Spring hiking: Puye Cliff Dwellings

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By Cindy Brown

It is a place of vast silence today, but the pueblos and cliff dwellings at Puye were once home to 2,500 Tewa-speaking people. The ancestors of the Santa Clara Pueblo lived here beginning around 900 A.D., which is about when they came from Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde. The people grew beans, corn and squash with water from a now-dry creek and with moisture captured in a cliff-top reservoir. By the early 1600s, the people of Puye had migrated to the current Santa Clara Pueblo and to other locations in the Río Grande Valley.

Set high up on the Pajarito Plateau, the site has 360-degree views to Santa Clara Peak, referred to as the "obsidian-covered mountain"; Taos Mountain, known as "Bear Mountain"; and Sandia Peak, known as "Turtleback Mountain." Daily guided walking tours are offered that allow visitors to see the mesa-top pueblo ruins and the cliff dwellings.

Tour the mesa top

The name Puye (also known as Puje) translates to "place where the rabbits gather," which, according to guide Tarah Nelson, refers to the abundance of rabbits here, as well as the appearance of the people as they emerged from the cliff dwellings at sunrise.

The tour of the Puye Cliff mesa top begins at the visitor center, where a van takes participants up to the top of the plateau. The cliff-top village holds approximately 140 rooms constructed from the volcanic stone found in the area. Nelson explained that the original dwellings were usually two to three stories high, with the first floor used for storage and the second and third stories for living. The homes were accessed by rooftop entrances. Doorways between rooms were kept small in order to make it more difficult for the enemies of the people, quite often the Comanches, to get inside.

Nelson says that the cliff top was used for summer living, as a frequent breeze helped cool the homes. The structures were roofed with vigas covered with latillas and yucca leaves.

One dwelling and a ceremonial kiva were reconstructed by archaeologist Edgar Lee Hewett in 1907. They have been maintained by the members of the Santa Clara Pueblo who are part of the Youth Conservation Corps, but no further dwellings have been reconstructed since that time. The pueblo was built around a large center plaza and about half of the buildings have been excavated. A 4-foot-deep reservoir that was once coated with clay to hold water is visible nearby. All around the site are sherds of pottery in rich reds, grays and browns, as well as obsidian collected from the nearby mountain that was used for arrowheads.

Nelson says that Hewett worked on the site between 1907 and 1910. He was asked to leave because the Santa Clara people discovered that Hewett had uncovered human remains and transported them away from the pueblo.

As part of the tour, visitors can explore the village and the ceremonial kiva, although no photography is allowed in the kiva. The tour continues with a descent over the front of the 200-foot cliff. Access is through a series of channels cut in the cliff by water and down a long ladder. For those who don't wish to do the climb, the van that carried the group to the mesa top will return to pick them up.

Cliff dwellings

After descending the path through the old water channel, the trail reaches a landing. There, petroglyphs carved into the soft volcanic surface depict animals, people and shapes. Nelson says some of the spiral designs with holes incorporated into them were used to track the seasons like a calendar. Some of the other symbols may have been used to mark the entrances to the dwellings occupied by different families.

Nearby there are caves that were once part of the cliff dwellings. Holes used for vigas to support the roofs are visible in the cliff walls. The interiors were coated with mud in order to stabilize the volcanic surfaces, which can crumble to dust. A cliff dwelling that was reconstructed by Hewett's team helps give a sense of what the homes looked like hundreds of years ago.

A second tour takes visitors along the front face of the cliff and offers more detail of life in these homes. The tours involve walking and climbing at high elevation; the mesa top is located at 7,100 feet. Visitors should bring water, along with sunscreen and hats as protection from the sun.

Harvey House Visitor Center

In the early 1900s, the Fred Harvey Company arranged railroad excursions to bring tourists to experience the Southwest, as well as other parts of the country. The Harvey House built at Puye in the 1920s was a rest stop destination for tourists staying at Harvey Hotels in Las Vegas, Lamy and Santa Fe. Visitors could sign up for "Indian Detours" to Puye and Santa Clara Pueblo to purchase pottery and see the cliff dwellings. The visitors came by the Chile Line narrow gauge railroad that was built in the late 1800s connecting Española with Antonito, Colorado. From Santa Clara, tourists were taken to Puye first in covered wagon and later by Model T, according to Emerging Horizons, an online travel blog.

More information: Through the end of March, the area is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., with the last tour beginning at 3 p.m. In April, hours are expanded to 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. One-hour tours generally cost $20 per person with discounts for those younger than 14 and older than 55. For details and reservations, call (505) 917-6650 or visit Puye Cliff Dwellings on Facebook.

Directions

From Taos Plaza, head south on Paseo del Pueblo/State Road 68 to Española. Turn right at Santa Clara Bridge Road. Turn left onto State Road 30 and head southwest an additional 5 miles. Turn right at Puye Cliffs Welcome Center at the gas station. Although there are signs to the contrary, you don't have to stop at the welcome center. Continue another 7 miles to the restored Harvey House to purchase tickets for tours and learn more about the area's history. Picnic tables are available at the site.

Brown is the author of the "Taos Hiking Guide," winner of the 2016 New Mexico - Arizona book award for sports and recreation. The guide is available at local retailers and nighthawkpress.com. Contact Brown at cindybrowntaos2010@yahoo.com.

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