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Walk in the Footsteps of the Ancestors in These 12 New Mexico and Four Corners Sites

PHOTO: Johnny Adolphson / Shutterstock

New Mexico and the Four Corners has some of the best-preserved ancient ruins in the United States.

New Mexico and the Four Corners are some of the only places in the United States where the landscape bursts with ancient history. Thanks to the arid, high-desert conditions of the Southwest, many of the ancient sites built by ancestral Native American peoples between around 1000 CE and 1500 CE still remain. Best known for the villages they built into the sides of cliffs hundreds of feet in the air, Puebloan peoples and their cultural contemporaries also created unique forms of pottery, religion, and farming practices. Walk in their footsteps and see at these 12 fascinating archaeological sites.

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Chaco Culture National Historical Park

WHERE: Nageezi, New Mexico

In this high desert landscape with long winters, a short farming season, and minimal rainfall, Chaco Canyon simply shouldn’t exist. But it did. Beginning in the mid-800s CE, a cultural revolution turned this northwestern New Mexico backwater into one of the largest and most important centers of ancient Pueblo culture. The community built massive stone buildings, called “Great Houses,” multiple stories tall. They planned the city’s layout so that they could communicate across distances and oriented structures towards essential astronomical markers like the sun and moon. At its height, over 1200 people lived permanently in the Canyon, but poor soils meant they were dependent on outsiders to supply them with enough food to keep going. Around the mid-12th century, Chaco was suddenly and mysteriously abandoned after almost 300 years of regional domination. What exactly happened, no one knows, so for now, this major ancient city remains shrouded in mystery.

INSIDER TIPChaco Culture National Historical Park is so remote and has so little light pollution that it was named a “Dark Sky Park” in 2013, one of the best places in the world for stargazing.

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Bandelier National Monument

WHERE: Los Alamos, New Mexico

The ancestral peoples of the Southwest hit the jackpot when they found Bandelier. The site’s unique landscape, with its soft volcanic cliffs riddled with natural caverns and capped with rich soil, meant people could live here year-round by building homes into the rock walls. They stayed for about 400 years (between approximately 1150 CE and 1550 CE) before moving on to new settlements, but in this corner of northern New Mexico, visitors can walk through the cliff-dwellings and kivas (partially underground chambers built for religious rituals) left behind centuries ago.

INSIDER TIPBandelier National Monument encompasses 33,000 acres of canyons and mesas perfect for hiking. For a moderate, short trek to a beautiful waterfall, try the 1.5 mile (one way) Falls Trail.

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PHOTO: Casey Chinn Photography / Shutterstock
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Petroglyph National Monument

WHERE: Albuquerque, New Mexico

Just 17 miles west of Albuquerque, Petroglyph National Monument protects more than 24,000 stone carvings by Ancestral Puebloan people and early Spanish settlers, along with hundreds of small archaeological sites. Most of the carvings are recognizable as people and animals that would have had some significance for the ancient people that created them—images like deer and birds and coyotes. Around 90% of the petroglyphs were created between about 1300 CE and the end of the 17th century, but the rare few, particularly those in the Boca Negra Canyon, date back 3,000 years ago. Three separate trails (one of which is paved and offers restroom facilities and picnic tables) take you through this ancient New Mexican art gallery.

INSIDER TIPFor a dose of random, check out the Tibetan Buddhist stupa built on the land in 1989, a year before it became a National Monument.

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PHOTO: Jasperdo (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) / Flickr
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Aztec Ruins National Monument

WHERE: Aztec, New Mexico

When they stumbled upon the ruins here, early New Mexican settlers wrongly assumed that because they were so intricate and monumental, they must have been left behind by the famed central-Mexican Aztec civilization. Local descendants of the ancient Pueblo peoples of the region, however, knew different. Eventually, the site was recognized for what it was—a Pueblo community dating to between 1100-1300 CE complete with the kivas, Great Houses up to three stories high, and a permanent population of around 200-300 people. In 1987, Aztec Ruins was assigned UNESCO World Heritage status as one of the most impressive sites of Puebloan architecture and engineering still standing today.

INSIDER TIPAztec Ruins has the oldest and largest reconstructed ceremonial Kiva in the world, a partially subterranean, circular room over 40 feet in diameter which was once the heart of ancient Puebloan spirituality.

 

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Mesa Verde National Park

WHERE: Cortez, Colorado

Mesa Verde is arguably the most spectacular of all the Ancestral Puebloan sites in the Four Corners Region. This massive settlement is known for its cliff dwellings—small villages tucked into natural caves and overhangs in steep canyon cliffs constructed beginning around 1190 CE. Some of these, like the Cliff Palace, would have served as home to more than 100 people with 150 rooms in multi-story homes and 23 ceremonial kivas. Like the other cliff dwellings at the site, the Cliff Palace was only accessible via ladder or stone hand- and toe-holds built into canyon walls hundreds of feet in the air. Though most of the cliff dwellings can only be seen from ubiquitous vista points along the canyon’s rim, a few still allow visitors to enter daily during the summer.

INSIDER TIPIf you want to set foot inside a cliff dwelling, making reservations in advance is a must.

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Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

WHERE: Silver City, New Mexico

In the late 11th century, the Mogollon people, Native Americans who once inhabited southern New Mexico, Arizona, and northern Mexico, set down a permanent settlement in the caves above the Gila River near what is today Silver City, New Mexico. Unlike the Ancestral Puebloans to the north, the Mogollon often lived in pit-houses instead of tall, multi-story buildings, used distinctive tools, and had their own distinctive brown-paste pottery. In the five caves of Cliff Dweller Canyon, the Mogollon built 46 separate rooms (some of which can be entered during warmer months) and buried their dead, including a mummified infant discovered in 1912 whom researchers named “Zeke.”

INSIDER TIPThere are several natural hot springs near Gila Cliff Dwellings. From the Visitor’s Center, you can reach the popular Jordan Hot Spring (6-8 miles away depending on the trail) or Lightfeather Hot Spring (20-minutes along the river).

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PHOTO: Erin (CC BY-NC 2.0) / Flickr
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Pecos National Historical Park

WHERE: Pecos, New Mexico

Pecos, called Cicuique by its original inhabitants, is a historical crossroads, both literally and culturally. The first pueblo built at the site was a simple village made of a dozen rock-and-mud homes around 1100 CE. By 1450 CE, the village was a town with more than 2000 residents living in buildings that soared as high as five stories. By the mid-1500s, the Spanish had discovered the town and built a mission church in 1619. At Pecos, the people marked their rejection of Christianity by building a traditional kiva directly in front of the church. Still, they remained on fairly friendly terms with the Spanish and, in the end, it was the marauding of Comanche Indians, not the Spanish, that resulted in the abandonment of Pecos in 1838.

Today you can still see the remains of the pueblo, the original Spanish mission, and other more recent historical artifacts like the remains of the Old Santa Fe Trail, which brought many settlers to the Southwest in the 19th century.

INSIDER TIPA Civil War battle between Union-controlled Fort Union and Confederate forces took place in the mountain pass west of Pecos. The so-called Glorieta Pass Battlefield and has been partially preserved by the National Park Service.

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PHOTO: Shoshi Parks
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Hovenweep National Monument

WHERE: Cortez, Colorado

Spanning the border of what is today Colorado and Utah, Hovenweep’s towers and “castles” are among the most unique ancient structures in the Four Corners region. The earliest ruins date to around 1100 CE, when Ancestral Puebloan peoples were moving from mesa tops to more defensible canyon locations. With expert masonry skills, the people of Hovenweep built a dam, created a reservoir, and constructed multi-story pueblos and subterranean kivas on top and within the rocky edges of the canyon. For all its distinctive, haunting beauty, though, Hovenweep, like the other intricate canyon sites of the Ancestral Puebloan region, was abandoned after only a couple hundred years; archaeologists believe the site was nearly empty by 1350 CE.

INSIDER TIPThe name “Hovenweep” means “deserted valley” in the Ute language. True to its moniker, this site is so remote and so dark at night that it was named the 17th International Dark Sky Park in 2014.

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Coronado Historic Site

WHERE: Bernalillo, New Mexico

Though it’s named for Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, a Spanish conquistador who camped nearby between 1540-42 CE, the ruins of the Coronado Historic Site are 100% ancestral Native American. Settled by Tiwa-speaking peoples around 1325 CE, this ancient Pueblo site was once home to around 1200 people who called their community Kuaua, meaning “evergreen”. In the 1930s, archaeologists discovered an unusual square kiva in the settlement’s south plaza decorated with layers of painted murals—some of the finest examples of Pre-Columbian art ever found in the United States. You can see the recreated murals in their original location and 14 pieces of the original works in the Visitor’s Center.

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PHOTO: Shoshi Parks
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Canyons of the Ancients National Monument

WHERE: Cortez, Colorado

Canyons of the Ancients isn’t showy like Hovenweep or Chaco Canyon—its ruins are small, scattered, and best seen on long hikes. But 10,000 years of history are etched into this 176,000-acre National Monument, making it the densest archaeological area in the United States. The only way to see these sites is a long (but relatively flat) hike through the canyon. Lowry Pueblo, which has a kiva and three-story structures, and Sand Canyon Pueblo, which contains at least 20 multi-family blocks with 420 rooms, are worthy highlights. Trails are well marked, but don’t expect to find park rangers, interpretive signs, or many other visitors—this place remains off the beaten track.

INSIDER TIPThe southern entrance to Canyons of the Ancients National Monument is not marked. The small, unobvious parking area is on the north side of Cortez County Road G about 15 miles west of the town of Cortez (look for the Sand Canyon Trailhead after parking; it cannot be seen from the road). Ask at nearby Hovenweep National Monument for directions and a park bulletin if you get lost.

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Puye Cliff Dwellings

This relatively unknown ancient Pueblo site is one of the region’s longest—one of the two layers of dwellings built into the outcroppings and caves of its 200-foot cliff goes on for over a mile. It’s also one of the longest permanently inhabited sites, where up to 1500 people at a time lived from around 900 CE to 1580 CE. At the well-preserved site, declared a National Monument in 1966, you’ll also find petroglyphs and the visible remains of the hand- and foot-hold ladders carved into the cliff face that allowed residents to get from home to farm on the mesa top. Check the Puye Cliff Dwellings website for any upcoming dance or cultural performances at the site by nearby Tewa Indian groups.

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PHOTO: US Bureau of Land Management [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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Cedar Mesa and Grand Gulch Plateau

WHERE: Torrey, Utah

If you’re the adventurous, back-country type, Cedar Mesa and Grand Gulch Plateau will give you a taste of archaeological discovery that most sites developed for tourism have lost. Deep in the back-country bordering (and partially within) Bear’s Ears National Monument, this Utah canyon offers one of the best examples of 13,000-year-old Clovis culture, what is controversially believed by archaeologists to have been the earliest appearance of humans in the New World. Of course, more recent evidence of human habitation abounds here, too, at places like Moon House ruin, a cliff dwelling built under a rock overhang in Cedar Mesa. Though you won’t find any park rangers or interpretive signage here, you are likely to see artifacts littering the trails, rock art and a number of small structures built among the rocks.

INSIDER TIPThe biggest threat to archaeological remains in this region comes from humans. It is illegal, selfish, disrespectful, and very uncool to pick up or remove pottery, stone tools, or any other objects that may have belonged to ancient peoples.