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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Aztec Ruins, Chaco Culture and Bandelier

This post is a continuation of “Where in the World Are Rickand JoAnne” and #3 in my effort to bring our journal up to date.

Aztec Ruins

Aztec Ruins National Monument was only about 10 miles from our campground. While our main destination in this area was Chaco Culture we decided to check out Aztec – a site we new very little about. As it turns out we are glad we did.

The park covers a relatively small area but the ruins are quite remarkable. The Aztec community flourished between 850 and 1130 making it a younger pueblo than places like Mesa Verde and Chaco Culture. Built on the bank of the Animas River and probably started as a satellite to Chaco it eventually became a center of its own and continued to flourish after the decline of Chaco.

After an orientation stop at the visitor center and museum we headed out for a walk through the ruins. What made this ruin unique for us was the fact we could walk through rooms that have been very well preserved including some with the original wooden ceilings. Also, it was interesting to see the rebuilt Great Kiva although not authentic it was believed to be historically and architecturally accurate and provided a great example of what the Kiva might have actually looked like. If you are in this area this is a site you don’t want to pass up.

More pictures here.

Chaco Culture

 In its day, Chaco Canyon was one of the key population centers of the pueblo people. The Chacoan culture at its height dominated and influenced religion, ideology, commerce, politics, economy, social structure, and architecture of the region for 300 plus years (800 AD – 1100 AD.) Chaco was the hub of the Chaco Road – a network of roads connecting over 150 communities in the region and the site of Great Houses that were the largest buildings in North American until the 19th century. For example, Casa Bonito was four stories high, contained over 600 rooms, and 40 kivas.

With a full tank of gas in our Honda Fit we headed out early from the campground for our 65 mile journey to Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Yes, there is a campground at the park but we were advised by several people not to drive the dirt road that leads into the park unless we wanted to destroy our RV. As it turns out, that was very good counsel. Getting to the park from the north requires a trip over a crazy, rough dirt road. Even the park website has this warning:

“The northern and southern routes include 13, 20, and 33 miles of dirt roads, respectively. These sections of road are infrequently maintained, and they can become impassable during inclement weather. If you have an RV and are not planning on camping in the park, you may want to leave the RV and drive a car into the park.”

That being said, the destination was worth the effort. Chaco is impressive. Over the years (including this recent swing through Arizona and New Mexico) we have visited dozens of ancient Puebloan sites throughout the southwest. Chaco along with Mesa Verde provide what we think is the best glimpse of these ancient cultures. Given the harsh and often brutal environment of the area it is amazing to me that people were not only able to survive but actually prosper.

Many Indian people of the southwest consider Chaco an important part – being a stop in their sacred migration and for them, Chaco remains a spiritual place. Stand on a hill and feel the dry desert breeze, walk across a dusty plaza, duck as you enter through a small doorway into a dark room, touch an ancient wall – yes, I think here, more than most of the other sites we have visited you can “feel” the history.


After Chaco, we headed to Bandelier National Monument and the Juniper Campground. After settling in on our “no hookup” site we headed down to the bottom of Frijoles Canyon to the visitor center. This is a very different place than most of the other ancient sites we have visited. First of all, it is right on a river and the surrounding area is more lush than the typical dry and barren locations typical so many of the ruins. Secondly, the cliffs in the area look very different. They are not sandstone but are Tuff – the remnants of huge ash flows from the Valles Caldera volcanic eruption over 1.4 million years ago. The good news for the pueblo builders is that tuff is an easier material to work with than the typical sandstone and adobe. The bad news or us is that Tuff is much “softer” then sandstone and/or adobe and thus erodes much quicker.

After our stop at the visitor center to watch the introductory video and tour the small museum, we headed out on the 1.2-mile self guided (there are 21 stops) loop trail to some of the main ruins in the park. While there is evidence that this area was inhabited over 10,000 years ago by nomadic hunters the pueblos and cliff dwelling period was at its peak from 1150 to 1600. It is assumed that as clans from the four corners area migrated to this area.

The oral histories of the Pueblos in the area today link them to Bandelier.

More Pictures here.

Next up… Pecos, Fort Union and Home.

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