Visiting The Aztec Ruins National Monument & The Salmon Ruins

Last Updated on: 16th April 2023, 10:39 pm

The Four Corners region of the Southwest United States is arguably the most archaeologically rich part of the country. While Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde are easily the top highlights, many visitors miss various smaller sites that are scattered throughout the region, such as the Aztec Ruins National Monument and the Salmon Ruins.

Conveniently, they’re both situated near the city of Farmington, New Mexico, which is right in between Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde. As such, you can visit these underrated ruins in between trips to the larger national parks.

For information on reaching each site and where to stay, be sure to check the end of the article.

The Aztec Ruins National Monument

A Brief History of the Aztec Ruins

‘AZTEC’ RUINS?: It should be mentioned straight away that the Aztec Ruins National Monument has nothing to do with Mexico’s Aztec Empire. Instead, they were built by the Ancestral Puebloans (also known as Anasazi), the same civilization behind sites like Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde, Bandelier National Monument and Hovenweep.

But why, then, are they called the Aztec Ruins? Supposedly, following the Spanish conquest of Mexico, some conquistadors traveled further north and simply labeled any ancient ruins they encountered as ‘Aztec.’ And in what’s now the town of Aztec, New Mexico, the name stuck for good.

(As an interesting side note, some believe that the Mexica people, who’d later control the Aztec Empire, originated somewhere in the American Southwest.)

At the time the Aztec Ruins were built in the 12th century, the main hub of the region was still Chaco Canyon, which was inhabited from around 850-1250 AD. 

But as Aztec, situated near the Animas River, proved to be a prime location for agriculture and trade, it quickly grew into a major population center. And after Chaco Canyon’s abandonment, some archaeologists believe that a majority of inhabitants settled here.

Throughout Chaco Canyon, the Ancestral Puebloans built numerous housing complexes which today we call ‘great houses.’ On its own, the Aztec Ruins National Monument could be thought of as a single great house. But it, along with the nearby Salmon Ruins, were just two of dozens of sites within a several-mile radius.

Many of Aztec’s buildings were originally three stories tall, and the great house remained in use for around 200 years. 

But while Chaco Canyon’s inhabitants may have moved here, the Aztec Ruins only lasted another fifty years past Chaco’s final abandonment. By around the year 1300, what’s now the Aztec Ruins National Monument was fully abandoned.

The ruins were declared a National Monument in 1923 and have since been managed by the National Park Service. And in 1987, the site was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It’s believed that the direct descendants of the former inhabitants are the residents of modern-day Santa Clara Pueblo. And to this day, Puebloan people still visit Aztec to perform rituals and carry on the traditions of their ancestors.

Aztec Ruins National Monument

Visiting the Ruins

At the time of writing, the Aztec Ruins National Monument is open daily from 8:00-18:00 (or 9:00-17:00 during winter months) and is free to enter. As this is a pretty popular site, it would be wise to arrive around opening if you want to have the ruins to yourself.

At the Visitor Center, you’ll find an informative museum detailing the ruins’ history, though you may want to save it for the end to beat the crowds.

Aztec Ruins National Monument
Aztec Ruins National Monument

Touring the Aztec Ruins National Monument consists of walking along a 0.5-mile loop trail, and, you’re unlikely to spend more than an hour here.

Before your tour of the ruins, be sure to buy the official guide at the museum gift shop. And as you walk along, you’ll see numbers (eighteen in total) placed at different landmarks that correspond to different sections of the booklet.

Aztec Ruins National Monument

Leaving the Visitor Center and stepping through a gap in the ancient walls, you’ll soon find yourself approaching the center of the main plaza. In its heart stands Aztec’s ‘great kiva,’ which is noticeably different than any other you’ll encounter in the region.

But what is a kiva? Partially built underground and then covered over with an upper structure, kivas hosted both religious ceremonies and general meetings. While great houses like this contained many kivas, communities typically contained a large central kiva, or great kiva.

First excavated in 1921, this great kiva was later reconstructed in 1934 by archaeologist Earl Morris. Being able to step inside today really helps one picture how most of the ancient kivas – which largely now appear as pits in the ground – would’ve looked in their prime.

Aztec Ruins National Monument

Today, visitors enter via a stairway from the side. But originally, people would’ve entered via the roof. And during important ceremonies and rituals, smoke would escape through the same gap in the ceiling.

A shaft near the base, meanwhile, would allow fresh air to enter the room.

Aztec Ruins National Monument

Other common architectural features of kivas are large pillars that would hold up the roof (in this case four), and floor vaults, whose true purpose remain a mystery.

And of course, they would always contain a fire hearth. Older Puebloan kivas typically had flat roofs, while they later became domed, or cribbed.

Aztec Ruins National Monument

Stepping outside, you’ll soon encounter yet another kiva in the central plaza – in this case unrestored. While we don’t know for sure, perhaps it was meant to host particular types of rituals.

In general, kivas hosted ceremonies during events like solstices and equinoxes, though they also would’ve hosted healing or rainmaking rituals in times of need.

Aztec Ruins National Monument

Much of the masonry at the Aztec Ruins National Monument is original. But if you’ve already been to Chaco Canyon, you’ll notice how much bigger and rounder the stones here are compared to the long and flat ones at Pueblo Bonito, for example.

Aztec Ruins National Monument

Before long you’ll encounter another kiva, which archaeologists believe may have been the first one built here – and possibly the very first structure built at these ruins, period! 

Built in the early 12th century, it was built while Chaco Canyon was still thriving, although not long before construction halted there.

Yet another notable feature is the T-shaped doorway, which connected a series of enclosed rooms with the open plaza. These special doors were likely used to delineate sacred spaces – or perhaps residences of the elite – and can also be seen at Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde.

Aztec Ruins National Monument
Aztec Ruins National Monument

As at Chaco Canyon’s Pueblo Bonito, visitors to the Aztec Ruins National Monument have the chance to explore the interiors of some of the rooms. These rooms are still roofed, giving one a real sense of stepping back in time.

The rooms here were used for purposes like storage as well as for burials. In the great house’s later years, however, the rooms were likely used for more ordinary activities.

Aztec Ruins National Monument
Aztec Ruins National Monument

Incredibly, the wooden beams of the roof were brought in from 20 miles away, as they were better quality than the local wood.

Sadly, the interior rooms suffered from frequent looting for decades in the 19th century, preventing us from getting a complete picture.

Aztec Ruins National Monument

Next, the path will take you outside the main walled area. Amazingly, this outer wall was aligned precisely with the summer solstice sunrise as well as the winter solstice sunset. 

The path continues until you reach the foundations of a unique tri-wall structure with a kiva in its center.

It doesn’t look like much today, however, as this section has been backfilled for better preservation.

Aztec Ruins National Monument
Aztec Ruins National Monument

At the end of the loop, you’ll get to walk up to the ‘roof,’ which in reality was the second level of three. Here you can see what appear to be elevated kivas, which were also built at Chaco Canyon’s Pueblo Bonito.

The upper level also offers excellent views of the great kiva and the archaeological site as a whole.

Notably, everything described thus far is merely ‘Aztec West.’ Not far away lies Aztec East (not pictured), yet another great house which has yet to be excavated.

The Salmon Ruins

Just outside the town of Bloomfield, New Mexico are the Salmon Ruins, first established in the 11th century. In contrast to the Aztec Ruins, this archaeological site is privately owned. At the time of writing, entry costs $4 (or $3 for seniors).

All in all, these ruins are quite similar to those at Aztec, with the notable exception of the great kiva replica. While the Aztec Ruins National Monument is the more essential of the two sites, archaeology lovers should be sure to see both.

Salmon Ruins New Mexico

The earliest constructions here date to 1068, with a major building spree commencing a few decades later. These ruins, therefore, predate those at Aztec by nearly a full century.

But why are they called ‘Salmon’? It’s because from the 1890s, this land was part of a homestead belonging to George Salmon – parts of which still remain.

As with Aztec, the ruins now feature numbered markers at various landmarks, with explanations on each provided in a laminated guidebook. Unlike at Aztec, however, you must return it when finished, as it doesn’t seem available for purchase.

Salmon Ruins New Mexico

Coming from Aztec, you’ll notice a familiar outer wall surrounding the great house. These walls were also built in alignment with astronomical phenomena, but in this case lunar instead of solar.

Given Salmon’s earlier construction date, you’ll notice smaller and flatter stones in some of the buildings that more closely resemble the older structures of Chaco Canyon.

Salmon Ruins New Mexico

Near the beginning of your self-guided tour, you’ll encounter rectangular rooms in which various tools and pots were discovered. And you’ll soon encounter a kiva, which should be familiar if you’ve already visited other Puebloan sites.

Remarkably, many of these smaller kivas were originally ordinary square rooms before circular kivas were added about a century later.

Salmon Ruins New Mexico

Nearby is yet another square room in which a kiva was added. Notably, it’s been nicknamed the ‘Painted Kiva,’ as archaeologists discovered traces of murals along the walls.

Images discovered here include a human-like figure with a bow, along with abstract geometric patterns and numerous dots.

Salmon Ruins New Mexico
The 'Painted Kiva'
Salmon Ruins New Mexico

Nearby are a series of rectangular rooms in which large heaps of trash were discovered. And one room even contains evidence of a staircase built of masonry, which is relatively unique at Puebloan ruins.

The path allows visitors to view these rooms – and many others – from what was once the second story of the complex.

The path will then lead you to yet another square room-turned-kiva. During my visit, I happened to find it occupied by a local cat.

Salmon Ruins New Mexico

The path continues to the center of the dense complex, where you’ll come across yet more storage rooms and kivas. As impressive as these ruins are today, one can only imagine the splendor of the Salmon Ruins in their heyday, when all three stories were still intact.

The kiva at Marker 17 is especially noteworthy because it once served as the base of a ‘tower kiva.’ Originally built in 1088, its base was elevated, and therefore it must’ve appeared as a tower when its upper structure was still intact. Archaeologists believe that it served as Salmon’s focal point and that surrounding structures were built to support it.

Salmon Ruins New Mexico

The Salmon Ruins, of course, also had a great kiva, which you’ll find in the center of the main plaza. If you’re coming from the Aztec Ruins National Monument, you’ll already have an idea of how it would’ve originally looked.

Various ritual offerings, such as turquoise, and the horn of a bighorn sheep, have been discovered inside.

When finished with the ruins, Salmon also has an interesting museum to check out, along with a nice gift shop.

Additional Info

As the name suggests, the Aztec Ruins National Monument is situated within the town of Aztec, New Mexico, about 15 miles (24 km) northeast of Farmington.

The Salmon Ruins, meanwhile, are located about 3 miles (5 km) west of the town of Bloomfield.

The Aztec and Salmon ruins are 12 miles apart from each other, and the drive should only take you about twenty minutes.

If you’re planning a morning visit, you might want to start with the Aztec Ruins National Monument first and get there right at opening, as it’s a fairly popular site. The Salmon Ruins, in contrast, seem to get much fewer visitors, so you’re likely to avoid crowds regardless.

During my trip, I spent the previous night in Bloomfield, visited both ruins, and then proceeded to hike in the Bisti Badlands area. After that, I headed toward Cortez, Colorado where I spent the night before visiting Mesa Verde National Park.

In Bloomfield, I had a good experience at the Super 8. You’ll find many more options in Farmington, however.

Whichever direction you’re coming from, seeing the Aztec and Salmon ruins combined with a visit to the Bisti Badlands area is a great way to break up the journey between Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon. Also relatively nearby is the sacred Shiprock.

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