New Mexico is a visual feast for geology enthusiasts, with a landscape etched by ancient seas, enormous earthquakes, a variety of volcanoes, and the ongoing sculpting of wind and water erosion. Over a million years ago an enormous volcano, the Jemez Caldera, erupted, spewing huge volumes of lava and ash. The eruption deposited thick layers of black basalt and tuff, extending miles beyond the caldera.
Volcanic tuff is formed when volcanic ash and cinders are compressed. Tuff is soft compared to basalt. Weathering creates a hard surface layer on the tuff over time. The veneer is easily fractured, exposing the soft underlying tuff, which is sort of like cement that didn’t congeal properly. It crumbles easily and can be excavated with stone or wood tools; items that were readily available to the ancient people who took up residence in the Jemez mountains.
Pueblo where the rabbits meet
Humans have been hunting and foraging on the Pajarito Plateau for thousands of years. The herds of mammoth that roamed the area long ago had humans in hot pursuit. Considering that the canyons were reliable water sources, they provided ideal hunting grounds for Paleo-indians. These prehistoric hunters realized that caves provided shelter and that the volcanic tuff was easy to work with. As a result, they established small settlements in remote canyons throughout the region. Some are well known, like Bandelier and the Gila Cliff Dwellings. Others receive less fanfare, though they are equally extensive and extraordinary.
National Historic Landmark
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.” Puye was one of the ancestral villages of Santa Clara, San Ildefonso and Ohkay Owingeh Pueblos, occupied from about 900 AD to 1580 AD. The site was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1966.
There are extensive ruins at the base of the cliffs and on top of the mesa, with outstanding examples of early Pueblo architecture and stunning panoramas of the Rio Grande valley. 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 community.
The Santa Clarans refer to Puye as a special place between earth and sky. Visiting Puye clarifies that perspective. The area available for public tours is just a glimpse at one of the largest ancient communities in the canyon. There were several smaller settlements in the area. The canyon streams attracted wildlife and provided water for crops and Puye is an impressive example of how large, ancient communities thrived in a water parched environment.
Puye Cliff Dwellings
Pueblos were the apartment complexes of the ancients, with a design that has withstood the test of time. Puye looked similar to modern-day Taos Pueblo. There were kitchen areas, common areas, sleeping quarters, garden plots, a reservoir, and an irrigation canal. They had an additional advantage in that pueblos built on top of inaccessible mesas were easy to defend.
The village consisted of two levels of caves cut into the cliffs and the ruins of a large pueblo on top of the mesa. There are over a dozen “stairs” from the top of the mesa to the base of the cliff. The stairs involve ladders and chipped hand holds. The footsteps were rudimentary stepping ledges that were hewed into the cliff. The 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 north of the pueblo. They cut stairs in various directions, with deep hand holds to make climbing easier. Though the stairs are navigable, trekking to the mesa top would have been potentially fatal for clumsy people.
The cliffs give off a lot of heat. There is a lot of glass in the sand. It absorbs and retains heat, with about a 5-10 degree differential between the visitor center and the base of the cliffs. Inhaling or ingesting small glass particles is unhealthy, but carving a cave in tuff creates a lot of dust, crumbling ceilings create dust, and making pottery cookware from tuff adds glass to the diet.
The mesa top Community House is a beautiful example of early Puebloan architecture. It was a solitary, multi-story complex built on a large, central plaza. Portions of the mesa top community were two to three stories high. The total number of rooms is unknown; however, the south portion of the pueblo had 173 ground floor rooms.
The style of homes along the cliff was similar to pueblo and adobe homes today. Villagers used talus gathered around the mesa to build the front facades. Talus is 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. They dug holes into the cliff above the cave rooms. These large, circular holes supported logs used as roof beams. The caves were primarily storage areas to expand the living area of each home.
Visitors can see the marks left by sticks used to carve away the tuff on the cave ceilings. Smoke from fires created soot, which accumulated 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 and unhealthy.
All of the rooms had floors of well smoothed adobe clay. The community adorned the cliff walls with petroglyphs, carved into the rock by villagers standing on the roofs of the stone dwellings. There created a variety of images, 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.
Villagers deserted the canyon pueblos around 1577 due to a prolonged drought. The streams dried up and crops withered. They relocated to the banks of the Rio Grande, approximately 12 miles away, which is where their descendants live today. According to the Santa Clarans, Puye is a special place between earth and sky. A day soaking in serenity and history of this place makes the reference more poignant.
Early Western tourism entrepreneur Fred Harvey built one of the original Harvey Houses at the base of Black Mesa in the late 1800s. He offered amenities and tours to American tourists eagerly exploring the American West. The Harvey House at Puye Cliff Dwellings is the only one built on a reservation. Today, it serves as the interpretive center and gift shop.
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 Great Plains, and Mexico. Tribes exchanged goods, technology, and cultural achievements.
When Edgar L. Hewitt conducted his dig at Puye, it was the first systematic excavation of a prehistoric pueblo in the Rio Grande valley. Though his research yielded enormous insight, Mr. Hewitt, like most of his contemporaries, was not invited back.
Many of the individuals recognized for pioneering archaeological work in the southwest conducted digs without consulting the pueblos, disrespecting traditions, stealing important cultural artifacts, and desecrating bodies. The lack of respect, and the lack of consultation with the tribes, alienated the pueblos. As a result, they have no interest in authorizing future digs. As Americans, that means that we don’t have a keen understanding of our country’s history. At this point, what we don’t know about the ancient inhabitants of New Mexico outweighs what we do know.
Puye Cliff Dwellings
300 Hwy 30
PO Box 398
Espanola, NM 87532
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.
Purchase tickets at the Puye Cliff Dwellings physical site or the Puye Cliffs Welcome Center ( the Valero gas station)
- Santa Clara Pueblo does not allow motorcycles on the Puye Cliffs Scenic Byway. No pets.
- Personal photography is allowed.
Closures change annually but please note that Puye Cliffs is closed the week before Easter; June 13; August 12; and for the Christmas holiday.
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
- 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
Tickets are available at the Puye Cliff Dwellings physical site or the Puye Cliffs Welcome Center (the Valero gas station).
Additional Attractions 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.