What: Aztec Ruins National Monument, 725 Ruins Road, Aztec, NM, 87410, (505) 334-6174. Admission is free.
How to Get There: From the north or south, pick up US 550 (a magnificent road). From the east or west, it’s US 64 to either US 550 or New Mexico SR 516 north. Upon entering the town of Aztec, watch for the sign to Aztec Ruins National Monument.
Best Kept Secret: Perhaps the Aztec Ruins National Monument itself. We had never heard of it. For grand dining, try Rubia’s Fine Mexican Dining in Aztec (we had chile rellenos and sopapilla el grande con pollo and they were superb).
Avoid: Leaving without checking the weather (the area can experience snow and freezing temperatures in the winter).
More Photos: Exhaust Notes Blog
More Info: Aztec Ruins Webpage
Our trip was to be a Destinations content safari for points of interest between Southern California and our turnaround point in Colorado. It was a success, with articles appearing in these pages on Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument (November/December 2019), Kitt Peak National Observatory (May/June 2019), the Petrified Forest National Park (September/October 2019) and Mesa Verde National Park (March/April 2019). The best part for us, though, were visits to friends, riding through New Mexico, and a discovery: The Aztec Ruins National Monument. It’s the surprises that make any trip an adventure, and after a day of enjoying New Mexico’s US 54 through dazzling White Sands Missile Range, the Lincoln National Forest, and Cloudcroft, Ruidoso and more, we passed through Farmington and spotted a small sign along US 550 pointing west to the Aztec Ruins National Monument. We had never heard of the place, and that made it a must-see stop.
The monument is what remains of an ancient walled community with approximately 400 dwellings built into a single structure. It is a breathtaking and expansive structure, the remnants of an entire city built into what was essentially a thousand-year-old condominium. There are several “kivas” (circular areas believed to be ceremonial locations), with one large “Great Kiva” forming the community’s physical and spiritual center. Most of the dwellings are not accessible to the public, but several are and the National Park Service provided a map for a self-guided walking tour. Many parts of the Aztec Ruins are undergoing restoration and the young people doing the work are descendants of Navajo ancestry. Although it was a hot summer day, they told me repairing structures their ancestors might have inhabited made the work exciting and inspirational.
A kiva, a large multipurpose room.
The Aztec Ruins were originally settled by the Puebloan Native Americans around A.D. 1100 for a period lasting approximately 200 years. Then it was deserted, most likely due to drought. Archeologists believe the ancients moved to areas now settled by Hopi and Navajo Native Americans in neighboring Colorado and Arizona. Although the Animas River runs nearby, the area is essentially a desert, and the Aztec Ruins structures disappeared for seven centuries as wind-swept desert sands covered the area. The Ruins were rediscovered by 19th century U.S. settlers who mistakenly thought prior inhabitants were the Aztecs of central Mexico, but the Aztecs lived too far south to have settled this area. The Aztec descriptor stuck, though, both for what became the current nearby town of Aztec and the ancient Ruins. Recognizing the cultural significance of the find, the area was declared the Aztec Ruin National Monument in 1923, and then as more structures were found, the name changed to the Aztec Ruins National Monument. We visited the West Ruins; there are four more dwellings to the east that are likely to remain unexcavated. In 1987, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization designated this spot as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As the opening paragraph of this article states, this is a culturally rich and scenic part of the country with great destinations and roads. Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado, the Four Corners Monument (where Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico meet) and majestic Monument Valley are all nearby. We advise allowing a half day on any trip through this region for a stop at the Aztec Ruins National Monument. — Joe Berk