Aztec Ruins and Mesa Verde

Aztec Ruins are not from the Aztec civilization. They are from the Puebla tribe. It’s called Aztec Ruins because it is in the town of Aztec in New Mexico. It’s very confusing, but the Aztecs were located in Mexico, not the United States. Apparently early explorers thought that these ruins were by Aztecs and why no one ever changed the name, I don’t understand. It just continues the ignorance of who native people are, where they are located, and what they accomplished. It’s frustrating. There is no where in the museum that accompanied the ruins that explained this issue. They had lovely displays about many different tribes and how they created their homes and their daily life. Despite all this confusion, the site itself is amazing. It’s free and you get to enter a reconstructed kiva and walk through several rooms.

You will find kivas at Puebloan ruins. They were used as gathering places, usually spiritual. There are large kivas, called Great Kivas, which could be used for religious or community meetings and smaller ones that could be for other gatherings The kivas were entered through the roof by ladder. You can see how it was set up with the reconstructed kiva. The colors inside were chosen because of the plaster they found on the original. Kivas are sacred places and should be treated as such when visiting. (We were sad to see in Bandolier Monument that people had scratched graffiti into the kiva there.) Some kivas had domed roofs and others flat. The smaller one, in the pictures, used to have a reconstructed dome roof, but it didn’t last.

The doorways to the homes are tiny. I’m 5’4 and had to significantly duck. The first three rooms were similar in size, but one had place for a fire. The second area that we could enter was at the back. These rooms were added on later in the construction of the pueblo for perhaps a growing population or maybe they needed more storage space. The rooms that we went through were quite dark. After exiting these back rooms, you could walk behind the pueblo where there was another small kiva. We also spotted some adorable prairie dogs.

Mesa Verde, Colorado is about an hour and a half north of Aztec, New Mexico.

The park costs $30 to enter, but you can use your National Park Pass if you have one. If you want to go to more than one National Park, I would highly suggest purchasing the pass. The pass is $80 and good for an entire year. You need to drive about 23 miles to get to the first area with cliff dwellings. There are overlook parking areas often and the views are awesome.

The first place we stopped was at Cliff Palace. We knew that we would not be able to get into the dwelling because our park map explained that you needed a tour ticket and a ranger guide. It was also not open until after Memorial Day. (We encountered that a lot on this trip. There are many things closed until later in May.) Tickets are available online to tour Cliff Palace and Balcony House for $8 each tour. However, they are only available 14 days in advance and when I looked they were already sold out. Cliff Palace is a half an hour tour with 160 steps at .25 miles. It is rated as moderate. Balcony House is an hour tour with 160 steps at .25 miles, but rated difficult. I don’t have any pictures of Balcony House because it can only be seen from the tour or a side trail. The stop on the road gets you on top of it. Cliff Palace is so beautiful. It didn’t look real. It has 150 rooms and 23 kivas. It housed about 100 people.

A group of tourists were looking out at the canyon and couldn’t figure out why everyone was so interested in the area. Then they turned around and saw Cliff Palace. I thought it was pretty funny. The canyon is cool on its own though. There are two stops where you can see dwellings across the canyon. (It would be a plus to have binoculars.) These two were House of Many Windows (which are actually doors) and Hemingway House (named after a lady who donated money to preserve this park).

Spruce Tree House was the last cliff dwelling we saw. It is the third largest (after Cliff Palace and Long House) and considered the best preserved. You cannot enter Spruce Tree House due to concerns of rock falls. It has about 130 rooms and 8 kivas. There were probably 60-80 people who lived there. It is named Spruce Tree because the local ranchers who discovered it had to climb down a Douglas Spruce to get to it.

The Wetherill Mesa Road was closed while we were there. I later read that it will be closed for all of 2023. Long House, Step House, Badger House, and Kodak House are all located on this road. Mesa Top Loop was also closed. They were clearly updating the road. I would have loved to see more dwellings, but I was pretty excited with the places we did see. We are already planning on going at a later date and taking the tours through the dwellings. I love learning about native cultures.

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