When people think of the United States, ancient ruins are typically not the first thing that pops to mind. Many New Mexicans are so accustomed to ancient ruins and petroglyphs in their backyard that they no longer marvel at their mysteries or splendor. Overlooking the historical and natural treasures of New Mexico is a mistake, detracting from the overall experience.
There are impressive ruins that are as old as the Pyramids tucked into cliffs of remote canyons throughout the Southwest. These large, long abandoned settlements are a testament to vibrant, thriving cultures that flourished in this area long before the conquistadors arrived. The history and ancient traditions aren’t isolated to ruins. Taos Pueblo is the longest continuously inhabited place in the United States and Acoma Pueblo is the oldest continuously inhabited community.
Who got here first could be a point of ongoing contention, but the reality is that the area has been populated for thousands of years, with vibrant and unique art, cultural and spiritual traditions.
Whereas New Mexico isn’t on every traveler’s radar, it should be. We are an affordable destination compared to most of the major US markets. The variety of activities and diversity of terrain is extraordinary for anyone who loves culture, history or nature. A testament to this fact is the number of World Heritage sites. New Mexico has more than any other state with 3; Taos Pueblo, Chaco Canyon and Carlsbad Caverns. We may further cement our lead with the addition of a fourth. White Sands is currently under consideration.
To put that in perspective: as of 2015 there are 1,031 World Heritage sites in 163 countries around the world. Sites are selected based on a list of cultural or natural criteria. Of the 1031 sites, 802 are cultural, 197 are natural and 32 have mixed designation. It isn’t surprising that most traveler’s bucket list includes many of them. The US is home to 23 World Heritage sites, including Mesa Verde, the Grand Canyon, the Everglades, Yellowstone and the Statue of Liberty.
What is significant about World Heritage sites?
A World Heritage Site is a place designated by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, as being of special cultural or physical significance to humanity. Their goal is to conserve sites deemed culturally or naturally significant to humanity’s shared heritage. Each World Heritage Site remains under the jurisdiction of the nation where it is located, but UNESCO considers it in the interest of the international community to preserve each site, including, in some cases, funding preservation or restoration.
TAOS PUEBLO (Cultural)
Criteria IV - "Is an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural, or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates a significant stage in human history"
“Taos Pueblo is a remarkable example of a traditional type of architectural ensemble from the pre-Hispanic period of the Americas unique to this region and one which, because of the living culture of its community, has successfully retained most of its traditional forms up to the present day.”
Situated in the valley of a small tributary of the Rio Grande, Taos Pueblo’s ancient terraced adobe dwellings represent the culture of the Pueblo Indians of Arizona and New Mexico. Taos Pueblo is one of many settlements established near the Rio Grande and its tributaries during the 13th and 14th century. Taos Pueblo has been continuously occupied and is the largest of the remaining Rio Grande Pueblos.
Taos Pueblo is an extraordinary place. It is not only a UNESCO World Heritage site, it is also a National Historic Landmark. Located 3 miles northeast of Taos Pueblo, the beautiful terraced adobe structures sitting in the shadow of Wheeler Peak have been continuously inhabited for over a 1,000 years. Though the thriving community is similar to settlement sites of the ancestral Pueblo people preserved in nearby Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde, Taos is unique, with cultural traditions distinct from the Mesoamerican influence in the region.
Archaeologists have confirmed that ancestors of Taos Pueblo’s current inhabitants lived in this valley long before Columbus discovered America and hundreds of years before Europe emerged from the Dark Ages, facts that the inhabitants of Taos already knew. There are ruins in the Taos Valley that are almost 1000 years ago. Within the existing pueblo, the main part of the structures seen today were constructed between 1000 and 1450 A.D. Taos is considered the oldest continuously inhabited community in the USA. That confuses me a bit, because Acoma Sky City has a similar. I’m not sure who has been here the longest, but they both have a legitimate claim to long term residency.
Entering Taos Pueblo involves stepping back in time, the view is very similar to what the Spanish conquistadors saw when they arrived in Northern New Mexico in 1540. Taos Pueblo has always had a comprehensive unwritten preservation strategy that respects traditional materials and techniques. These traditions and practices have protected the Pueblo’s structures for centuries.
The Pueblo is constructed with adobe bricks. The bricks are made of dirt mixed with water and straw. The mixture is either poured into forms or made into sun-dried bricks. The walls are frequently several feet thick. The roofs of each of the five stories are supported by large, timber vigas. Smaller slats of wood, usually pine or aspen latillas, are placed side-by-side on top of the vigas. The roof is covered with packed dirt. The outside surfaces require ongoing re-plastering with thin layers of mud to cover the inevitable cracks that occur in the dry heat, literally baking the surface. The interior walls are coated with thin washes of white earth to keep them clean and bright. No electricity or running water exists within the village.
The community is divided between two houses, the Hlauuma (north house) and Hlaukwima (south house). Each house encompasses many individual residences, with the homes built side-by-side in several layers. Think of it as the ancient world’s apartment complex. Each unit has an outdoor oven and many have more contemporary indoor fireplaces. It gets cold in Taos. The homes had no doors or windows originally. A ladder provided access through the buildings’ roof. The ladder could be pulled up if the village was under attack. Additionally, the village originally had a much taller exterior wall, also for defense.
TAOS PUEBLO TOURISM OFFICE
Taos Pueblo is closed annually in early spring/late winter
Monday – Saturday 8:00AM – 4:30PM
Sunday – 8:30AM – 4:30PM
Adults: $16 per person
Groups (8 or more Adults): $14 per person
Students: $14 per person
Children 10 and under: Free
Jan. 1, Turtle Dance
Jan. 6, Deer or Buffalo Dance
Feb - Mar (approx.), Spring Closure
May 3, Santa Cruz Feast Day, Foot Races
June 13, San Antonio Feast Day, Corn Dance
June 24, San Juan Day, Corn Dance
July (second weekend), Annual Taos Pueblo Pow Wow
July 25, Santiago Day, Corn Dance
July 26, Santa Ana Day, Corn Dance
Last week of August, Closed
Sept. 29, San Geronimo Eve Vespers
Sept. 30, San Geronimo Day Feast Day
Dec. 24, Procession of the Blessed Mother
Dec. 25, Deer or Matachines Dance
(All dates are approximate; check TaosPueblo.com for current information.)
Photography is allowed, rules and regulations apply
I. All photos are for personal use only
II. Commercial, Documentary, Educational, and/or Artist Renderings must have prior approval, additional fees apply, inquire with tourism office
III. No photography in San Geronimo Chapel
IV. No photos of tribal members without permission
V. No photography on feast days
Respect the "restricted area" signs as they protect the privacy of residents and sites of native religious practices.
Do not enter doors that are not clearly marked as curio shops. Each home is privately owned and occupied by a family and is not a museum display to be inspected.
Do not enter the walls surrounding the ruins of the old church or the cemetery.
Do not wade in the river; it is the sole source of drinking water.
Criteria III - "To bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared"
“The Chaco Canyon sites graphically illustrate the architectural and engineering achievements of the Chacoan people, who overcame the harshness of the environment of the southwestern United States to found a culture that dominated the area for more than four centuries.”
For over 2,000 years, Pueblo people have occupied the southwestern United States. Between 850-1250 AD Chaco Canyon was a regional superpower; a major center of ancestral Pueblo culture, with peripheral settlements extending hundreds of miles beyond the canyon capital. It was a hub for ceremonies, trade and political activity for early inhabitants of the Four Corners area. The monumental public and ceremonial structures seen at Chaco include an ancient ceremonial center that is unlike anything constructed before or since. Chacoan artistic tradition and architectural accomplishment is distinct and unique. The World Heritage property includes Chaco Canyon, the Aztec Ruins and several other small Chacoan sites managed by the BLA.
The inhabitants of Chaco are often referred to as the Anasazi. “Anasazi” is a Navajo word, meaning “Ancient Enemy.” Though this continues to be the name the world uses, locally the preference is Pre-Puebloan. Given recent research about possible cannibalism during the waning years of the Chacoan civilization, and the fact that the Navajo migrated to the Four Corners area, there may have been resource and territory conflict between people in the region that lore and linguistics reflect better than memory. I’m not sure if the shift in semantics impacts the names of the Mogollon or Hohokam, the pre-puebloan neighbors of the Anasazi. Given that Mogollon was the name of a Spanish governor, it hardly seems like an appropriate name for one of the indigenous pre-puebloan groups. Tangent.
Regardless, Chaco Canyon was the primary hub of an ancient civilization, with 400 miles of road facilitating turquoise trades routes in the region. The importance of trade to the community is indicated by the number of storage facilities. The roads, some of them 30 feet wide, represent an engineering marvel in that they were built in perfectly straight lines across deserts and canyons without the benefit of compasses, carriages or beasts of burden. The Chacoans engineering acumen is also evident in their construction enterprises. Pueblo Bonito, a tenth-century complex was five stories tall with about 800 rooms. Sophisticated astronomical observatories were incorporated into their architectural design.
They also built more than 100 Great Houses beyond the canyon, spreading them across 50,000 square miles of the Four Corners.
The Anasazi produced great works of art—villages such as Mesa Verde’s Cliff Palace, hallucinatory petroglyph panels, some of the most beautiful pottery in the world—at the same time that its people were capable of cruelty and violence. Warfare and cannibalism may have been responses to the stresses that peaked in the 13th century, but the Anasazi survived. They survived not only whatever crisis struck soon after 1250, but also the assaults of the Spanish conquest in the 16th century and the Anglo-American invasion that began in the 19th. From Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico to the Hopi villages in Arizona, the ancient culture continues to thrive. Pueblo people continue to teach their children the traditional dances, praying to their deities, carrying on the artistic traditions of their ancestors and teaching their children to the speak the languages of their ancestors.
The highly organized large-scale structures, featuring multi-storey construction and sophisticated coursed masonry, illustrate the increasing complexity of Chaco social structure, which distinguished itself within the regional culture of the ancestral Pueblo and dominated the area for more than four centuries. The high incidence of storage areas indicate the probability that the Chacoans played a central economic role, and the great size and unusual features of the ceremonial kivas suggest that complex religious ceremony may have been significant in their lives.
The park is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, and New Year's Day. Dogs are allowed.
7:00 AM - Sunset
Per Vehicle: $12.00
This permit allows all persons traveling in one private, non-commercial vehicle (car/truck/van) to enter the park to visit for up to 7 days from the date of purchase.
Per Person: $6.00
This permit allows a single individual traveling on foot, bicycle, or as individuals traveling together in a vehicle as a non-commercial, organized group to enter the park to visit for up to 7 days from the date of purchase.
This permit allows one motorcycle to enter the park to visit for up to 7 days from the date of purchase.
CARLSBAD CAVERNS (Natural)
Criteria III - "To contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance"
“The park’s primary caves, Carlsbad and Lechuguilla, are well known for the abundance, diversity, and beauty of their decorative rock formations. Lechuguilla Cave exhibits rare and unique speleothems, including a great abundance of large calcite and gypsum formations, including the largest accumulation of gypsum “chandeliers,” some of which extend more than six meters (18 feet) in length.”
In southern New Mexico, near the Guadalupe Mountains, more than 119 caves hidden beneath the surface comprise Carlsbad Caverns National Park. The Permian-aged Capitan Reef is one of the best preserved and most accessible cave complexes available for scientific study in the world. The caves were formed when sulfuric acid dissolved the surrounding limestone, creating extraordinary caverns of all sizes, with an endless array of amazing rock formations. The size of Carlsbad Caverns has not yet been determined. It is extensive. Despite a century of exploration, the caverns have not been fully explored. As recently as 2012, new caves were discovered in Lechuguilla. In fact Lechuguilla was specifically recognized by UNESCO for “providing an underground laboratory where geological and biological processes can be studied in a pristine setting.”
Carlsbad Caverns is one of over 300 limestone caves in a fossil reef created by an inland sea 250 to 280 million years ago. The caverns allow researchers to study Capitan reef’s interior through passages that penetrate deep into the earth’s crust as well as studying the eroded canyons on the surface. Carlsbad Caverns National Park is one of the few places where on-going geologic processes are apparent. The amazing rock formations, known as speleothems in geology circles, continue to grow with each drop that falls. This allows scientists to observe geological processes in a virtually undisturbed environment. These speleothems include helictites forming underwater, calcite and gypsum speleothems, and an astonishing collection of “biothems,” cave formations assisted in their formation by bacteria.
Twelve to fourteen thousand years ago, prehistoric inhabitants of New Mexico lived in the Guadalupe Mountains. Cooking ring sites and pictographs have been found within the present day boundaries of the park.
8:00 AM – 5:00 PM
Natural Entrance opens at 8:30 am. Last time to hike IN the Natural Entrance is at 3:30 pm but that won't leave much time to see anything. Latest recommended time to enter the cave allowing time to see the Big Room is 1:00 pm. The Big Room is closed at 3:30 pm. You must begin your hike out no later than 3:15 pm.
Adults (16 and older): $10 per person
Admission good for up to 3 days from the date of purchase.
Children (15 and under): Free
When using an America the Beautiful - National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass, Annual Pass, Senior Pass, Access Pass, Military Pass or Volunteer Pass, the pass admits the cardholder plus three adults (where a per person fee is charged).
2017 Entrance fees for all self-guided tours of Carlsbad Caverns are FREE on the following dates:
January 16 - Martin Luther King Jr. Day
February 20 - Presidents Day
April 15-16 & April 22-23 - National Park Week Weekends
August 25 - National Park Service Birthday
September 30 - National Public Lands Day
November 11-12 - Veterans Day Weekend
Ranger-guided tours require an additional fee.
HONORABLE MENTION | WHITE SANDS (Natural)
Was considered based on multiple natural criteria:
"To to contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance"
“to be outstanding examples representing major stages of earth's history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features”
“to be outstanding examples representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, fresh water, coastal and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals”
“to contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation.”
White Sands National Monument is the world's largest and best protected surface deposit of gypsum sand, unlike the far more abundant lake and seashore quartz sand dunes. White Sands encompasses more than 143,000 acres at the northern end of Chihuahuan desert. Elsewhere in the world, large gypsum-sand deposits have been heavily mined. Despite the current aridity of White Sands, which evolved over eons, it is biologically rich and diverse, with endemic species of animals, which afford exceptional opportunities for scientific research into evolution. The geology is an analog to that of Mars.
Being somewhat inhospitable to widespread human settlement, the key features of White Sands have been little affected by agriculture, grazing, and military use, except for the increasing presence of mesquite, which has caused limited erosion.
There are no gypsum deserts on the World Heritage List. Of the five desert sites inscribed, all exhibit dune formation, but the variety of dune features at White Sands is distinctive and more diverse than the other sites. It was withdrawn from consideration due to national security interests. There is a lot of research and development happening at Holloman. The air space above White Sands is protected from ground to infinity (theoretically). The U.S. military has no interest in sharing the world laying claim to White Sands.
7:00 AM – 8:00 PM (varies)
Gates always open at 7:00 am with closing hours changing with the seasons. Dogs are welcome. Bring plenty of water.
Adults (16 and older): $5 per person
Admission good for up to 3 days from the date of purchase.
Children (15 and under): Free
New Mexico Nomad