along the road are rich with mineral deposits, giving the rock face a painted look stripped with yellow, reds, and white. It is here that you’ll find Georgie O’Keefe’s Ghost Ranch – the painter’s retreat and the subject of many of her paintings. We’ll have to do a visit to this area again when we have more time, because I can tell it’s ripe for photography and adventure. It was a really nice drive and the 3 hours passed quickly as I looked out the window most of the way.
As we entered the park, we drove eight miles on a gravel road through free-roaming cow country. It was fun, bouncy and gave Brian a little scare.
Checking in at the campsite, we made our way to the designated tent area and started setting up at our reserved plot. The sun would be going down soon, so we wanted to make sure we ready before nightfall. It was a pleasant surprise to sit and watch as both guys set up our tents, prepared the fire, and unpacked the car.
After camp was made, Jon and I drove along the Park’s loop to get a few photos before the sun sank behind the canyon walls.
As night fell, we enjoyed dinner around the campfire, with wine, cheese, and a dessert of marshmallows. Then we headed to the Visitor’s Center, which was hosting a telescope viewing via their little observatory. Enthusiasts had come from all over with their own amateur telescopes, showcasing various parts of the night sky and welcome us to take a look. Jupiter was the biggest attraction, and you could see some of its moons through the big, permanent telescope behind the Visitor’s Center.
After, I used the nearby lavatories. Never skimping on my beauty essentials, I did my full night routine, La Mer and all, over the sink with my bottle of water. The desert air was particularly harsh, so it was even more important to protect and hydrate my skin from the extreme dryness. Even if the water was not drinkable, I made it work. A brush of the teeth and we were off to bed.
At around 1:30, Jon woke up, left our tent and walked the mile to the Butte Overlook with his camera gear. Several photographers and stargazers were already there, hanging out in the freezing desert together chatting about gear, techniques, and of course, the Milky Way.
I don’t sleep well when Jon’s off somewhere, so I twisted and turned in the night until he came back. Mostly I worry about a big mountain lion making a meal out of him…which apparently could have been possible as he came back telling a story of two giant eyes watching him in the brush as he walked to the Butte.
The next morning, Brian cooked us an excellent spinach frittata (he’s a chef, among other things), and we enjoyed hot coffee around the last pieces of burning firewood. It was a perfect camp morning.
All packed up, we headed to the actual historic site that the National Park is there to protect: Chaco Culture. Via my National Park brochure: It seems unlikely that Chaco Canyon, with its long winters, short growing seasons, and marginal rainfall, could have become a hub of regional cultures. But 1,100 to 1,200 years ago, native people made this high desert valley the center of their world. They created monumental architecture and developed far-reaching commerce and a complex social organization.
The ruins are formidable, particular the largest at Pueblo Bonito – a structure several stories high made up of hundreds of rooms and kivas (ceremonial centers). Historians believe the entire region was an economic hub of trade and commerce. It was, and still is, considered a sacred location.
We enjoyed our walk through the ruins, but couldn’t stay long as the direct, midday sun was overwhelmingly hot. I chose this rugged look to protect me from the dust, snakes, and harsh sun of the desert climate. Preferring to stay covered, my trusty hat and mechanic’s jacket provided much needed shade. I call this my chic archaeologist look – practical, stylish and ready for an Indiana Jones adventure.
I had so much fun camping at Chaco Canyon! It was a real treat. And if you’ve never seen the Milky Way except in pictures, I think you would like it too.
For more information on Chaco Culture and other U.S. Parks, visit the National Park’s website here. Do you enjoy the occasional camping trip? Share your favorite spots in the comments below!