History and Stats
Pueblo in the area built the settlement in the 12th century and would remain there until the 14th century. The reasons for their departure are a topic of debate. The area would be first seen by Europeans as the Spanish explored the area, but had already been abandoned for several hundred years at that point.
The area would be settled throughout the 19th century as the United States pushed westward. The importance of the ruins as an archeological and historical resource was not lost on people, and in the early part of the 20th century, it became the focus of the efforts of Earl Morris and others.
Date Founded: January 24, 1923. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site on December 8, 1987.
Size: 318 acres
Rainfall: 1in, 5in of snow
Open: Year-round, 8-5, though it is closed on November 24, December 25 and January 1.
Fees: The price of admission for the self-guided tour is $5, and free for children ages 16 and under. *We will note that these fees are covered completely by the America The Beautiful Pass, which applies to over 2,000 different sites.
“To preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.”
History of the Pueblo people and preservation of an important archeological site is the focus at Aztec. Various narratives are provided, and an archeological perspective is used to explore the items found at the site. From the scraps and shards and remains found on site, the daily life of the Pueblo of the settlement has been reconstructed.
The Visitor’s Center features a film and museum exploring the history of Pueblo culture. Tools, trade, handicrafts, and architecture of the Pueblo cultures are all topics explained by the exhibits. There is also a Heritage Garden nearby, which displays many of the typical crops grown by the Pueblo people.
The Visitor’s Center serves as the gateway to a brief walking trail that leads to the remains of a Pueblo settlement. While many of the structures are off limits, much more are open to the public as part of a walking tour, with informational displays and plaques along the route of the tour.
The Great Kiva of the former settlement has been painstakingly restored, offering a first-hand look at where the Pueblo chose to conduct religious ceremonies, and it open to the public as part of the walking tour.
Aztec Ruins National Monument is adjacent to the town of Aztec, and much of the town can be seen from the front door of the Visitor’s Center.
There are a number of motel and hotels in the area, as well as tent and RV campgrounds. Additionally, Angel Peak Campground, a BLM site, is free, and each site is equipped with a firepit and picnic table. There are also vault toilets on site. More information can be found here.
Newbie preparedness will serve you well. It’s incredibly dry and generally hot, and while the walk is short, it’s always best to wear supportive footwear. If you happen to venture out and camp on some of the BLM land in the area, we would recommend Novice or Intermediate level prep.
From Memorial Day through Labor Day, Ranger-guided tours begin at 3pm every day. East Ruin tours and Full Moon walks are also available through the summer months. Interested parties are instructed to email or call the Visitor’s Center. Contact information can be found here.
Walking through the ancient structures, and seeing many of the tools used by the former inhabitants was both beautiful and chilling. The experience was similar to the San Antonio Missions, and equally informative, though it focused on an entirely different milieu. The Great Kiva was a deeply profound experience and is a singular opportunity to peer into the past.
Things we’d like to try next time
A portion of the walking trail was closed due to a bear sighting in the area, so we would definitely make sure to do that. In addition, the East Ruin tour or Full Moon walk offered by the NPS would be something we would try and plan around for the future. There is also a short walk from the park into town across a footbridge that spans the Animas River that we weren’t aware of at the time, and it looks like a lovely walk.
The area surrounding the town of Aztec is rife with natural wonders, such as arches, hoodoos, and canyons, many of which are overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. More information can be found here.
- There are many NPS parks throughout the area, some of which are also Pueblo sites. More information can be found here.
- The passageway through the structure was never a part of the original design. It was created by looters, but would later be utilized as a way of exhibiting the structure. The front doors of the former living quarters are generally buried.
- While the structures may look sturdy and have indeed withstood the test of time for hundreds of years, they are priceless elements of humanity’s heritage. It’s wildly inappropriate to sit on them, even if you are a mediocre white male conducting an incredibly important cell phone conversation about a television. Always be respectful.
- The visitor center is the former home of Earl and Ann Morris, a pair of famed archeologists who are perhaps best known for their work at the Aztec site, including restoring the Great Kiva.
- The park, structures, and former inhabitants have next to nothing to do with the Aztec culture. Even trading links were sparse at best. The Spanish who first mapped the area were more concerned with the land, rather than the people, and the lazy name stuck. It serves as a reminder of the poor understanding of native culture that persists to this day.
Why do you think the original settlers left the area? What was your favorite aspect of the walking tour? Did a ranger teach you something that wasn’t on the tour? What was your favorite nearby BLM site? Did we leave anything out?
Read more about our experience at the Aztec Ruins National Monument here.