At first glance Aztec Ruins National Monument (505-334-6174 x230, www.nps.gov/azru/) seems to be geographically misplaced, as it lies far outside the territory of the namesake tribe. After I learned that the site was named by the early Spaniards, it all became clear. As the park ranger explained, “Because of their previous encounters, the Spaniards called any Indian they came across ‘an Aztec’, so they incorrectly named this Pueblo Indian site after them. And unfortunately the name stuck.” Semantics aside, this northern New Mexico national monument is definitely worth on a visit, as it boasts some well preserved Pueblo ruins, as well as an excellent museum that sheds some light on the mysterious inhabitants.
Located nine miles north of Bloomfield in the hamlet of Aztec (also named by the Spaniards), this out-of-the-way national monument offers relatively good wheelchair-access. There’s accessible parking near the Visitor Center, with level access to the front door. There’s also a nice accessible picnic area in front, and accessible restrooms to the left of the Visitor Center.
The Visitor Center, which is housed in the former home of the archaeologist who discovered the site, features level access to the information desk and good pathway access around the exhibits. There’s also level access to the theater, which has bench seating and plenty of room for power or manual wheelchairs.
The museum houses a number of artifacts including pottery, tools, baskets and fibers from the Pueblo Indians — a group of tribes that are thought to be descendants of the ancient Anasazi people. Although the Pueblo Indians once thrived in the area, they mysteriously disappeared around 1300; and the museum offers a number of theories on their demise. Some archeologists believe invaders drove them away, while others believe that climate change, a prolonged drought or the overuse of resources played a significant role in their departure. The bottom line is, nobody knows for sure what happened to them, which makes these ruins all the more intriguing.
Outside there’s a level paved trail from the Visitor Center over to the great kiva. Although you can wheel around the outside of this restored structure, you have to be able to walk down a flight of stairs if you want to go inside. From there the accessible pathway leads around a un-restored small kiva located next door, and over to what’s known as the west site.
The highlight of the ruins is the 900-year old great house that dominates the west site. This three-story structure once had 500 rooms and served as the village public space. Many of the stone walls are still intact, and although the ruins are not accessible, you can roll right up to them and get a good look inside.
The accessible pathway terminates at the end of the west site plaza, and the self-guided tour continues through a section of the great house. Although it’s fairly level, there are narrow doorways, low ceilings and rocks along the path, so this route isn’t an option for wheelchair-users and slow walkers.
Alternatively, visitors can double back to the Visitor Center and follow the other end of the trail in reverse. The level pathway goes along the other side of the west site, and up to the Hubbard Site. And although the first part of the trail is accessible, manual wheelchair-users and slow walkers will need some assistance up the last rise.
Still, the Hubbard Site is quite unique, as the tri-walled structure dates back to 1000, and it’s one of only a handful left in the Southwest. The ancient kiva has three concentric circular walls, and since it’s been backfilled for preservation, visitors can peer down into the structure. It’s definitely worth a visit if you can manage it, as it offers glance at a different construction style of the Pueblo Indians. Best of all, because of the good preservation you can also get a real feel for what it looked like when it was occupied, and that’s something you won’t take away from many archaeological sites.