AZTEC — The glow of thousands of soft lights will illuminate Aztec Ruins during the park's annual Evening of Lights Wednesday.

The event will feature a ranger-guided viewing of the winter solstice alignment at the ancient archaeological site.

The free event begins with a storytelling session in the Great Kiva.

"Visitors must be in the Kiva by 4:30 p.m., at which time we will provide information about how ancestral puebloan people dealt with winter, and how they marked the winter solstice," said Ranger Marie Clark.

At 4:45 p.m., rangers will lead visitors to the winter solstice marker.

The winter solstice is the shortest day of the year and marks the official start of winter.

It was an important ceremony for the puebloan people who lived in what we now call Aztec Ruins, and remains an important time of ceremony for many modern Native Americans.

The sun aligns in the solstice position at Aztec Ruins over the course of several days, and Wednesday is the start of the solstice alignment.

"We'll be moving rather quickly to the solstice marker site to see the solstice sunset, so if people need more time to get to the marker and want to bypass the storytelling in the Kiva, they can come earlier and tell the rangers at the desk, who will then escort them out to the site," Clark said, stressing that the site can only be accessed via ranger escort.

As the sun sets at 5 p.m., 2,000 luminarias will light the historic Visitor Center area, and lanterns will illuminate the archaeological site.

The luminarias will remain lit until 8 p.m.

While luminarias have been a part of the annual event for several years, this is the first time the ancient structures will be illuminated.

"It would be too risky to put luminarias at the actual site, so we're using electric lanterns," said Ranger Lauren Blacik. "It will look like firelight inside the rooms, and will give people the sense of what it may have looked like when people lived here 900 years ago."

Local students from Lydia Rippey Elementary, as well as students from other Aztec, Farmington and Bloomfield high schools have been helping to fill, place and light the luminarias.

The public is invited to pick up the luminaria bags on Thursday to use again in other luminaria displays.

Friends of Aztec Ruins is providing hot cocoa and cookies during the event.

The bookstore, which features jewelry, Zuni fetishes, children's books and books about archaeoastronomy - the study of how different cultures have watched the sky and followed the movements of celestial bodies - will remain open until 8 p.m. for holiday shopping.

Blacik said the event will take place regardless of the weather.

"In fact, it might look really pretty if we have a little bit of snow falling down," she said.

Visitors to the event should wear sturdy walking shoes and bring a flashlight.

Clark said Aztec Ruins offers schools additional educational opportunities by sending rangers to classrooms to discuss archaeoastronomy with students.

"I give a PowerPoint discussion on winter and summer solstices, equinoxes, and the solar calendar, as well as other things relating to archaeoastronomy," said Clark, adding that the program is geared toward students from fourth grade through high school.

To schedule a classroom presentation or for more information about the Evening of Lights, call 505-334-6174 ext. 228.