Bandelier National Monument is comprised of 33,000 acres and contains some 70 miles of trail; but the main feature is the Ancestral Puebloan ruins. These ruins are located in Frijole Canyon and are accessible by a short loop trail that is somewhat strenuous due to the optional ladder climbing element. Start at the visitor center, which contains the typical gift shop and video before exiting through the rear of the building for the Main Loop Trail. Be sure to pick up a copy of the trail guide to borrow for free or purchase to keep before leaving the building. There are 21 stops and the guide gives great descriptions of each stop along the way.
The first sights are the circular kivas and the ground level ruins of what was a circular structure with many homes. This structure lies directly on the floor of the canyon and must have been at great risk for flash flooding, which is still a major problem in the canyon.
From there, the visit starts to become more specialized as the trail winds closer to the side of the canyon. Here, we are now able to view close-ups of the dwellings carved into the canyon walls. The rock walls are made of tuff. Tuff is the rock formed from volcanic ash, which is very soft. The softness of the rock is what allowed the people to chisel and expand on caves to make rooms. Additional tuff was used to form bricks to build walls along the front of the rooms. There are very few parks where the visitor may actually climb ladders and enter the individual dwelling rooms, and Bandelier is one them!
The trail guides us along the canyon walls with plenty more dwellings to view.
The next image shows a portion of the original wall painting that has been preserved. This shows the complexity of their society and their desire to create beyond their utilitarian needs. It may be difficult to imagine now in their empty ruins, but they surrounded themselves with artwork in the form of petroglyphs and paintings on walls and rock, as well as beautiful artwork on the pottery they used and the clothing and materials they weaved.
Now, we will be turning off of the Main Loop Trail and extending our visit by continuing into the canyon to the Alcove House. The trail takes us along the creek through a forested area. The shade from the trees is a welcome change to the blaring sun on our backs. As we cross the creek on a small wooden bridge, the trees open to give us our first view of the Alcove.
Now, we will find out how tuff we really are. We are faced with climbing three sets of ladders bolted into the rock to reach the Alcove, but first the park service is going to give us a scare. I confess that I do not appreciate heights as much as I used to, but I didn’t have a problem here.
Making it down the ladders is a more frightening task than making it up, but when we finally reach the canyon floor again, it is time for a well deserved break in the shade before heading back. The return trail takes us along the creek all the way back to the visitor center and parking lot. We made our visit in the evening, and we enjoyed watching a variety of wildlife that had made their way to the creek for a drink, and a diamondback setting out for his evening pursuits. Here is a video to better share the trails and wildlife with you…
While there are many other trails to choose from, and the area is worth spending more time; this was the only hike we chose. We were stunned at being able to truly visit the cliff dwellings from within and having the authentic experience of climbing ladders to different areas, which is what the Ancestral Puebloans are thought to have used.
It is generally recognized that the people who inhabited these dwellings lived here between the 1200s to the 1400s. As I walk among their ruins in different states, it is becoming easier for me to imagine the thriving communities that they had. Their pottery shows that they were indeed interested in beautiful things and creating not simply for utilitarian purposes. Their towns contain kivas, which were communal ceremonial and religious sites. To me, that proves that they recognized worship as a cornerstone of their existence and they worshiped as a community. Their dwellings and buildings have been found to align windows and openings with happenings in the heavens, such as the solstices for example. They had families and lived in communities. While they hunted and farmed the land, they also made time for painting pottery and weaving. Their homes were built with their own hands out of the natural resources native to their habitat. They left petroglyphs, sometimes hundreds in one place as a form of communication. As I walk through their dwellings and ponder their lives; I do not see the differences that separate me from them, as much as I see what I share in common with them. Interesting to me is that when I look back through my blog posts at my first experience with Ancient Puebloan culture last year in Utah, I had a similar sentiment. Visiting ruins like these brings our history to life.
Fun Facts & Tips:
- The road to Bandelier offers stunning views of the snow capped mountains.
- We stayed at the Roadrunner RV Park located about 15 miles north of Sante Fe.
- A natural cave expanded by people is called a cavate (cave-eight).
- The America the Beautiful annual pass is accepted.
- As I already mentioned, flash flooding is a concern in this canyon.
- In the summer, there is a mandatory shuttle that takes you into the park during the high visitation months – check the park’s website for details. We were there in May and the shuttles were not running yet.