Aztec Ruins and Chimney Rock: Two Ancestral Puebloan Sites You Need to Visit

Puebloan culture spread across the Four Corners region of the southwest. Ancestral Puebloan peoples built structures of stone and wood, studied the skies and left behind an incredible legacy. Though many of their structures were abandoned about the 1300 AD, they didn’t disappear, they migrated to other areas and blended into other puebloan groups who still claim them as ancestors. Though best known for the dramatic cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, there are many sites where you can see the remnants of this culture and some them don’t require any climbing at all! These are two that we visited.

Aztec Ruins National Monument, Aztec New Mexico

The tour of Aztec Ruins begins with this reconstructed kiva.

Along the banks of the Animas River in northern New Mexico, white settlers encountered stone ruins and mistakenly attributed them to the Aztecs so they named the town after them. Archaeologists now know the site is an ancient Pueblo built nearly a thousand years ago. What makes this site unique is that it sits on a river bank and several of the structures still retain their original wood beams and some have their original roofs in tact.

The tour begins in a reconstructed Great Kiva then you proceed on a trail through the ruins and finally inside a series of rooms with original, intact wooden roofs. But, tread carefully! Signs at the entrance let you know that the roof is home to bats and they encourage visitors to stay low and stay quiet so the bats don’t wake up.

Unfortunately, the visitor center was closed due to Covid. This made Aztec Ruins a short, but memorable, stop. We walked the trail through the ruins, took pictures and enjoyed the beautiful surroundings which almost make you forget that you are on the edge of a city neighborhood. I would, still, strongly recommend stopping to see it. I don’t know of any other ancient sites where you can see complete ancient puebloan structures.

Getting There: Aztec Ruins National Monument is located in the middle of Aztec, New Mexico; about forty-five minutes south of Durango, Colorado. Traveling South of US Highway 550, turn right on Ruins Road immediately after you cross the bridge over the Animas River. Watch out for prairie dogs running alongside the road as you get close to the ruins parking area.

Chimney Rock National Monument, near Pagosa Springs, Colorado

Chimney Rock catches the warm morning light.

Driving east on 160 from Durango, Colorado your first sight is the dramatic rock columns perched on a mountain top. Chimney Rock National Monument is the highest elevation Ancestral Puebloan site at a little over 7000 feet.

You begin your visit to the site at a parking area at the base of the mountain where you pay admission and get oriented for your visit. Then, you can either hike up the mountain or you can drive to the top on a winding dirt road. The parking area at the top is small and very tight to maneuver around in. From the parking area you can climb a short distance to the great house near the rock pillars or you can walk downhill to the remnants of an ancient village.

The great house at the end of the upper trail is perched on the ridge near the rock columns leading archaeologists to believe they were built for ceremonial purpose. Lending support to this idea, archeologists have found that periods of construction occurred at the same time as an event called the Major Lunar Standstill.

What is the Major Lunar Standstill? As the Earth wobbles through its orbit, the moon appears to rise at different points on the horizon through the years. Every 18.6 years it reaches its northernmost point and pauses before beginning to move south. That pause is called the Major Lunar Standstill. Seen from the Great House on the ridge, the moon rises directly between the rock pillars during the Standstill.

The mountain top also affords an incredible, unbroken, 360 degree view of the surroundings. To the south you can clearly see mesas in Northern New Mexico, which would have made Chimney Rock an excellent place to send signals via bonfires.

Getting There: The monument is open May 15th – September 30th. Chimney Rock is visible from US Highway 160 just west of Pagosa Springs. Turn south on CO 151 and drive for 3.2 miles. The entrance on the right. There is RV parking in the parking area at the base of the mountain. That’s also where you purchase your ticket and get oriented before you climb or drive up to the top.

All photos by Lee Rowe

Author: lee@runawayrowes.com

Born the same day Gemini 7 launched. I love to travel and photograph new places.

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