Campground at Chaco Culture National Historic Park will reopen April 1

Visitor centers expected to reopen later in April

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
Chaco Culture National Historic Park will begin welcoming overnight visitors again for the first time in a year on April 1 when its Gallo Park campground opens at 50% capacity
  • The Gallo Campground at Chaco Culture National Historic Park will reopen soon at 50% capacity.
  • Demand for the camping spaces is expected to be high.
  • Many park employees who have been working remotely will return to in-person work soon.

FARMINGTON — One of San Juan County's bigger tourist attractions will take a step toward normal operations April 1 when the campground at Chaco Culture National Historic Park opens to visitors again for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Nathan Hatfield, the chief of interpretation at Chaco and at Aztec Ruins National Monument, said Chaco's Gallo Campground will open at 50% capacity on that date, allowing visitors to the park to remain overnight. But the park's two group camping sites — each of which can accommodate 30 people — remain closed.

The visitor centers at Chaco and at Aztec Ruins also have been closed during the pandemic and will remain closed when the campground opens. But Hatfield said he anticipates they will open their doors soon.

"I think it's likely that the visitor centers at both parks will open sometime in April," he wrote in an email to The Daily Times.

Hatfield said it was unlikely the two centers would be open for eight hours a day on a daily basis as they were before the pandemic. But he believes they will be open soon in some capacity.

The visitor center at Aztec Ruins National Monument, and the center at Chaco Culture National Historic Park, both of which have been closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, are likely to reopen in April, a National Park Service official says.

In a follow-up interview, Hatfield said he anticipates there will be high demand for the campground spots at Chaco for the next several months.

"At 50% capacity, I suspect that probably from now until the end of the October, it'll be full," he said. "We may decide to open up more of it, but if we stay at 50% capacity for the campground, I suspect it will be full on weekends and maybe during the week, as well."

Online reservations have continued to be accepted for the Gallo Campground during the closure over the past several months, but those reservations have been cancelled several weeks in advance as the closure has been extended, Hatfield noted. People select campsite numbers when they register. He said some campers who already have made a reservation for April or May may be receiving an automated cancellation notice if their particular camp spot is among those that are not available because of the capacity limit, and they are being encouraged to go back online and try to make another reservation.

"We're trying to help those folks," Hatfield said. "At 50% capacity, it's going to be tough for folks to reserve a site unless they get on the reservation system soon."

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt listens while Chaco Culture National Historical Park Chief of Interpretation Nathan Hatfield talks, Tuesday, May 28, 2019, during a tour of Pueblo Bonito.

A return to in-person work

The trails at both Chaco and Aztec Ruins have continued to welcome visitors over the course of the last year, even though many of their amenities have been off limits. Staff members at both parks have used the down time to complete a backlog of maintenance projects, including the remodeling of the Cultural Resource Office at Aztec Ruins and remodeling the employee housing at Chaco.

Most employees at both parks have been working remotely since the pandemic began, but Hatfield said that is changing.

"We are transitioning to having more people in offices," he said. "People are starting to get vaccinated, and people are eager to get back in the parks."

Hatfield described some of the office space at Chaco and Aztec Ruins as tight, and because of that, some employees would split time between remote and in-person work to limit their exposure to each other.

Even with operations at Chaco Culture National Historic Park returning to more of a normal phase soon, a park official says ranger-led tours are not likely to take place this summer.

"If that reduces the number of people in confined spaces, we'll continue to do that for the foreseeable future," he said.

He also said that even though he expects the visitor centers at the two parks to open next month, visitors should not expect other park facilities such as theaters or museums to be open.

As for when public programming at both parks might resume, Hatfield said that doesn't seem to be in the cards any time soon.

"Those are conversations we're having," he said. "We're trying to figure out how we can do this safely. … But the days of a ranger-led group of 20 or 30 people through Pueblo Bonito (at Chaco) or Aztec, that's probably not going to happen this summer. … Doing things like that are a way off."

Park officials are exploring the idea of setting up ranger-staffed tables at outdoor location in the parks to dispense information to visitors, but they won't be leading groups, he said.

A loosening of restrictions

The move to open the campground comes in the wake of the loosening of many of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's public health orders designed to fight the spread of COVID-19. After seeing infection rates decline steadily for several weeks, San Juan County recently progressed to the Green Level of New Mexico's four-tier system for business restrictions, the second least-restrictive level.

All tribal parks on the Navajo Nation remain closed. Hatfield said he did not know if National Park Service officials conferred with Navajo officials before making the decision to reopen the campground at Chaco.

"Personally, I have not," he said. "I'm not sure if my supervisor has had direct communications with them."

The campsites at Chaco are available by reservation at a cost of $20 per night. There are no campsites at Aztec Ruins.

Visit recreation.gov or call 1-877-444-6777 to reserve a campsite. More information about Chaco or Aztec Ruins can be found at nps.gov.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.