Puye Cliffs Scenic Byway is a pleasant drive through four of New Mexico’s seven life zones, an area of low hills blanketed by piñon, juniper and grama grass. Its seven short miles give no indication of the spectacular surprise that awaits a traveler at its termination – the towering heights of Puye Cliff Dwellings, a National Historic Landmark.
Puye Cliffs is the ancestral home of the present inhabitants of Santa Clara Pueblo, one of New Mexico’s 19 pueblos. More than a thousand people reside in the pueblo. Their native language is Tewa, which they share with the Nambe, Pojoaque, San Ildefonso, Ohkay Owingeh and Tesuque pueblos. In Tewa, Santa Clara Pueblo is called Kha’p’oo Owinge, “valley of the wild roses.” Puye translates as “where the rabbits gather.”
The rolling hills start to flatten out after a few miles of driving, and the road continues to climb. Puye Cliffs is visible in the distance, and the Jémez Mountains appear on the horizon. Piñon-juniper gives way to ponderosa pine at the base of the mesa on which Puye Cliffs are carved. The portion of the road open to the public ends at the cliff dwellings. No one lives Indian Service Route 601 (the official designation for the byway), but tribal members still do some dry farming beyond the cliff dwellings.
As you pull in to park for your tour of the ruins, you will see a view very similar to the one that visitors saw in the early part of the 20th century. Two buildings stand at the base of the mesa, both made from shaped volcanic tuff blocks found at the site. The building on the left is now an interpretive center, and the building on the right is a gift shop. Together they originally constituted a Harvey House, the only one built on an Indian reservation. In the 1920s, Fred Harvey made an agreement with the tribe: Tourists staying in the Harvey House hotels in Las Vegas, Lamy or Santa Fe could sign up for his Indian Detours to Puye and Santa Clara Pueblo to purchase pottery. His gusts traveled via the “Chili Line,” the narrow-gauge Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad. Built in the late 1870s, it connected Española with Antonito, Colorado. From Santa Clara, guests were driven to Puye in a covered wagon, and in later years a Model T.
Santa Clara now offers tours of the Puye Cliffs led by native members of the community. Looking up from the paved path at the interpretive center, you will see dwellings the length of the cliff face. Holes and eroded tuff blocks are all that remain of two levels of rooms. Handholds and toe holes cut into the rock of the cliff face connect the two levels of the cave dwellings. Prehistoric paths lead to the top of the mesa. Nowadays, ladders assist climbers in their journey from the cliff face to the ruins of a mesa-top village. If climbing ladders on cliff faces makes you dizzy, you can drive to the top. The elevation there is 7,200 feet, about 400 feet higher than at the interpretive center.
The mesa-top pueblo is the largest ancestral native settlement on the Pajarito Plateau. Puye Cliffs supported a population of 1,500 people from the 900s to the late 1500s. The inhabitants farmed on the fertile bench above the creek that flows south of the mesa. Drought forced them to move to their present home in the Rio Grande Valley in 1580.
Puye was excavated by Edgar Hewitt in cooperation with the Southwest Society of the Archaeological Institute of America in 1907. The tribe restored six structures between the cliff dwellings and the pueblo through a summer youth project in summer 2009. Santa Clara worked closely with Bandelier National Monument to use authentic construction materials.
Be sure to visit the present day pueblo, which is 10 miles east of Puye. It is famous for its handcrafted, polished black-an-red pottery., but its many artists also produce jewelry, baskets, paintings and other distinctive works of art. Santa Clara has four events that are generally open to the public: King’s Day (January 6), St. Anthony’s Feast Day (June 13), Santa Clara Feast Day (August 12) and Christmas Day dances (December 25).
The Puye Cliffs Scenic Byway was closed after the Cerro Grande fire of May 2000. The fire burned 48,000 acres in the Los Alamos are and reached as far as Garcia Canyon, just south of Puye. A large area of the vegetation was bulldozed to keep flames from jumping to the ruins. The fires’ destruction of trees that held topsoil in place caused sediment to flow into Santa Clara’s four lakes, which affected the drainage around the byway and the stability of the road. The road has now been repaved and the culverts replaced, and it is safe for travelers again.
To visit Puye Cliffs, head southwest from Española on N.M. 30. Five miles south of the city you will see the Puye Cliffs Welcome Center, where you must pick up your tickets for one of the guided tours. Look above the counter, and you will see a preview – a beautiful photomural of the cliff dwellings displayed on the wall. Guided tours are by a tribal member. Admission fees and departure times vary for the different tours. Call ahead for group reservations. A full-length tour into prehistory lasts approximately two and a half hours and includes the cliff face and the mesa-top settlement.