7 best things to do in Aztec

Located in the beautiful San Juan Basin, on the banks of the Animas River, Aztec, New Mexico is one of the most scenic small towns in the Four Corners region in the southwestern United States. Built in one of the greenest and most fertile areas in the middle of the high desert, the city’s history dates back thousands of years.

The name “Aztec” was borrowed from ruins found in the area, although a misnomer. He was born in 1776 when two Franciscan friars came across them and believed they were the work of the Aztecs. As misguided as its name is (the ancestral Pueblos, not the Aztecs, built the ancient city), we still use it for both the ruins and the city to this day.

Although people lived here even before the first settlement was built, the earliest signs of civilization here date back to 1100. After the elders left in 1300, the Ute and Navajo tribes camped along the Animas River. Attracted by the fertile land, Anglo and Hispanic farmers established farms there with permission from the US government in the late 1800s.

The town of Aztec was established in the late 1800s from a trading post and farming community. Visiting Aztec today offers a step back in time to bear witness to its long history and is a gateway to other attractions in the southwest. The following are a few things to do in and around Aztec.

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1. Visit the Aztec Ruins National Monument

The ancient ruins from which the Aztec city took its name were within its boundaries at the end of a neighborhood street. The ancient ruins of Puebloan preserved in the Aztec Ruins National Monument are also the main reason people visit the city.

Designated a World Heritage Site in 1987 as part of the World Heritage Site of the Chaco Culture, the Aztec ruins preserve important architectural and technical achievements of Pueblo. Built and inhabited between 1100 and 1300, the Aztec ruins were initially a periphery of the Chaco, but soon became an important public, ceremonial, economic and political center.

As soon as you enter the premises of the park, you will find a visitor center and a museum. Stop here first to learn more about the ancient city and its history. Then, take the self-guided walking tour through ancient structures and explore the grand, 900-year-old Puebloan ancestral house. You will walk along ancient walls and open kivas, and enter a structure with communicating rooms still covered.

But the highlight of a visit to the Aztec Ruins National Monument is the southwest’s only reconstructed large ceremonial kiva. Entering this kiva makes it easy to imagine the ceremonial life of the ancestral Puebloans almost a thousand years ago.

Pro tip: If you time your visit well, you can take part in special events, like cultural demonstrations and lectures and tours by rangers.

2. Visit the Aztec Museum and the Pioneer Village

For a more recent historical perspective, visit the Aztec Museum and Pioneer Village. The main building is located in the Old Town Hall and features a collection of some of the best artifacts in West America. It includes information on the first Aztec settlers, exhibits on minerals and mining tools, the first agricultural and dairy equipment, historical clocks and the first clothes. It also includes a small collection of Native American arts and crafts.

Step outside the Pioneer Village complex and stroll among 12 historically accurate buildings, from originals moved here to replicas built on site. You will find a tinsmith, a printing house, a blacksmith, a carpentry, a log cabin, a farm, a village church, a school, a citizen bank, a prison, a post office, a general store and a doctor’s office.

Various farm equipment highlights the original version of the city as a farming community, while a few pieces of railroad track emphasizing the importance of the railroad in establishing Aztec as a city.

Aztec Theater in New Mexico.
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3. Stroll through the historic Aztec city center

Departing from the Aztec Museum, walk down Main Street for a historical city tour. Stop at one of the city’s oldest buildings, the Jarvis Hotel, built in 1890 and renovated to include a second floor in 1906. Continue your tour with other buildings dating from the early 1900s, including the Aztec theater, built in 1927.

Soon you will reach the historic city center, where you will find the most spectacular buildings from the beginning of the 20th century. These brick buildings made Aztec a shopping center.

Eastern influences and the city-built railroad brought the companies in, and they all adopted different architectural styles, depending on where they came from. You will find New Classical elements, such as stained glass windows and stamped metal slides. Two of the best-preserved examples of these buildings are the Randall Building and the Old Fellows Hall.

As you walk through these old buildings, you will feel like you have stepped back in time and understand why Aztec Main Street is a designated historic district. According to the 1984 nomination documents, it is a “particularly well-preserved New Mexican commercial street developed from 1900 to 1915”. They add that “the district looks a lot like what it was in 1915”.

4. Take a hike in and around town

Besides history, Aztec is known for its beautiful scenery and offers great outdoor recreation activities. For an easy stroll along the river, take the paved and accessible Animas River Trail from Hartman Park to Riverside Park. You will find a lake, exercise equipment, a sports field and an open grass area along the way.

For a longer hike, try the Alien Run Trail at Hart Canyon, a 7.9 mile out and back trail just north of town. You’ll find beautiful views and gorgeous wildflowers in the springtime on this easy trail in the high desert. Multipurpose trail, it is popular with mountain bikers. If you wonder about its name, you will find it out when you reach a UFO crash site, commemorated by a plaque.

Cox Canyon Arch.
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5. Look for natural arches in the area

You might think of Moab and the surrounding area when you hear of natural arches, but the surrounding Aztec landscape is teeming with them too. In fact, the region is home to over 300 natural arches documented in the immediate vicinity of the city. They are not easy to find, but if you reach them you will find yourself alone with spectacular scenery.

One of the biggest and most spectacular is Cox Canyon Arch, at the end of a short 0.4 mile trail just north of town. The trailhead is 15 miles from downtown, at the end of a short dirt road. To get there, take US 550 North for about ten kilometers, then turn left onto Route 2300 and Route 2310.

You can access another spectacular arch, simply called Arch Rock, off US 550 North as well, 6 miles out of town, this time by turning right onto Arch Rock Road, a rugged dirt road. You will see the arch from the road, but you can also hike around. As a bonus, you’ll also see a few petroglyphs in the area.

Pro tip: To find these arches and many others in the area, ask for a brochure with a city map. The arches are all off the dirt roads, many of which are rough, so it is recommended that you use a four-wheel drive vehicle and have a full tank of gas. Also make sure you have a paper map, in case you lose the signal.

Lake Navajo State Park.
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6. Use Aztec as a gateway to other attractions all over the place

The Four Corners area near Aztec offers countless outdoor activities, and the town is the ideal home for many of them.

You’ll find Lake Navajo State Park just 30 miles from Aztec, offering camping, swimming, fishing, water sports, hiking trails, and two visitor centers with interpretive displays. . Besides the lake, the park includes Pine River, Sims Mesa, and the San Juan River area.

Visit Salmon Ruins, another outlier in the Chaco, about 30 miles from Aztec. Here you will find structures similar to Aztec ruins, including a large kiva (this one is not reconstructed however), giving you a glimpse into the life of the ancestral Puebloans and their ancient towns.

Angel Peak Scenic Area.
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In a different direction, also about 30 miles out of town, the Angel Peak Scenic Area offers magnificent views of the high desert badlands, including 7,000 foot Angel Peak and a canyon at its base. Petrified wood and mammal fossils add to the appeal of the landscape. There you will find several campsites and picnic areas overlooking the canyon.

You can also visit the Chaco Culture National Historic Park, about 70 miles from Aztec. Much larger and more elaborate than the Aztec and Salmon ruins, the Chaco was once the center of the ancient Puebloan world. Looking at the structures here, you will see the connection between the three sites.

7. Eat and stay overnight

With so much to do, you would want to spend at least one night in Aztec. Although you don’t have much to choose from, the Microtel Inn and Suites offers a comfortable stay and breakfast, as well as an outdoor area with a fireplace, where you can sit and enjoy the surrounding beauty of the high desert. .

Dine at Rubia’s on Main Street in an old building for Mexican cuisine, but you’ll also find southwestern and vegetarian choices here. Or choose the Aztec Restaurant for your old-fashioned American cuisine.

Pro tip: Small town in the middle of the high deserts of the Four Corners region, Aztec combines stunning scenery, history and archeology, making it one of the best places to use as a portal to learn more about this unique region of the world. .


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