Aztec Ruins and the River of Lost Souls

Aztec Ruins National Monument in the fall.

Aztec Ruins National Monument in the autumn. NPS photo.

Aztec Ruins and the River of Lost Souls may sound like a title for the next Indiana Jones thriller, but these are real places that you can visit—and you won't even need a passport or a hyper-active spirit of adventure. One small disclaimer is in order: The Aztecs had no connection with these impressive remains of a long-departed civilization.

Aztec Ruins National Monument is located in northwestern New Mexico, and the site celebrates an anniversary today. Originally proclaimed Aztec Ruin National Monument on January 24, 1923, the name was modified slightly in 1928 to change the word "Ruin" to "Ruins." Perhaps the extent of the archeological marvels was not fully appreciated when the original title was assigned to the site!

Present-day visitors need not be alarmed by the name of the nearby river. An impressive number of what are now called ancestral Pueblo ruins caught the attention of a Spanish exploration party in 1776, and a nearby stream was called "Rio de las Animas Perdidas," or "river of lost souls."

The Aztec label attached to these ruins is a misnomer; a NPS publication explains the background of the name:

In the late 1800's, there was considerable interest in the seemingly mysterious Aztecs, Toltecs, and other Indians of Mexico. The writings of Stephens, Prescott and others had fired imaginations, and new communities—particularly those in the vicinity of Indian ruins—were often given names of Indian groups from south of the border.

So it was with the town of Aztec. When white settlers first moved into the Animas Valley, they were intrigued by the great stone ruins. Believing them to be the work of a long-vanished race from the south, they named their town Aztec.

The ruins, in turn, became known as "those ruins at Aztec" or simply as "the Aztec ruins," and so the name remains today. We know now that the Aztecs of Mexico, whom Cortez conquered, had nothing to do with these ruins. In fact, they were built and abandoned several centuries before Cortez, and even before the Aztecs themselves were well established in the Valley of Mexico.

These are in fact the ruins of a major ancestral Pueblo community, built and occupied from the 11th through 13th centuries. They preserve incredible historic buildings of residence and worship, roadways, and artifacts of that period.

The first scientific investigations of the ruins were made in 1878 by Lewis H. Morgan, sometimes known as "the father of American anthropology." Between those initial studies and establishment of the monument in 1923, the site was subjected to considerable looting by curiosity-seekers and pot-hunters. During those early years, area residents reportedly carried away one-quarter of the stones from the ruins to use in building houses, lining wells, or for other construction purposes.

Despite those losses, Aztec Ruins has yielded an impressive number of artifacts through organized efforts to study the site. Between 1916 and 1921, the American Museum of Natural History excavated extensively in the West Ruin, and three-fourths of this ruin has been cleared and stabilized. Many of the artifacts from the site, including stone and wood tools, pottery, and turquoise and obsidian jewelry, are housed in the New York museum. Some fine examples, however, are on display in the monument’s visitor center.

West Ruin once housed over 500 masonry rooms, and original timbers are still holding up the roof in some of the structures. In places the walls are three feet thick, making them over twice as thick as those in Mesa Verde cliff dwelling architecture.

Aztec Ruins is one of several important archeological sites in the Four Corners area of the southwestern U.S., but it offers some advantages for visitors over more highly publicized areas, including Mesa Verde National Park and Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

A visit to Aztec Ruins doesn't require a lengthy side trip off main highways; you rarely have to compete with large crowds; and this smaller park offers a chance to see its ruins, up close and personal, via an easy stroll.

A one-half mile self-guided trail winds through rooms built centuries ago and provides an intimate opportunity to explore the ancient Puebloan “great house” known as West Ruin. At the trail's end, visitors enter the Great Kiva, an awesome semi-subterranean structure, over 40 feet in diameter. The central social and religious site of this ancient complex, it has been reconstructed, and is the oldest and largest building of its kind.

The Great Kiva alone is worth a stop at this park, and I suspect even Indiana Jones would have been impressed.

The park is located in the town of Aztec, New Mexico, a short distance off U. S. Highway 550. You'll find driving directions, maps and other information to help you plan your visit on the park's website.


I visited Aztec just this past year on my trek through New Mexico, and two things stood out:

1) This is a big ruin. Not the biggest of the old native ruins in the U.S., but it is certainly large. Most N.M. ruins are big, I was a bit unprepared for the scale of them. It definitely tells us a lot about the inhabitants and the times in which they lived, even amateurs can appreciate that.

2) The town seems to appreciate the place. They seem to consider it a blessing to have in their community. Not all park-bordering communities are like that, so it's extremely comforting when park neighbors appreciate the presence of a significant site in their midst, instead of seeing it as an obstacle to development or quick profit.


My travels through the National Park System:

Barky -

Thanks for the comment, and the perspective about the positive relationship between the park and the local community. It's been a few years since I visited Aztec, so it's nice to have a recent update.