PUYE CLIFF DWELLINGS

The landscape of New Mexico is a feast for geology enthusiasts, with a landscape etched by ancient seas, a variety of volcanoes, enormous earthquakes and ongoing erosion. Over a million years ago an enormous volcano, the Jemez Caldera, erupted, spewing huge volumes of lava and ash. Thick layers of black basalt and tuff were deposited, extending miles beyond the caldera.

 

Volcanic tuff is formed when volcanic ash and cinders are compressed. It is relatively soft compared to the harder layer of basalt. Rain, snow melt and wind erode the tuff, sculpting beautiful cliffs and canyons as water runoff drains to lower elevation, creating the rivers that feed the valleys below. Over time the weathering creates a hard surface layer on the tuff. It is easily fractured, exposing the soft underlying tuff, which is like cement that didn’t congeal. It crumbles. It can be easily excavated with stone or wood tools; items that were readily available to the ancient inhabitants who took up residence in the Jemez mountains.

 

Humans have been hunting and foraging in this region for thousands of years. The mammoths that roamed the region had humans in hot pursuit. Considering that the canyons usually had reliable water sources, which sustained plants and attracted game, they were ideal environments for people reliant on hunting and foraging. Plenty of these early inhabitants realized that caves provide shelter and volcanic tuff allows for significant remodeling and expansion options. As a result, New Mexico has a plethora of ancient communities built in remote canyons and cliffs. Some are well known, like Chaco Canyon, Bandelier and the Gila Cliff Dwellings. Others receive less fanfare, though they are equally extensive and extraordinary.

 

Puye was deemed a National Historic Landmark in 1966. This was home to the ancestors of Santa Clara, San Ildefonso and Ohkay Owingeh Pueblos from about 900 AD to 1580 AD. The site features extensive cliff dwellings, early Pueblo architecture and stunning panoramas of the Rio Grande rift valley. Early Western tourism entrepreneur Fred Harvey built one of the original Harvey Houses at the base of Black Mesa in the late 1800s to offer amenities to the American tourists eagerly exploring the Old West. It is the only Harvey House built on an Indian pueblo. Today it serves as the interpretive center and gift shop.

 

BACKGROUND

 

The Ancestral Puebloans, aka Anasazi, didn’t vanish or mysteriously disappear. They relocated. Why they moved is a bit of an archaeological mystery. Many theories abound, with the normal civilization crashing culprits cited: crop failure, disease, drought and/or pressure from other people migrating into the area. Though we may never know what combination of variables prompted relocation, we do know that the inhabitants of Mesa Verde and Chaco dispersed, establishing numerous communities throughout northern New Mexico. Many pueblos recognize these ‘ancient ones’ as their ancestors; literally grandpa and grandma several generations back.

 

New Mexico has a lengthy and convoluted past, with many things remaining unknown and undiscovered. One thing to keep in mind is that what we know of these cultures comes primarily from archaeologists and anthropologists, with new details discovered constantly. The academic presentation is a generalized, intellectualized understanding of people from the distant past, perceived through a modern prism. Many people living far from one another are lumped into one general category and assessed in general terms. Most of the information is in the form of theories; speculative, subjective and interpretive.

 

Even the names assigned to these groups are misleading. For example, Anasazi is a Navajo term for ‘ancient enemy', which could have been a blanket term at the time for anyone who wasn’t Navajo and willing to readily relinquish their stuff. The Mogollon, who lived in Arizona and southwestern New Mexico from at least 200 AD, were named after a Spanish governor of New Mexico who presided in 1712. Obviously he wasn’t related to the people who lived in the province centuries prior to Spanish arrival.

 

The inhabitants of Chaco and Mesa Verde didn’t relocate simultaneously. People moved away in groups, dispersing over a period of years, establishing many smaller communities, which then coalesced into larger villages. Beginning in the late 1100s, Chacoan and Mesa Verde refugees settled the mesas on the east side of the Jemez Mountains. Initially there were hundreds of individual, family size dwellings, but there is strength in numbers. Isolated settlers merged into a few villages of considerable size by 1300 AD, including Puye, Tsankawi, Tyuonyi, Otowi, Shufinne and Tsirege. The latter village, Tsirege, means "little bird" in the Tewa language. Archaelogist Edgar L. Hewett adopted the name when he excavated the site in 1907, in cooperation with the Southwest Society of the Archeological Institute of America, but he translated the word into Spanish, “Pajarito,” and applied it to the immense area of prehistoric settlement around the eastern flank of the Jemez Mountains; hence the Pajarito Plateau.

 

PUYE

 

The largest settlement on the Pajarito Plateau was located at Puye Cliffs. In the Tewa language, the name Puye translates to "pueblo ruin where the rabbits assemble or meet." It is very descriptive, eh? There are a lot of rabbits. Puye is an impressive example of how large, ancient communities thrived in a water parched environment.

 

The community is comprised of two levels of dwellings cut into the cliffs, as well as the ruins of a large pueblo on top of the mesa. The mesa top structure is a beautiful example of early Puebloan architecture. It was a single, multi-story complex built around a large, central plaza. The pueblos were essentially the apartment complexes of the ancients, with a design that has withstood the test of time. There were kitchen areas, common areas and sleeping quarters. The design was similar to modern-day Taos Pueblo. There is evidence of garden plots, a reservoir and an irrigation canal. These communities were also highly defensible when built on top of rock promontories.

 

The Community House may have served a defensive purpose. Who knows? Evidence is sparse and exploring these sites invites flights of fancy and invigorates an over active imagination. Portions of the complex were two to three stories high at one point. The total number of rooms is unknown; however, the south portion of the pueblo had 173 ground floor rooms. Additionally, there were multiple floors in several places.

 

There were over a dozen access points from the top of the mesa to the base of the cliff in the form of stairs, ladders and cliff chipped hand holds. The stairs weren't formal steps. They were convenient stepping ledges that were cut deeper, worn into the cliff. The rudimentary stairs linked the Community House on top of the mesa to the dwellings at the base of the cliff, as well as to sources of water to the north. The stairs to the base of the cliff were cut in various directions. There are finger grips on the cliffs to make climbing easier, but it would have been a treacherous climb during inclement weather and undoubtedly claimed many lives over the centuries of habitation. Trekking to the mesa top would have been potentially fatal for clumsy people.

 

Along the cliff wall, above the cave rooms, there are holes dug into the cliff. These large, circular holes were used to support logs used as roof beams for the buildings lining the cliff walls. The caves were simply the back room areas for dwellings constructed along the base of the cliff. The houses looked similar to the pueblo and adobe style seen today. The building material was  talus, a geology term describing the accumulation of rock debris at the base of cliffs. Basically...shattered boulders. The talus provided handy, preformed bricks, perfect for building exceptionally sturdy structures.

 

The marks of the sticks used to carve away the tuff can be seen on many cave ceilings. Smoke from the fires caused soot to accumulate on the walls and ceilings, staining them black. Floor vents were built to bring fresh air into the rooms and ceiling vents helped to disperse the smoke, but prolonged smoke exposure would have been unpleasant.

 

All of the rooms would have had level floors of well smoothed adobe clay. The deep channels seen in the floors of some of the rooms have been formed by the feet of thousands of visitors to these ruins over  the last century.  The rooms were coated in well smoothed adobe clay to try to inhibit the constant crumbling of the cave ceilings.

 

The cliff walls were adorned with petroglyphs, carved into the rock by residents standing on the upper floors and roofs of the stone dwellings. There are a variety of petroglyphs on the cliffs, including concentric circles, spirals, animal forms, human figures, masks and a horned or plumed serpent.

 

In addition to the many dwellings, at least two subterranean ceremonial kivas have been found at the base of the cliffs, where large sockets were cut to hold the heavy roof beams needed to span such a large room.

 

The cliffs give off a lot of heat, with about a 5-10 degree differential between the visitor center and the base of the cliffs. There is a lot of glass in the sand. It absorbs and retains heat. It would have been bad to inhale or to ingest, which was inevitable. Carving a cave in tuff creates a lot of dust. Constantly crumbling ceilings create dust. Making pottery cookware from the stuff adds glass to the diet.

 

The rooms dug into the base of the cliff wall extend for over a mile along the south face of the mesa. There is a secondary level that is about 2100 feet long. The sheer number of cliff dwellings at Puye, and how far they extend, is overwhelming, indicative of a large population.

 

Archaeologists estimate that 1500 people lived in this community at its peak. That would have been a large town in the year 1000; however, there were numerous large pueblos in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado by then, with active trade routes to California, the Plains to the east, and Mexico. Goods and cultural achievements were exchanged, though the full extent of influence may never be fully understood.

 

When Edgar L. Hewitt conducted his dig, it was the first systematic excavation of a prehistoric pueblo in the Rio Grande valley. Whereas his research has provided insight, it is worth noting that Mr. Hewitt, like most of his contemporaries, was never invited back. Many of the individuals recognized for pioneering archaeological work in the southwest were culturally obtuse and conducted digs inappropriately; shipping human remains to DC, removing artifacts, etc. The lack of respect, and the lack of consultation with the tribes, alienated many of the pueblos. For the most part they have no interest in allowing further desecration in the name of being an archaeological curiosity. That leaves a lot of knowledge gaps in terms of understanding the history of this continent. What we don’t know about the ancient inhabitants of New Mexico outweighs what we do know.

 

The area preserved for public tours at Puye is just a glimpse of one of the large ancient communities that thrived in the canyon. There were many smaller settlements in the area. The streams provided precious water for crops and attracted wildlife. After centuries of occupation, this community was deserted around 1577 due to drought. Streams dried up and crops failed. Residents relocated to their current location on the banks of the Rio Grande, approximately 12 miles away.

 

The Santa Clarans refer to Puye as a special place between earth and sky. A trip to the Puye cliffs provides insight into why the reference is appropriate.

 

TOURS

 

Harvey House Tour

In the early 20th Century, Fred Harvey built a bed & breakfast below the Puye Cliffs. The remaining structure became the interpretive center and gift shop. $7.00 for adults / $5 for seniors 55+ and children 14 & under

 

Cliff Side Tour

A guide from Santa Clara leads you on a steep paved trail from the Harvey House to a level of dwellings and ruins at the base of the cliff. Includes access to the Harvey House. This includes portions of unpaved area. Allow for 1 hour. $20.00 for adults / $18 for seniors 55+ and children 14 & under

 

Mesa Top Tour

Ride to the top of the mesa, where you will view and discuss how the ancestral Tewa people lived centuries ago. Includes access to the Harvey House. Please allow for 1 hour. Van tours are also available. $20.00 for adults / $18 for seniors 55+ and children 14 & under

 

Puye Adventure Tour

Treat yourself to the complete Puye experience including the Cliff Side, Mesa Top and Harvey House tours. Please allow 2 hours. $35.00 for adults / $33 for seniors 55+ and children 14 & under

Contact Information

Mailing Address

Puye Cliff Dwellings

300 Hwy 30

PO Box 398

Espanola, NM 87532

Email

Alex.Suazo@santaclaran.com

Phone

(888) 320-5008

(505) 901-0681

2015-2016 Hours

Summer Season | April - September

Gates open at 8:30am

Tours start at 9 am, hourly until 5 pm.

Gates close at 6 pm

 

Winter Season | October - April

Gates open at 8:30 am

Tours start at 9 am, hourly until 2 pm.

Gates close at 3 pm

 

Closures change annually but please note that Puye Cliffs is closed the week before Easter; June 13; August 12; and for the Christmas holiday.

 

Motorcycles are not allowed in the area or on the Puye Cliffs Scenic Byway. No pets, please.

 

Personal photography is allowed.

 

Tickets

Tickets may be purchased at the Puye Cliff Dwellings physical site or the Puye Cliffs Welcome Center ( the Valero gas station)

Directions

From Santa Fe/ABQ: take I-285/84 North to the Los Alamos exit/NM 502. Follow 502 to NM 30, turn right, look for sign on left for Puye. Follow road for approximately 7 miles to the cliff dwellings visitor center.

Nearby

BANDELIER NATIONAL MONUMENT

Explore the remnants of a large community that existed for centuries in Frijoles canyon near Los Alamos. The site encompasses a wilderness area with fantastic backcountry hiking.

CHRIST IN THE DESERT MONASTERY

Beer and crafts made by the monks, as well as serene lodging on the Rio Chama make this a relaxing, off the beaten path destination.

ESPANOLA FIBER ARTS

Northern New Mexico is known for weaving, from the Ortega's in Chimayo to the amazing Navajo runs in the four corners. Learn more about fiber arts while in Española.

GEORGIA O'KEEFFE STUDIO TOURS

For information about the artist, the O'Keeffe studio tours in Abiquiu or the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe.

GHOST RANCH

Education and retreat center, known for workshops, seminars and creative sanctuary for writers and artists.

MESA PRIETA

This is a conservancy site rather than managed by state or federal agencies. It is one of the most extensive, and overwhelming, petroglyph sites in the state, if not the world. Tours are available. Reservations are required.

OJO CALIENTE HOT SPRINGS

Ojo is the only hot springs in the world with four different types of mineral water, including lithia, iron, soda and arsenic. Over 100,000 gallons come to the surface daily.

ORIGINS | RA PAULETTE'S CAVE

Experience the amazing art-lined chamber carved into the center of a sandstone butte high above the high desert floor near Ojo Caliente.

SANTUARIO DE CHIMAYO

Pilgrims travel from all over the world to experience Chimayo. The dirt is revered for healing properties.

New Mexico Nomad

PUYE CLIFF DWELLINGS

The landscape of New Mexico is a feast for geology enthusiasts, with a landscape etched by ancient seas, a variety of volcanoes, enormous earthquakes and ongoing erosion. Over a million years ago an enormous volcano, the Jemez Caldera, erupted, spewing huge volumes of lava and ash. Thick layers of black basalt and tuff were deposited, extending miles beyond the caldera.

 

Volcanic tuff is formed when volcanic ash and cinders are compressed. It is relatively soft compared to the harder layer of basalt. Rain, snow melt and wind erode the tuff, sculpting beautiful cliffs and canyons as water runoff drains to lower elevation, creating the rivers that feed the valleys below. Over time the weathering creates a hard surface layer on the tuff. It is easily fractured, exposing the soft underlying tuff, which is like cement that didn’t congeal. It crumbles. It can be easily excavated with stone or wood tools; items that were readily available to the ancient inhabitants who took up residence in the Jemez mountains.

 

Humans have been hunting and foraging in this region for thousands of years. The mammoths that roamed the region had humans in hot pursuit. Considering that the canyons usually had reliable water sources, which sustained plants and attracted game, they were ideal environments for people reliant on hunting and foraging. Plenty of these early inhabitants realized that caves provide shelter and volcanic tuff allows for significant remodeling and expansion options. As a result, New Mexico has a plethora of ancient communities built in remote canyons and cliffs. Some are well known, like Chaco Canyon, Bandelier and the Gila Cliff Dwellings. Others receive less fanfare, though they are equally extensive and extraordinary.

 

Puye was deemed a National Historic Landmark in 1966. This was home to the ancestors of Santa Clara, San Ildefonso and Ohkay Owingeh Pueblos from about 900 AD to 1580 AD. The site features extensive cliff dwellings, early Pueblo architecture and stunning panoramas of the Rio Grande rift valley. Early Western tourism entrepreneur Fred Harvey built one of the original Harvey Houses at the base of Black Mesa in the late 1800s to offer amenities to the American tourists eagerly exploring the Old West. It is the only Harvey House built on an Indian pueblo. Today it serves as the interpretive center and gift shop.

 

BACKGROUND

 

The Ancestral Puebloans, aka Anasazi, didn’t vanish or mysteriously disappear. They relocated. Why they moved is a bit of an archaeological mystery. Many theories abound, with the normal civilization crashing culprits cited: crop failure, disease, drought and/or pressure from other people migrating into the area. Though we may never know what combination of variables prompted relocation, we do know that the inhabitants of Mesa Verde and Chaco dispersed, establishing numerous communities throughout northern New Mexico. Many pueblos recognize these ‘ancient ones’ as their ancestors; literally grandpa and grandma several generations back.

 

New Mexico has a lengthy and convoluted past, with many things remaining unknown and undiscovered. One thing to keep in mind is that what we know of these cultures comes primarily from archaeologists and anthropologists, with new details discovered constantly. The academic presentation is a generalized, intellectualized understanding of people from the distant past, perceived through a modern prism. Many people living far from one another are lumped into one general category and assessed in general terms. Most of the information is in the form of theories; speculative, subjective and interpretive.

 

Even the names assigned to these groups are misleading. For example, Anasazi is a Navajo term for ‘ancient enemy', which could have been a blanket term at the time for anyone who wasn’t Navajo and willing to readily relinquish their stuff. The Mogollon, who lived in Arizona and southwestern New Mexico from at least 200 AD, were named after a Spanish governor of New Mexico who presided in 1712. Obviously he wasn’t related to the people who lived in the province centuries prior to Spanish arrival.

 

The inhabitants of Chaco and Mesa Verde didn’t relocate simultaneously. People moved away in groups, dispersing over a period of years, establishing many smaller communities, which then coalesced into larger villages. Beginning in the late 1100s, Chacoan and Mesa Verde refugees settled the mesas on the east side of the Jemez Mountains. Initially there were hundreds of individual, family size dwellings, but there is strength in numbers. Isolated settlers merged into a few villages of considerable size by 1300 AD, including Puye, Tsankawi, Tyuonyi, Otowi, Shufinne and Tsirege. The latter village, Tsirege, means "little bird" in the Tewa language. Archaelogist Edgar L. Hewett adopted the name when he excavated the site in 1907, in cooperation with the Southwest Society of the Archeological Institute of America, but he translated the word into Spanish, “Pajarito,” and applied it to the immense area of prehistoric settlement around the eastern flank of the Jemez Mountains; hence the Pajarito Plateau.

PUYE

 

The largest settlement on the Pajarito Plateau was located at Puye Cliffs. In the Tewa language, the name Puye translates to "pueblo ruin where the rabbits assemble or meet." It is very descriptive, eh? There are a lot of rabbits. Puye is an impressive example of how large, ancient communities thrived in a water parched environment.

 

The community is comprised of two levels of dwellings cut into the cliffs, as well as the ruins of a large pueblo on top of the mesa. The mesa top structure is a beautiful example of early Puebloan architecture. It was a single, multi-story complex built around a large, central plaza. The pueblos were essentially the apartment complexes of the ancients, with a design that has withstood the test of time. There were kitchen areas, common areas and sleeping quarters. The design was similar to modern-day Taos Pueblo. There is evidence of garden plots, a reservoir and an irrigation canal. These communities were also highly defensible when built on top of rock promontories.

 

The Community House may have served a defensive purpose. Who knows? Evidence is sparse and exploring these sites invites flights of fancy and invigorates an over active imagination. Portions of the complex were two to three stories high at one point. The total number of rooms is unknown; however, the south portion of the pueblo had 173 ground floor rooms. Additionally, there were multiple floors in several places.

 

There were over a dozen access points from the top of the mesa to the base of the cliff in the form of stairs, ladders and cliff chipped hand holds. The stairs weren't formal steps. They were convenient stepping ledges that were cut deeper, worn into the cliff. The rudimentary stairs linked the Community House on top of the mesa to the dwellings at the base of the cliff, as well as to sources of water to the north. The stairs to the base of the cliff were cut in various directions. There are finger grips on the cliffs to make climbing easier, but it would have been a treacherous climb during inclement weather and undoubtedly claimed many lives over the centuries of habitation. Trekking to the mesa top would have been potentially fatal for clumsy people.

 

Along the cliff wall, above the cave rooms, there are holes dug into the cliff. These large, circular holes were used to support logs used as roof beams for the buildings lining the cliff walls. The caves were simply the back room areas for dwellings constructed along the base of the cliff. The houses looked similar to the pueblo and adobe style seen today. The building material was  talus, a geology term describing the accumulation of rock debris at the base of cliffs. Basically...shattered boulders. The talus provided handy, preformed bricks, perfect for building exceptionally sturdy structures.

 

The marks of the sticks used to carve away the tuff can be seen on many cave ceilings. Smoke from the fires caused soot to accumulate on the walls and ceilings, staining them black. Floor vents were built to bring fresh air into the rooms and ceiling vents helped to disperse the smoke, but prolonged smoke exposure would have been unpleasant.

 

All of the rooms would have had level floors of well smoothed adobe clay. The deep channels seen in the floors of some of the rooms have been formed by the feet of thousands of visitors to these ruins over  the last century.  The rooms were coated in well smoothed adobe clay to try to inhibit the constant crumbling of the cave ceilings.

 

The cliff walls were adorned with petroglyphs, carved into the rock by residents standing on the upper floors and roofs of the stone dwellings. There are a variety of petroglyphs on the cliffs, including concentric circles, spirals, animal forms, human figures, masks and a horned or plumed serpent.

 

In addition to the many dwellings, at least two subterranean ceremonial kivas have been found at the base of the cliffs, where large sockets were cut to hold the heavy roof beams needed to span such a large room.

 

The cliffs give off a lot of heat, with about a 5-10 degree differential between the visitor center and the base of the cliffs. There is a lot of glass in the sand. It absorbs and retains heat. It would have been bad to inhale or to ingest, which was inevitable. Carving a cave in tuff creates a lot of dust. Constantly crumbling ceilings create dust. Making pottery cookware from the stuff adds glass to the diet.

 

The rooms dug into the base of the cliff wall extend for over a mile along the south face of the mesa. There is a secondary level that is about 2100 feet long. The sheer number of cliff dwellings at Puye, and how far they extend, is overwhelming, indicative of a large population.

 

Archaeologists estimate that 1500 people lived in this community at its peak. That would have been a large town in the year 1000; however, there were numerous large pueblos in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado by then, with active trade routes to California, the Plains to the east, and Mexico. Goods and cultural achievements were exchanged, though the full extent of influence may never be fully understood.

 

When Edgar L. Hewitt conducted his dig, it was the first systematic excavation of a prehistoric pueblo in the Rio Grande valley. Whereas his research has provided insight, it is worth noting that Mr. Hewitt, like most of his contemporaries, was never invited back. Many of the individuals recognized for pioneering archaeological work in the southwest were culturally obtuse and conducted digs inappropriately; shipping human remains to DC, removing artifacts, etc. The lack of respect, and the lack of consultation with the tribes, alienated many of the pueblos. For the most part they have no interest in allowing further desecration in the name of being an archaeological curiosity. That leaves a lot of knowledge gaps in terms of understanding the history of this continent. What we don’t know about the ancient inhabitants of New Mexico outweighs what we do know.

 

The area preserved for public tours at Puye is just a glimpse of one of the large ancient communities that thrived in the canyon. There were many smaller settlements in the area. The streams provided precious water for crops and attracted wildlife. After centuries of occupation, this community was deserted around 1577 due to drought. Streams dried up and crops failed. Residents relocated to their current location on the banks of the Rio Grande, approximately 12 miles away.

 

The Santa Clarans refer to Puye as a special place between earth and sky. A trip to the Puye cliffs provides insight into why the reference is appropriate.

TOURS

 

Harvey House Tour

In the early 20th Century, Fred Harvey built a bed & breakfast below the Puye Cliffs. The remaining structure became the interpretive center and gift shop. $7.00 for adults / $5 for seniors 55+ and children 14 & under

 

Cliff Side Tour

A guide from Santa Clara leads you on a steep paved trail from the Harvey House to a level of dwellings and ruins at the base of the cliff. Includes access to the Harvey House. This includes portions of unpaved area. Allow for 1 hour. $20.00 for adults / $18 for seniors 55+ and children 14 & under

 

Mesa Top Tour

Ride to the top of the mesa, where you will view and discuss how the ancestral Tewa people lived centuries ago. Includes access to the Harvey House. Please allow for 1 hour. Van tours are also available. $20.00 for adults / $18 for seniors 55+ and children 14 & under

 

Puye Adventure Tour

Treat yourself to the complete Puye experience including the Cliff Side, Mesa Top and Harvey House tours. Please allow 2 hours. $35.00 for adults / $33 for seniors 55+ and children 14 & under

New Mexico Nomad