Earth Notes - Puye Cliffs

Flagstaff, AZ – For more than three centuries, the Puye Cliffs of northern New Mexico were home to hundreds of people ancestors of the present-day residents of Santa Clara pueblo. The soft volcanic rock of the cliffs was easily carved into rooms, handholds, and ledges, while the mesa above provided flat, fortified ground for buildings and gardens.

But a drought around 1580 prompted the group to abandon Puye and move closer to the nearby Rio Grande. That's where their descendants continue to live today, about ten miles east of the ancestral village.

The archaeological site became a popular tourist attraction in the late 1800s, and the complex was soon damaged by a steady parade of careless visitors. The deterioration worsened after a catastrophic forest fire scorched the area in 2000, followed by devastating floods.

Santa Clara subsequently closed the Puye Cliffs to all outsiders for nine years. Tribal members used that time to reinforce fragile structures and devise a better plan for handling visitors. The new approach, introduced last May, is expected to substantially reduce the impact visitors have on the ruins.

Santa Clara now limits visits to scheduled tours that are led by pueblo members carefully instructed in Puye's history, cultural significance, and protection. Guides keep a close eye on tourists, who pay about $20 each for the privilege.

Some of that money is earmarked for further improvements at Puye's ancient buildings, as well as at its historic visitor center. It's the only Harvey House ever built on an Indian reservation.

By Richard Mahler