Encompassing 320-acres bordering the City of Aztec in northwestern New Mexico, Aztec Ruins provides a glimpse into an ambitious urban planning project built on the banks of the Animas River centuries ago.
President Warren G. Harding established the monument in 1923. The site was deemed worthy of protection based on the quality of the ruins and the quantity of physical artifacts. In 1987, it was designated a World Heritage Site based on its status as a Chacoan outlier village. With 50,000 annual visitors, Aztec Ruins gets more traffic than Chaco Canyon. Though the site is small compared to Mesa Verde, it is worthwhile for an introduction to the Ancestral Puebloans. However, there are far fewer tourists at Aztec Ruins than at Colorado’s Mesa Verde across the border, which boasts 500,000 visitors per year. Furthermore, the ½ mile interpretive trail is a fairly easy stroll, other than stairs in the Great Kiva and uneven footing if you poke around the buildings.
The Ruins of An Ancient Community
Aztec Ruins National Monument is in the Animas Valley, about 15 miles south of the Colorado border on US-550. The monument encompasses several distinct ruins; Aztec West, Aztec East, Earl Morris Ruin, the Hubbard Tri-wall structure, several unexcavated mounds on the east side of the site, and a large community of sites on the terrace north of the main ruin. Several of these areas are off-limits; however, the Hubbard site and Aztec West are open to the public.
The West Ruin was thoroughly excavated in the early 1900s. It had at least 450 interconnected rooms built around a large, open plaza. The massive sandstone walls are over 30 feet tall and the north wall of the ruin is over 360-feet long. In total, there are twenty kivas and a Great Kiva. Archaeologists estimate that 200-300 people lived there.
The Hubbard site was partially excavated in the 1920s. It is one of very few tri-walled buildings in the Southwestern United States. The round structure resembles a kiva, but it was built with three concentric circular walls, separated by interior walls, which creates 22 rooms surrounding the central kiva.
Naming Conventions, History Records the Error
In the 1800s, early American settlers mistakenly attributed the impressive engineering at the site to the Aztecs of Mexico; however, the Aztecs never established villages this far north. The settlers also named their village based on that assumption. By the time they realized the error, the community and ruins were established as Aztec and Aztec Ruins. Oh well.
As a point of reference, the Aztec Empire occurred after the decline of the Ancestral Puebloan Empire. In fact, Paleo-Indians were farming and hunting the banks of the Animas River for at least 3000 years prior to building this village.
The Ancestral Puebloans, also referred to as the “Anasazi”, were ancestors of the modern Puebloans. They lived in multi-level, communal dwellings called pueblos, usually built with sandstone, mud, and assorted rock. Pueblos were basically the ancient world’s first condominiums, with numerous rooms, housing hundreds or thousands of people. They used wooden ladders to access doors on the upper levels, pulling the ladders up when the village was attacked. Defensive architectural design.
Chaco Canyon, south of Aztec Ruins, is the site of the largest Ancestral Puebloan settlement, sort of the Ancestral Puebloan Capital. The Chacoan civilization exerted enormous cultural influence over this region between 850-1130 A.D. For example, the architectural, ceramic, and ceremonial styles were adopted in “outlier” communities throughout the region.
As drought became more of an issue in the 1100’s, inhabitants from Chaco began to establish villages closer to reliable water sources. The sole water source in this area is the Animas River, which runs 1.1 miles along the eastern boundary of the monument. Fed by the 14,000-foot-high San Juan Mountains, the Animas provides water throughout the year. The fertile flood plain has nourished crops for centuries. The Ancestral Puebloans who built this village relied on the river to cultivate crops, constructing irrigation ditches to deliver water to fields.
Ancestral Puebloans in the Animas Valley
Archaeologists believe settlers from Chaco Canyon built this village between 1085-1120 A.D. It was one of many satellite communities between Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon, essentially the “Twin Cities” of the Ancestral Puebloan empire. Salmon Ruins, a few miles down the road in Bloomfield, is another, smaller example.
As an outlier community, the construction at Aztec Ruins is typical of building styles at Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde. Whereas Aztec may have been established initially as an agricultural or trading community between the two communities, the village eventually became independent, because it survived the downfall of Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde by more than a century.
However, after a couple of centuries of prosperity on the banks of the Animas, the people living in this community migrated around 1300 A.D, which coincides with the depopulation of the Four Corners region. A combination of factors, like a prolonged drought between 1275-1300, climate changes, depletion of natural resources, and social changes likely prompted the migration. Archeologists believe the refugees from this community joined the Zuni to the south, the Hopi to the west in Arizona, or the existing Tanoan communities on the Rio Grande.
Aztec Ruins is a remarkable example of ancient urban planning. The 900-year-old Great House, consisting of over 400 rooms, is a testament to a civilization with advanced engineering prowess and architectural ingenuity. Using tools made of stone and hardened volcanic rock, workers began excavation in 1100, using the dirt to back-fill and level two and a half acres. Built on and below a terrace overlooking the river, the inhabitants built several multi-story buildings called “great houses,” as well as a great kiva, earthworks, berms, roadways and residential pueblos. Progressive development continued for 200 years, across multiple generations. Ultimately, Aztec Ruins was the largest Ancestral Puebloan village in the Animas River valley.
The ruins you see today are the ground floor. However, when this village was occupied, the buildings were 3-4 stories high. Tree-ring dating indicates that construction on the West Ruin began in 1106 A.D. However, major construction of the massive, E-shaped dwelling, with 400 rooms and 24 kivas, occurred between 1111-1115 A.D. Workers sourced logs for the beams from mountain forests 20-miles away. Many of the rooms still have the original pine, spruce, and aspen timbers. They quarried and laid out sandstone blocks in intricate patterns to form huge stone walls, three feet thick in places, making them twice as thick as the walls built in the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings. Furthermore, it you search, you can find the fingerprints of some of the ancient workers in the mortar. Overall, the main phase of construction and development took more than 30 years.
Archaeology & Excavation
John Newberry, a geologist, discovered the ruins in 1859. Fortunately, he made extensive records of his initial findings, because the site was looted extensively for the following 30 years, scavenged for both artifacts and building materials. In total, area residents repurposed about ¼ of the stones for construction projects, ranging from building homes to lining wells.
Lewis H. Morgan, “the father of American anthropology,” was the first to scientifically investigate the ruins in 1878, but the first substantive excavation was conducted by a local, Earl Morris. Funded by the prestigious American Museum of Natural History, Morris’ crew spent five years carefully documenting the treasure trove of artifacts at the site, including food remains, stone and wood tools, cotton and feather clothing, fiber sandals and mats, pottery, and jewelry made of turquoise, obsidian, and shell. The treasure trove of artifacts retrieved provided an intimate glimpse into the daily life, diet, and trading practices of the people who lived here.
Additionally, Morris’ crew excavated the Great Kiva in 1921, which he reconstructed 13 years later. It is the only Ancestral Puebloan building to be completely restored and it is the oldest and largest reconstruction of a kiva. The semi-subterranean structure served as the main religious focal point for the community. At more than forty feet across, it is the park’s social and ceremonial centerpiece, providing visitors with an opportunity to experience being in the sacred womb of a kiva. The circular floor is approximately 40 feet in diameter, 8 feet below ground level. The inner sanctuary is surrounded by 14 small rooms, with a pole roof supported by four columns made of stone and wood.
Archeoastronomy at Aztec Ruins
Ancestral Puebloans had a deep spiritual connection with the cosmos. The buildings at Aztec Ruins are a testament to the cultural significance of celestial events. In fact, the construction of the Great Houses represents a feat of forethought, as well as engineering. For example, during the summer solstice, the north wall aligns with the sun’s location on the horizon at sunrise. Conversely, during the winter solstice, the north wall aligns with the sun’s location on the horizon at sunset. Additionally, there are alignments visible within the Great Kiva. Though the Great Kiva is a reconstruction, the original doorway locations were well document during the initial excavation conducted by Earl Morris.
Visitors are welcome to observe solstice events, but participation is limited. Also, the park hosts full moon tours from May – August. See the monument’s calendar for upcoming opportunities or contact the park directly.
Despite the park’s small footprint, historic alterations to the native environment, and impacts from urban encroachment associated with the City of Aztec, the monument hosts an impressive diversity of plant and animal species. Biologists discovered that the highest bio-diversity for mammals was in the pinon-juniper woodlands on the mesa top, whereas the irrigation ditch and great kiva are a beacon for bats, with five species spotted. The riparian and pinon-juniper woodland areas, along with patches of grassy, abandoned farmland, orchards, and desert scrub all provide diverse habitats for birds and mammals in the park. In total, the monument encompasses 11 vegetation types, with 70 types of birds spotted, 28 mammalian species, including seven species of bats, as well as three amphibians, and ten types of reptiles, including the omnipresent rattlesnake.
725 Ruins Road
Aztec, NM 87410
The visitor center started as the home of pioneering archeologist Earl Morris. Pay the entrance fee, receive an orientation to the archeological site, and pick up a trail guide. See beautiful 900-year-old artifacts in the museum. Watch the 15-minute video, Aztec Ruins: Footprints of the Past, providing the diverse perspectives on the site from Pueblo people, Navajo tribal members, and archeologists. Free Admission.
Aztec Ruins National Monument is open every day from 9AM – 5PM, Mountain Time, except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. There is no after-hours access permitted.
Aztec Ruins welcomes pets on leashes in the picnic area adjacent to the parking lot. They do not allow pets in the Visitor Center or on the trail through the archeological site. It is usually way too hot to leave your critters in the car.
Take the self-guided walk through an Ancestral Puebloan “Great House.” Great Houses were the social, economic, and political center of the region after Chaco. The interpretive trail guide combines modern archeological findings with traditional Native American perspectives. Check out the intricate stone masonry, remarkably well-preserved wood roofing, and original mortar in some of the walls. Enter the restored ceremonial Great Kiva, the restored semi-subterranean structure is over 40 feet in diameter. It is the oldest and largest reconstructed building of its kind.
- Ceramics at Aztec Ruins (1.56 MB PDF)
Different types and styles of pottery found at Aztec Ruins National Monument.
- Echoes from the Past (1.81 MB PDF)
The musical instruments of the ancestral Pueblo people.
- Designing Aztec Ruins (1.44 MB PDF)
How the ancestral Pueblo people designed, planned, and built Great Houses.
- Resources Near and Far (.98 MB PDF)
The resources available at and used in the area as well as items traded from distant lands.
- Heritage Garden (2.92 MB PDF)
Ancient agriculture goes beyond the three sisters to include trade, water and wild edibles.
- Dendrochronology (1.43 MB PDF)
How tree ring dating works and how it helps us learn about Aztec Ruins.
Aztec Chamber of Commerce
110 N. Ash
Aztec, New Mexico 87410
Farmington Convention & Visitor Center
203 W. Main – Suite 401
Farmington, New Mexico 87401
Bloomfield Chamber of Commerce
224 W. Broadway
Bloomfield, NM 87413
Bureau of Land Management
1235 La Plata Highway, Suite A
Farmington, NM 87401
Things To See Nearby
Aztec Museum and Pioneer Village 2 miles
Arches, Arches, and More Natural Arches, varies
The Anasazi Heritage Center 88mi Dolorez, CO
Angel Peak Scenic Area (BLM) 23mi
Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness (BLM) 60mi NM
Chimney Rock Archaeological Area 75mi Pagosa Springs, CO
Four Corners Monument 80mi
Lybrook Badlands (BLM) 75mi
Monument Valley 174mi near Kayenta, AZ
Navajo Lake State Park 25mi Navajo Dam, NM
Salmon Ruins 12mi Bloomfield, NM
Shiprock 43mi near Shiprock, NM
Ute Mountain Tribal Park 85mi CO
National Park Areas
Chaco Culture National Historical Park 65mi
Mesa Verde National Park 85mi
Hovenweep National Monument 111mi
Canyon De Chelly National Monument 166mi
Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site 166mi
Navajo National Monument 180mi
Bandelier National Monument 227mi