Aztec it ain't
Aztec Ruins is another perfect example of a name that just doesn't fit the place. Back in the days when archaeology in the southwest was just getting started, no one had any idea who had built the massive ruins scattered across the Colorado Plateau. The common assumption was that these huge stone structures were built by Aztecs from Mexico, either before they moved down to Mexico, or by Aztecs who had fled Cortez's conquest. Even to this day there are stories told around Kanab, Utah, about Montezuma's hidden treasure that was buried treasure in one of the natural lakes north of town. But I digress...
We now know, due to excavations, tree-ring dating, and Pueblo oral histories that Aztec, Montezuma's Castle, and all the other Aztec-related ruins in the southwest were built by the ancestors of today's Pueblo people, a prehistoric we collectively call the Anasazi. And these Anasazi built awesome structures across the southwest that would trade with Mesoamerican cultures, as evidenced by copper bells, shells, and parrot feathers. But the Anasazi were an indigenous culture to the Four Corners area.
Aztec Ruins was first excavated professionally by Earl Morris, one of the southwest's Founding Fathers of Archaeology, in the 1920s, and it remains basically the same now as it was when he finished excavating it, with the addition of the restored Great Kiva. It is a Chacoan Great House, one of the largest ever built, and the largest Chacoan Great House outside of Chaco Canyon itself.
The trail begins behind the Visitor's Center, which was Earl Morris's house that he stayed in while excavating the ruin. The roof beams in the house are originally from ceilings in Aztec Ruins! There is a free trail guide availible at the front desk - be sure to pick one up!
The trail heads directly towards the towering western wall of Aztec, standing still some 10 feet tall in places. Climb up the spur trail to the top of one of the backfilled rooms for a great overview of the ruin, including the plaza, main room block, Great Kiva, and some of the outlying structures that just look like brush humps now.
Back on the main trail, head north, paralleling the western wall. Note the bands of green stone built into the wall here. This is found at a few select places throughout the ruin, but its significance is unknown. When you reach the northwest corner, you have a choice of either continuing north towards the Hibbard Tri-wall site, or skipping that and entering the ruin. The Tri-wall site is unusual in that only about a half dozen or so tri-walled structures are known in the southwest, and about half of them are present at Aztec. Another tri-wall structure is present behind Pueblo del Arroyo, suggesting a possible link between the two sites.
The Tri-wall site consists of a kiva surrounded by concentric rings of rooms. No one knowns what purpose these rooms might have served, or why it was necessary to have several rings of them around the kiva. You can get a good idea of the ground-plan of the site, but it has been backfilled to preserve it, so there aren't any wall details.
After visiting (or skipping) the Tri-wall site, the trail heads down into the depths of the ruin. Take the short flight of steps into the first room. The path is self-evident. There are two doors in every room you can walk; one takes you forward, the other takes you back. These doors are not all original; some of them were created by looters to get into the rooms and pillage the artifacts there. The other doors present in the rooms are locked plexiglass doors that showcase other rooms filled with manos, metates, and other artifacts.
Once you leave the row of rooms, the trail bends right and continues through some roofless rooms to the plaza. The plaza, 800 years ago, would have been a bustling place, the center of the pueblo's activity during the day. Directly ahead is the reconstructed Great Kiva. To the right is a mostly buried room block, the same one the spur-trail climbed at the start. Follow the trail to the east, as it parallels the southern wall of the central room block. There are a few side trails that allow better views into the intramural kivas and rooms. Keep an eye out for corner doorways too.
The trail bends south at the eastern room block, and there is another spur trail that takes you deep into the room block to see two-story standing walls and T-shaped doorways. It is an interesting side-trip, and worth the minimal effort it requires. Returning to the plaza the trail takes you by an excavated Great Kiva, then into the antechamber for the restored Great Kiva.
The restored Great Kiva is one of the most interesting prehistoric things in the southwest. Excavated by Earl Morris in the 1920s, he came back a decade later and rebuilt it based on what he had found during the dig. The colors on the interior are based on painted plaster he found during the excavation. The prehistoric roof had burned and been preserved, allowing Morris to reconstruct it accurately. The pillars supporting the roof were originally wood, but those had burned and been replaced prehistorically with masonry pillars, which Morris also reconstructed. Even the odd "shrine" near the entrance was found in its location. The only gripe modern archaeologists have been able to come up with is that the roof is probably a little higher than it was back in the 1100's. Who's counting?
The Great Kiva makes an excellent last stop on your trip to Aztec, for as you finish exploring it and climb out, the trail takes you past the plaza-enclosing wall and back to the trailhead behind the museum.
WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.