Aztec Ruins National Monument became one of our favorite sites on a recent trip to the Four Corners area. This monument is one of three sites protected by the National Park Service along with Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon National Monument.
We were travelling south from Durango to Albuquerque (check out the Bingo sheet we created for our kids to survive this long car ride) and decided to stop in the small town of Aztec, New Mexico. Aztec Ruins is located right in the town, and there is a Visitor’s Center where you can do the Junior Ranger program and a small museum to visit. The Junior Ranger program was wonderful. They had different pamphlets for each age, and they were mostly scavenger hunts for things in the museum.
The museum takes you through the development of some of the Native American culture in the area including the separation of some of the modern Indian tribes. The movie at the Visitor’s Center is about 15 minutes, and it convinced us that we had to make the trip to Chaco Canyon.
The real reason to stop at Aztec Ruins National Monument is, of course, the Aztec Ruins. There is one major site that you can visit, and several other sites that are in development. One thing that makes this site different is that it doesn’t appear to be an excavation like Mesa Verde or Chaco Canyon. This is a free standing structure that covers several acres. The masonry is large rocks set in mud mortar, and the straightness of the walls and gravity seem to be the only thing holding this structure up for the last 800 years.
Make sure to ask for the trail guide before you head out to the ruin, as it will lead you through the monument. The first stop is at an overview of the site. It is large and sprawling and walls rise in front of you in the distance. We also saw a few bunnies on the way to the second spot, the Great Kiva. This is the largest replica of a kiva ever made, and it is made after the pattern of the Great Kiva in Chaco Canyon. There is a reverent feel in the kiva, and a sign reminds you of the sacred nature of the structure. We’ve been in underground pithouses before, but the kiva has a “finished” feeling. Steps lead down and the pillars, fire pits, and roof are complete. The walls have been plastered and decorated, and there is a stairway across the floor leading up and out what is sometimes called the keyhole. In an adjacent room we saw a clutch of bats hanging from the ceiling about three feet above our heads!
After the kiva, you walk around the front of the ruins and through the main plaza. You can easily imagine this village full of people, with children playing, women grinding corn, and turkeys wandering about the plaza. There is one section of the ruin that you can walk inside. You go through a series of doors that are all perfectly aligned and there are doors opening into an inner courtyard. Many of these doors have been covered with plexiglass making them windows, and you can see artifacts inside. There are manos and metates and other things, but the most impressive is the yucca plants that are still hanging above you in one section of the roof. They would layer the leaves over the boards and the yucca plants are still well preserved after 900 years!
We continued through the ruin, admiring the masonry and enjoying the feeling of antiquity and hoping that our boys had learned something about our world. We loved how much free exploring you were able to do because we felt we could really appreciate and see the amazing ruins. You can do the same by visiting Aztec Ruin National Monument.