Puye Cliff Dwellings – Ancestral Home of the Santa Clara Indians

Puye Cliff Dwellings postcard.

Puye Cliff Dwellings postcard.

At the Santa Clara Indian Reservation near Los Alamos, New Mexico are the Puye Cliff Dwellings. For more than three centuries, from about 1250 to 1577 A.D., these cliff dwelling were called home to some 1,500 Pueblo Indians. Until such time as drought forced the villagers to leave for locations nearer the Rio Grande River, these ancient Indians built villages, dwelled, farmed and hunted game here.

Through the years, it has been passed down from generation to generation, that the inhabitants of the Pueblo of Santa Clara, located some ten miles east of the cliff dwelling, are the decedents of the Puye. These decedents continue to speak the Tewa language, of which, the name Puye translates to “pueblo ruin where the rabbits assemble or meet.”

Puye Cliff Dwellings

Carved out of a 200 foot high cliff ridge formed from the Jemez Caldera volcano that erupted more than a million years ago, the cliff dwellings contain some 740 rooms. Foundations and archeological evidence suggest that additional dwellings were constructed at the base of the cliff. The rooms dug into the cliff wall extend for over a mile along the south face of the Puye mesa, sometimes at two separate levels.

Over a dozen stairways, that are more like ladders and handholds, link the great Community House on the mesa top to the rock debris at the base of a cliff and the dwellings at its side. These “stairs” leading downward in various directions, have been cut and worn into the cliffs, often accompanied by finger grips to make the climbing easier.

In addition to the many dwellings, at least two subterranean ceremonial kivas have been found at the base of the cliffs where large sockets were cut to hold the heavy roof beams needed to span such a large room.

Many of the stairways lead up to the large “Community House” which has been partly reconstructed on the top of the cliff. Built of blocks of volcanic tuff (rock formed of compressed volcanic ash and cinders,) the Community House may have served a defensive purpose for the ancient Indians. Portions of this structure were once up to two to three stories high.

On the many rocky faces of the walls of the cliff house, numerous petroglyphs, including animal forms, human figures, geometric designs can be found.

Today, the Puye Cliff Dwellings is a National Landmark, owned and operated as a cultural monument by the Pueblo of Santa Clara. The site is generally open to the public but sometimes closed for rituals.

Following the Cerro Grande Fire the Puye Cliff Dwellings were closed for several years, but reopened in October, 2008.

Two self-guided tours are available at the landmark:

  • The Cliff Trail – This trail begins at the Visitor Center and leads up moderately steep rails and ladders past many of the ancient dwellings built along and into the cliff. Prehistoric stairways link the two levels of cliff dwellings to the mesa top and its great “Community House.”
  • The Mesa Top Trail – Follow the graded road past the Visitor Center and continue to the parking area on the mesa top. The ground there is generally level. You can visit the 740 room pueblo ruin and its restored ceremonial chamber. The views of the Rio Grande region are spectacular. There is some space available for picnicking.

Directions: From Santa FeNew Mexico , take I-285/84 North to the Los Alamos exit, NM 502. Follow 502, turn right on NM 30, look for sign on left for Puye then follow road for about 7 miles to the cliff dwellings.

Santa Clara Indians

The Santa Clara Indians are the descendants of those who once lived in the historic dwellings.

Contact Information:

Santa Clara Pueblo

P.O. Box 580
Espanola, New Mexico, 87532
505-753-7326

© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated September 2013.

Also See:

Ancient & Modern Pueblos – Oldest Cites in the U.S.

Ancient Cities of Native Americans

New Mexico (Main Page)