Chaco Canyon was once the cultural capital of a civilization that dominated the Four Corners region. It spawned over 75 outlier colonies in the 12th century. Chacoan settlers meticulously planned communities in river valleys throughout northwestern New Mexico. One of the largest on the San Juan River was Salmon Ruins. The ruins are about 45-miles north of Chaco Canyon, 12 miles south of Aztec Ruins.
Salmon Ruins is a hidden gem for anyone interested in the Ancestral Puebloans. Located 2-miles west of Bloomfield, the site gets less traffic than Aztec Ruins or Chaco Canyon. However, it is a research hub for all things Ancestral Puebloan. In addition to the ruins of a 300-room Great House, they have a cultural museum housing an impressive collection of artifacts excavated at the site, as well as a research library dedicated to the history and geology of the region.
Ancient Village on the San Juan
Over the course of a century, settlers from Chaco Canyon established “outlier” villages in what is now northwestern New Mexico and southwestern Colorado. 400 miles of road connected these villages to Chaco Canyon. Many of these communities are outstanding examples of ancient urban planning, with ample evidence that builders and ancient engineers put a lot of thought into the location and functionality of the structures.
The pueblo on the banks of the San Juan was a formal, “planned” layout, similar to Aztec Ruins and typical of later Great Houses. Construction began in 1062; however, it was limited at the time to a small area on what is now the east side of the site. As the population increased, builders incorporated the initial structures into an expansion. The remodeled pueblo was three stories high in some places.
Puebloan Urban Planning
The pueblo at Salmon Ruins was the first major colony built outside of Chaco Canyon. In fact, it is one of the largest Chacoan communities found outside of Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Tree-ring dating on the timber indicates that the main structures were built over a seven year period, from 1088-1095 A.D. That coincides with large-scale migration from Chaco Canyon. There were 275-325 rooms, with 200-300 residents.
The pueblo had a Great Kiva, a towering central kiva, and a 400-foot long defensive wall on the north side of the compound. They built the wall with thin sandstone slabs, tightly stacked and layered in typical Chacoan fashion. The great kiva was about 50-feet across, with central columns supporting a roof of large wooden beams, vigas and latillas. Builders hauled the logs from forests 50-miles away.
Overall, the village planning was based on a large, apartment complex wrapped around a commons area. The main compound was “E-shaped,” with a generally rectangular central structure. Two room blocks extended south from each end of the main complex, wrapping around a large, central plaza. There were over 250 rooms. The rooms were arranged into suites, possibly used as family living units. Each large suite connected to three small rooms that may have been used for storage or other domestic purposes. The largest suites were single-story and many had hearths in the main space. In total, there were 150 ground-level rooms and up to 100 second-floor rooms. All of the entrances faced the plaza. The smaller suites were often 2-3 stories, many with features or artifacts implying utilitarian use or storage.
The lack of kivas in the original construction indicates that city planners may have built the pueblo primarily for residential purposes, like a sub-division of Chaco. Other than the Great Kiva and tower kiva, most of the initial construction focused on living suites. However, form and function changed over time, with twenty smaller kivas were added during the second wave of occupation.
The “Chacoan” period at Salmon ended between 1125-1130. The inhabitants moved elsewhere, possibly to Aztec Ruins. They may have been prompted to move due to flooding. However, their departure coincides with the end of major construction at Chaco. The migration may be indicative of broader changes that led to the collapse of the Chacoan civilization.
Regardless, the folks living at Salmon Ruins abandoned the pueblo, leaving the village unoccupied for 50-60 years. Eventually settlers moved in from the Mesa Verde region, initiating a major renovation. They remodeled hundreds of rooms, with many of the large, original rooms partitioned into smaller rooms. They built twenty small kivas in existing rooms and plaza areas. Ultimately, the renovated Pueblo was the largest on the San Juan River. Unfortunately, the villagers abandoned the pueblo permanently after a large fire in 1270 destroyed the great kiva and most of the structures. This secondary departure coincides with the overall exodus of people from the Four Corners region in the late 1200s. Literally, everyone in the area packed up and moved elsewhere.
Pioneer Peter Milton Salmon and his family homesteaded the property next to the ruin in 1877. Unlike many settlers at that time, the Salmon family respected the importance of the site. They, and the subsequent owner, Charles Dustin, protected it from looters and pot hunters for almost a century. Thanks to their efforts, the site remained relatively intact, providing archaeologists with a wealth of artifacts and information about the people who occupied this ancient village.
The San Juan County Museum Association acquired the 22-acre tract of land in 1969. The Heritage Park preserved the original Salmon homestead and several outbuildings. The site was placed on the New Mexico State Register of Cultural Properties and the National Register of Historic Places in 1970.
Archaeology at Salmon Ruins
After San Juan County purchased the site, they allowed Cynthia Irwin-Williams of Eastern New Mexico University to conduct an excavation from 1970-1979. Salmon Ruins is the only Chacoan Great House to be comprehensively excavated over the last 40 years. The museum showcases a sampling of the 1.5 million artifacts, specimens, and samples collected.
Also, Salmon Ruins is unique in that archaeological research is ongoing. For example, archaeologists discovered a Summer Solstice and Lunar Standstill Observatory in 2008. The observatory is an unassuming little room, with a slab that holds two rocks. During the summer solstice, sunlight forms a direct path on the white rock. The archaeologists published their findings in 2013, launching an annual summer solstice event with archaeoastronomy presentations at the site. Space is limited. Call ahead.
Additionally, the Center for Desert Archaeology is currently working on an ongoing project to collect, reevaluate, and publish data from the excavation at Salmon Ruins. They are incorporating recent research about the Chacoan culture in general into the revised analyses.
Salmon Ruins and Heritage Park
Allow 1.5-2.5 hours to tour Salmon Ruins, the Heritage Park, the Museum and the Gift Shop. The trail is self-guided, with trail guides available at the front desk. Access the ruins and Heritage Park through the museum. There is no access when the museum is closed.
Located 2 miles outside of Bloomfield, about 12 miles east of Farmington and south of Aztec.
From April to October – Mon-Sun, from 8AM to 5PM.
From November to March – mon-Sat, from 8 AM to 5PM. Sunday from 12 PM to 5 PM.
Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Years Day.
$4 adult, $3 seniors, $1 ages 6 -16, under age 6 is free. American Association of Museums members is also free. The entrance fee covers all indoor AND outdoor exhibits, including the archaeological site.
Pets are welcome in the Museum and Heritage Park if they are on a leash and owners pick up the poo. However, they do not allow pets in the archaeological site, unless they are portable and you are willing to tote them the entire time. There is shade in the parking area to keep your larger dogs cool, but it is always hazardous to leave pets in the car during spring – autumn in New Mexico. Too hot,. If you are traveling with more than one person, you could take turns visiting the archaeological site while the other person walks the dog around the Heritage Park.
The trail is fairly short (less than a mile) and more of a leisurely stroll than a hike. Many of the outdoor exhibits are wheelchair and handicap accessible, including portions of the archaeological site. There is a hill down to the site. However, when you check in with the museum and get a trail guide, there will be staff on hand to provide any assistance that you may need.
The Heritage Park
The Heritage Park offers architectural replicas of Tipis and Navajo Hogans, an Apache Wikiup, early Puebloan Pithouse, as well as a Trading Post and Sweatlodge. Additionally, the Heritage Park preserves the Pioneer Homestead built by George Salmon in the early 1890s. You can explore the original Salmon Family home, dugout, bunk house, carriage house, and well.
Salmon Ruins Museum and Research Library
Established in 1973, the San Juan County Museum Association manages the Salmon Ruins museum. The Salmon Ruins Museum exhibits some of the one and a half million artifacts recovered during the excavations conducted in the 1970s. Historic materials on display range from unique cultural textile samples to rock art, mining, and more. There are also temporary exhibits that change throughout the year. Additionally, the museum provides presentations about research at Salmon and other regional archaeology topics.
The Salmon Ruins Archaeological Research Center and Library contains more than 17,000 books, periodicals, and reports about the ruins, regional history, archaeology, anthropology, and geology.
Custom Archaeological Tours of the Four Corners Region
The staff at Salmon Ruins is available to host custom tours of the Four Corners Region; Chaco Culture National Historical Park, Navajo Pueblitos and Rock Art, the Bisti Wilderness, area natural arches, etc. Tours include transportation, lunch and guide service. Call 505-632-2013 for more information.
Salmon Pueblo Archaeological Research & Conservation
The Salmon Pueblo Archaeological Research Collection (SPARC) connects with and builds from the efforts of the Chaco Research Archive to enhance access to archaeological research on Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.
Salmon Ruins Museum is also home to the Division of Conservation Archaeology (DCA). This firm offers cultural resource management, archaeological clearances, and mitigation services. They are authorized to work in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Utah; on the Ute, Navajo and Jicarilla reservations; and on State and Federal Lands. The Salmon Ruins DCA Stabilization Unit provides accurate and quality architectural stabilization and preservation services. Their team of masons is recognized throughout the Southwest for the quality of their stone cutting, mortar development, and stabilization work.
New Mexico Site Steward Program
The team at Salmon Ruins also works with the Northwest New Mexico Site Steward Program. Site Steward volunteers are committed to cultural resource preservation activities that reduce the occurrences of vandalism or destruction of New Mexico’s non-renewable cultural and historic resources. Additionally, Site Steward’s increase public awareness of the significance of these unique sites. They educate others about the damage and destruction done by looters and artifact hunters and discourage the illegal sale of looted antiquities.
The program seeks volunteers who have a love of the outdoors and a strong interest in cultural resources. Call 505-632-2013 for more information.
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
Arches, Arches, and More Natural Arches, varies
The Anasazi Heritage Center 100mi Dolorez, CO
Angel Peak Scenic Area (BLM) 11mi
Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness (BLM) 50mi NM
Chimney Rock Archaeological Area 885mi Pagosa Springs, CO
Four Corners Monument 92mi
Lybrook Badlands (BLM) 64mi
Monument Valley 186mi near Kayenta, AZ
Navajo Lake State Park 38mi Navajo Dam, NM
Aztec Ruins 12mi Aztec, NM
Shiprock 56mi near Shiprock, NM
Ute Mountain Tribal Park 97mi CO
National Park Areas
Chaco Culture National Historical Park 52mi
Mesa Verde National Park 98mi
Hovenweep National Monument 124mi
Canyon De Chelly National Monument 178mi
Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site 176mi
Navajo National Monument 194mi
Bandelier National Monument 215mi