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The ancients built their central great house in the 11th century.

New Mexico’s celebrated Chaco Canyon, once the cultural center for the ancestral Puebloans (or Anasazis) of the Four Corners region, spawned several outlying colonies, the largest of which was at Salmon, about 45 miles to the north. Chaco Canyon is not to be missed, of course, but the same goes for these lesser-known but more accessible ruins dating from the 11th century. The museum at the Salmon Ruins and Heritage Park, 2 miles west of Bloomfield, N.M., preserves the ruins of a nearly 300-room pueblo built in the Chaco great house tradition. Archaeological research is ongoing, but the museum showcases artifacts found at the site and offers self-guided walking tours through the excavated ruins. The Salmon site also houses the San Juan County Archaeological Research Center and Library, which houses more than 17,000 books, periodicals and reports on the ruins, regional history, archaeology, anthropology and geology.

The initial construction at Salmon, on the north bank of the San Juan River, was completed circa 1090. The stone great house, home to some 200 to 300 Puebloans, is believed to have had three levels and featured a towering central kiva and a great kiva. More than 400 miles of roads connected Chaco to about 75 other communities, including the ancient villages known today as Salmon Ruins and Aztec Ruins. The first occupants at Salmon abandoned it circa 1125, but other Puebloans, probably from the Mesa Verde area, reoccupied it some 60 years later and made major modifications (subdividing rooms, adding kivas). Permanently abandoned in the late 13th century, the U-shaped complex has remained largely undisturbed.

In the late 1800s Peter M. Salmon and his son George P. Salmon homesteaded the property, and for nearly a century they protected the ruins from vandals and treasure hunters. The restored Salmon house, bunkhouse, dugout and out – buildings still stand just north of the ruins. The site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970, the same year archaeologists began excavating the 22-acre tract of land. They soon exposed the ancient architecture of the Chaco culture and found several petroglyphs. The archaeologists would define 100 ground-floor rooms and 67 second-story rooms and recover more than 1 million artifacts, including ceramics, stone tools and weapons.

Today some of those treasured artifacts are on display at the small but inviting museum, which opened in 1973. The heritage park comprises several reconstructed prehistoric and historic dwellings, including a pit house, Navajo hogans, a Navajo sweat lodge, a Ute tepee and a Jicarilla Apache wickiup. Of course the Salmon Ruins remain the central attraction. In 2008 archaeologists discovered an ancient summer solstice and lunar standstill observatory on the site. Since then the museum has held an annual summer solstice event featuring archaeoastronomy presentations.

The Salmon Ruins museum, managed by the nonprofit San Juan County Museum Association, provides both professional and self-guided tours of the area, including Chaco Canyon. About 15 miles north of Salmon is Aztec Ruins National Monument, the remains of another Chacoan outlier village. The Salmon Ruins and Heritage Park is at 6131 Highway 64. For more information call 505-632-2013 or visit


Originally published in the October 2014 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.