Long before I moved to New Mexico I had been told stories by my grandfather and grandmother of the great cliff dwellings and Native American ruins that they found during their travels here in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. I just couldn’t imagine what these “houses” must have been like. I found pictures in National Geographic and read books in the library and eventually, as technology advanced, sought information on the internet.
Bandelier, Chaco Canyon, Aztec, Salmon Ruins and Gila are all part of our early Native American Culture along the Trail of the Ancients.
So, you can imagine how thrilled I was when we sat down in a Travel Guide New Mexico television production meeting and the topic of the “Trail of the Ancients” came up. It was interesting to learn that, perhaps, many of the cliff dwellers came from the same Native American tribes and how they split and moved in different directions.
I knew this was a trip of a lifetime and I wasn’t disappointed.
I have visited Bandelier near Los Alamos many times when relatives and friends visit and I always look forward to going back. To me it is a very magical place in a magical location. Often times we spot deer drinking and relaxing along the stream where early inhabitants drew their daily water supply and irrigated their fields. If you’re up for a hike you can climb out of the canyon and peer down on the ruins or head south to take in the two waterfalls that feed into the Rio Grande.
However, I had no idea that Puye Cliffs on the Santa Clara reservation was just a few miles from Bandelier near Espanola. And I had paid only a brief visit to Aztec and Chaco Canyon and couldn’t wait to get to the Gila Cliff Dwellings near Silver City.
At Puye Cliffs, Lucretia Williams met us in her Santa Clara native garb and gave us a first hand tour of this wonderful place. In many cliff dwelling communities we see a main “village” under the cliff dwellings. At Puye Cliffs the “village” is on a mesa above the cliff dwellings … something I was unaware of until Lucretia drove us (you can climb but dusk was approaching) to the top of the mesa for a spectacular view of the surrounding area. Now this is a place where I could have lived! You have to take a guided tour here and don’t be hesitant to do so. Your family will learn a great deal about the early inhabitants and the Santa Clara people today.
Chaco Canyon is one of those places that you scratch your head and ask why people came here in the first place? Many theories abound with trade from Mexico and California not to mention trade routes from the north and east as well. From the air we were told you can still see the outline of these routes. What we don’t understand is why Chaco was chosen. Wood beams were cut and hauled many miles to make the ceilings of the dwellings secure and the rocks used to build the structures were carried from about five miles away. Imagine doing all of that hundreds of years ago before horses and wagons entered the scene. It is just mystical. Be sure and ask the guides about the theories of Mayan and Aztec influence in the region and at Chaco in particular. Especially as 2012 looms before us …
North of Chaco is the Aztec ruins located right in downtown Aztec. The most notable part of Aztec is the reconstruction of the Great Kiva, which gives you a real look at the kiva as a meeting place and this is one HUGE kiva! I was blown away by its size and can only imagine what actually took place here. One incredible place for a family reunion!
Right next door to Aztec is the Salmon Ruins named after the family that homesteaded the area surrounding the ruins and kept them in pristine shape. Interestingly enough these ruins were not pillaged by those searching for pottery and other ancient artifacts.
It was well into the 1970’s before the ruins (just outside of Bloomfield) were excavated and research is still ongoing there today. The Salmon brother’s home is still intact and if you peer into the windows you can see dishes still in the kitchen. Other buildings of the Salmon family are right next to the ruins.
Take time to talk with the volunteers and staff members inside the visitor’s center. They’ll be happy to show you around and explain what they have found there. Larry Baker, the superintendent, has been there since the first excavations and has many great stories to tell about the ruins and the people believed to live there. He’ll talk your ear off with wonderful information and will make you yearn for more! Larry is an all around great guy with a true passion for what he does. Someone who has undertaken his job as a true labor of love.
The Gila Cliff Dwellings require about a 90 minute to two hour drive through the Gila National Forest from Silver City and it is well worth every mile you drive. The views of the forest are nothing short of eye popping. The hike to the cliff dwellings is about a half mile along a narrow and unpaved trail. I wondered about this before we started and then quickly began to understand that this walk is one the Ancients made daily and hiking without the benefit of concrete or asphalt gave me a real feeling of peace and serenity along the small stream lined on both sides by massive rock formations.
When you first see the dwellings you might feel a little disappointed. Why? Well, you can see the face of the dwellings but the magic here is the 100 plus foot climb up to the dwellings and then your first look of what lies behind the stone face. There is a whole city built back into these giant caves with hundreds of rooms with a view! I was taken back by what we experienced. And the great part is that you can climb into the cave to experience much of what life might have been like hundreds of years ago. I’m adding this to my list of places to take family and friends when they come to visit.
Gila is a full day trip. Two hours in … two hours out … and a few hours of just looking around. You can camp there and might want to consider doing so. We talked with a few campers who said they had never seen stars at night like they saw at Gila. I can only imagine. Oh … there are other isolated cliff dwellings you can see and enter along the hiking routes outside of the main cliff dwelling area and near the camp grounds. Great places for the little ones … and old ones … in your family to explore!
Staying in Silver City as part of your visit is well worth the time. Billy the Kid … museums and a growing art community make this a great place to “camp” while exploring. Fort Bayard is an 1850’s army post which was home to the famed African American Buffalo Soldiers and a national cemetery with graves dating back into the 1800’s. This national treasure is still today a place where our soldiers are laid to rest. I must ad that several of our Buffalo Soldiers who were stationed here were honored with the nation’s highest award for valor … the Medal of Honor.
There is much more to see in Silver City … Pinas Altos and early gold mining town and home, for a short time, to the famed Judge Roy Bean. Stop in at the “PAPO” … that would be the Pinas Altos Post Office and Ice Cream parlor as the locals call it, for one of the biggest and most delicious banana splits that I have ever consumed! Tell them that Richard sent you.
And remember … the Trail of the Ancients is your trail to another great family adventure in the Land of Enchantment!