Chaco Canyon Sun Dagger Mystery

Fajada Gap, Fajada Butte, and The Sun Dagger

Driving into Chaco Canyon from either access route, the traveler encounters unexpectedly primitive dirt roads, serving as a soft barrier against invasion by the faint of heart. Once penetrating this soft membrane against the drive-by tourist, the first reward is Fajada Butte. (Read the Book on Amazon)

This prominent landmark juts 443’ from the canyon floor, splitting the middle of the Fajada Gap, a wide break in the monolith Chacra Mesa. The butte is a remnant piece of the long eroded mesa, a snapshot of time in eons of wind, water, sun, and what remains resembles a watercolor of the gods. Elegant and regal from all angles, it remains an otherworldly sentinel hovering over the east entry of the canyon.

Fajada translates from Spanish as “belted” or “banded”, deriving its name from layers of exposed dark shale and low-grade coal wrapping its circumference.

The first mention of Fajada Gap and Fajada Butte in recorded history was by Jose Antonio Vizcarra, a Mexican soldier who also served as Governor of New Mexico from 1822-1823. While he was conducting an expedition against the Navajos in 1823, he came across Chaco Canyon, making a record of its ruins. He noted this remarkable formation in his 1823 journal, calling it “Cerrito Fajado”. Later, US Army Lieutenant James Simpson and his guide Carravahal discovered Chaco Canyon on an expedition, exploring its 8 large ruins. It was Carravahal who gave the Spanish names to buildings in the area, including Pueblo Bonito.

Fajada Butte: The Sun Dagger site is on the top of this 135 meter butte, capable of tracking the solstices, equinoxes, and the 18.6 year lunar standstill cycle.


The closest Chacoan structure to the gap is Una Vida, one of the three earliest Great Houses. This site offers the easiest access to the canyon, therefore it is likely that it was also a place where the Anasazi would have stood guard, watching over the canyon and alerting the locals to approaching visitors.

A survey of the terrain around the butte reveals it could be very fertile due to the drainage of Chaco Wash through the area. This potential agricultural concentration may also be the reason for clusters of small house sites in the area. This also lends credibility that the Chacoan South Road may have had a connection or terminus in Fajada Gap, extending perhaps to Una Vida. But, perhaps, most intriguing of all, the butte “is a natural site for astronomical observations, with its clear views to distant horizons.” (Sofaer, A Unique S).

Fajada Butte plays host to what may be the most interesting site in all of southwest pre-history—The Sun Dagger. Artist Anna Sofaer was documenting rock art in 1977 when she noticed two petroglyphs pecked into the rock face behind three huge slabs of sandstone, leaning against the upper cliff face. What caught her eye was the play of light across the petroglyph. Intrigued, she returned on the day of the summer solstice to confirm her belief that this was an ancient astronomical mechanism. It was.