The Chaco Roads

Hundreds of miles of roads spoke outwards from Chaco proper, their purpose and utility unknown. What would be the need for an elaborate road system, aligned in cardinal directions, with roads uniformly 30’ wide, excavated down to bedrock, most of which lead to no obvious destination? It is possible that they led somewhere, at some point, but the modern locations are lost to time and the elements, or unknowable to modern interpretation. “These guys could get around just fine without 30 foot-wide roads cutting straight across the landscape,” says archaeologist John Stein of the Navajo Nation, a leading scholar on the subject:

“A three-foot-wide path would have been room enough for a tradesman backpacking pots from Chaco to one of the distant outliers. No draft animals or wheeled carts used them, no armies marched on them; they were over engineered and underused. They must have served some other purpose.”

These are not simple roads or paths. They represent incredible effort in excavation and construction. There would be no other way to end up with such a precise road—30’ wide, and built without regard to topography or natural obstacle.

One other puzzling characteristic of Chaco roads is the appearance of parallel road segments, identified at on both the North Road and South Road.

An extreme example is on the North Road, above Pierre’s Ruin. Here, 4 segments, each spaced less than 40 meters apart, appear to be almost perfectly parallel, via a bird’s eye view. Such redundancy seems to suggest a ceremonial or ritual purpose for the roads, as no obvious functional purpose appears logical.         


Stairways on the canyon walls were sculpted to allow access from the floor of the canyon to the roads on the mesa above. Logically, the roads would connect Chaco proper to outlying Chacoan communities, but the roads were built after the outlying communities already existed.  

Estimates vary as to the extent of the road system, ranging from 150–400 total miles of connected roads and as previously mentioned, one cannot help but notice how arrow-straight they are, not yielding to natural topographical obstacles. The builders did not deter their route according to actual topography. To do this, the builders removed earth and vegetation, using those excavated materials to build berms. The feat becomes further impressive by taking note of the extensive road cuts that were made where the road crosses land elevations.

“Another extraordinary feature is their striking linearity and their ‘dog-legged’ turns. Chacoan roads are laid out along straight lines. A road continues its bearing for miles. When it turns, it does so with a sudden angular, jog. Then the new course continues until the next dog-legged turn.”

The only way that modern scientists can still see the roads is from the depressions they created. Moisture accumulates a bit faster in the depth of these depressions, and this causes the vegetation that grows on these roads to have a different color than the surrounding vegetation. Additionally, these depressions are consistently 20’-30’ wide, and they are demarcated by the eye because of the berms of broken substrate to make the road, which is piled strategically to the sides. They made staircases, ramps and even causeways. This means they actually elevated the road surface above the ground-level.