Bandelier National Monument
As with other units of the national park system, Bandelier was created for both conservation and recreation. The primary resources being conserved are cultural (archaeological and anthropological) and scenic (canyon and mesa country, merging into mountain scenery at the upper end of the park). Both follow from Bandelier's setting atop the Pajarito Plateau, a gigantic, ancient (1-2 million year old) ash flow from a volcanic eruption in the nearby Jemez Mountains, that over time has eroded into a network of canyons and mesas. This rugged terrain is responsible for both the scenic beauty of the monument and the capacity of this otherwise arid landscape to maintain an indigenous population that lived along the streams in the canyons, and in some cases, on the mesa tops above them. The early Puebloans have moved on to other locations in northern New Mexico, but the ruins of their habitations and ceremonial structures remain to be protected by the monument.
The monument's headquarters, visitor center, and most accessible features are in Frijoles Canyon, a typical example of the canyons incised in the plateau, but notable for its abundance of ruins. These result from the fact that in contrast to most canyons on the plateau, Frijoles has a stream in its bottom, the Rito de los Frijoles -- Bean Creek -- that runs nearly year-round. (Most canyons have seasonal streams that dry up during parts of the year.) Frijoles Canyon is also fairly wide for much of its length, and the combination of the resulting open spaces and available water allowed the ancestral Puebloans to practice agriculture relatively successfully. Remnants of Puebloan agriculture can still be seen in the canyon, even though the dwellings were abandoned centuries ago.
Many of the ruins in Frijoles Canyon have been excavated, studied and preserved. The main loop trail from the visitor center (see under "See") passes by several types of restored dwellings: communal stone structures along the canyon floor (think of a prehistoric "apartment complex"), "cliff houses" built of stone and mud backed against the canyon wall, and a few "cave dwellings" in holes in the volcanic tuff of the canyon wall. Other archaeological features typical of the Puebloans are the religious structures known as kivas. These are circular, half-buried structures that in Puebloan times would have had flat roofs and entrance ways. Most kivas were perhaps 15 feet (5 meters) in diameter, but many Puebloan villages were built around a "great kiva" that was much larger. An example of a great kiva has been restored in Frijoles Canyon. Today's pueblos along the Rio Grande still use kivas in ceremonies. All of these types of ruins can be found in some of the park's other areas, although most have not been restored; in fact, you may encounter archaeologists on the job at some sites (please don't disturb).
A note on terminology: The term "Anasazi" has frequently been used to describe the Puebloan culture. Recently it has fallen out of favor, as it translates to "ancient enemy" or "enemies of our ancestors". The ancestral Puebloans were labeled "Anasazi" by rival tribes in the area.
Bandelier is most easily reached by automobile, there being no nearby bus or train stations. The nearest airport with significant commercial service is in Albuquerque, about 90 miles (150 km) away by road. Santa Fe is closer but has only very limited commercial air service. Los Alamos has no commercial air service but does have an airport suitable for private planes. (Note that its high elevation, single east-west runway, and rugged terrain make this airport quite a challenge to fly into/out of.) Rental cars may be obtained in any of these three cities. Bicycling to the monument is feasible for the fit cyclist, but the roads have a great deal of up-and-down and will challenge the cyclist recently up from sea level (the monument entrance is at an elevation near 6500 feet, or 2000 meters); puncture-resistant tires are also important as tire-penetrating thorns are common on the road.
To reach Bandelier from Santa Fe, follow US Highway 285 north to the small town of Pojoaque. Exit 285 on State Highway 502 heading west, following signs for Los Alamos until a fork in the road is encountered that directs travelers to Los Alamos via 502 or Bandelier/White Rock via State Highway 4. Follow the route on 4 (bear right at the fork). This highway leads directly to Bandelier, passing en route the small town of White Rock, an outlying part of Los Alamos. The photographically-inclined traveler may wish to take the left fork instead for a short distance, as the road climbs the side of a colorful mesa en route to Los Alamos, passing the stunning Clinton P. Anderson Scenic Overlook with superb views of the canyon-and-mesa country with the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the background. Photography from this viewpoint is particularly rewarding at sunrise and sunset. Retracing the route leads back to the fork, and a right-hand turn (sic!) then connects with 4 and Bandelier.
A 7-day pass can be purchased for $12 per car. An annual pass good for this park only can be purchased for $30. A National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass ($80, valid for one year) allows free entry to all national park areas.
The visitor center and most other areas of interest to the casual visitor are in Frijoles Canyon, past the entrance station on good but steep paved road. The road descends along the side of the canyon, with some exposure, and may be a bit intimidating to the motorist unused to mountain driving. Parking at the bottom can be tight during peak periods. The monument may offer shuttle service from Juniper Campground, on the mesa top near the entrance station, depending on time of year, funding, etc. Parking in a separate lot is available (and required) for backpackers planning on hiking into the backcountry from trailheads near the visitor center.
Some outlying areas (see under "Do" and "Get Out") are far enough from the visitor center to require driving to reach them. The routes to the Tsankawi outlier and the cross-country ski trails are on good paved road (State Highway 4), although the road to the skiing can be snow-packed and hazardous during winter months. Some of the backcountry trailheads are reached from St. Peters Dome Road, off State Highway 4 in the Jemez Mountains via a gravel forest road. Passenger cars can negotiate the forest road, but a high-clearance vehicle may be desirable for reaching the trailheads. There is no shuttle service from the main monument sites to these areas.
The visitor center in Frijoles Canyon offers a multimedia show on the monument, and there is a small gallery containing artifacts of archaeological, historical and cultural interest. However, most of the attractions of the main area are outdoors. A one-mile (1.6-km) loop trail leads to a variety of restored ruins of lodgings and ceremonial kivas on the canyon's floor and north wall, with interpretive signs en route and numbered references to an explanatory pamphlet available by purchase or returnable with deposit at the visitor center. Much of this trail is paved and accessible to wheelchairs, but the section along the canyon wall is rougher and includes stairs. Wooden ladders afford (optional) access to some of the cliff dwellings created by ancient Puebloans who enlarged natural voids ("caves," although the structures have nothing to do with classical limestone caves) in the soft tuff of the canyon wall. (Note that restoration work is active at these sites during the summer of 2006, and ladders have been removed from some of these dwellings.)
A hiking option going to or from the cliff dwellings is the nature trail along the Rito de los Frijoles, the small creek in the canyon's bottom; this is posted with interpretive signs describing the plant and animal life along the trail. This nature trail is heavily shaded, surrounded by greenery, and very close to the creek, creating an oasis-like atmosphere for anyone tired of sun-bleached sand and rock.
A short extension beyond the loop trail leads to Alcove House, formerly known as Ceremonial Cave (and still so called on some older maps and guides), a large shelter cave some 300 feet (100 meters) above the canyon floor. A series of sturdy wooden ladders bolted into the lava rock connect the cave to the valley floor. The ladder rungs can become uncomfortably hot in the sun, and leather-gripped work gloves can make the trip more comfortable. Visitors can climb 140 feet up to the floor of the cave. They can then climb down into a reconstructed kiva that was built inside the cave. Sufferers from acrophobia would best avoid making the ascent, as would anyone suffering from health problems that would interfere with using the ladders or with the exertion necessary to make the climb. Small children may suddenly discover their inner acrophobic to the dismay of all other climbers. Portions of the ascent are along level grooves in the lava rock permitting only one person at a time to move. There are several rest stops on the ascent where climbers can sit to catch their breath in the thin air. Much of the cave is shaded due to overhanging rock walls. The trail beyond Alcove Cave becomes increasingly rough and leads into the backcountry (see next section).
The canyon bottom near the visitor center is a suitable location for picnics, with parking, picnic tables, and toilets. Parking spots in the picnic area to the northwest of the visitors center are sometimes the last to be filled during peak visitation times. The picnic area can be quite crowded during peak season (summer), as can the interpretive trail. Visiting during the off season can reduce the crowds significantly. Frijoles Canyon is particularly pleasant during the fall, when the crowds are reduced, temperatures are moderate, and neither the high winds of spring nor the monsoonal rains of late summer are likely to interfere with the visitor's enjoyment; however, the area is open, and usually easily accessible, during daylight hours year-round, except for Christmas and New Years. Visitors are expected to be off the interpretive trail and out of the visitors' area by dusk, except for special events.
Bandelier is a superb hikers' park, with options ranging from the shortest excursions past the paved loop trail all the way to multi-day backpacks. A valuable resource for the hiker is the guidebook listed below under References, which gives a great deal of trail information. It is usually available for purchase at the visitor center. One note of caution: don't underestimate this park. There have been a number of deaths in the backcountry, some of them befalling experienced hikers. The Stay Safe section describes some of the things a backcountry hiker should be on the lookout for. Note that overnight backpacking is controlled by a permit system (see under Sleep), but no permits are required for day hiking.
Trails in the Monument may be closed during conditions of extreme fire danger or for other reasons. For up to date information on closures contact the Visitor Center at 505-672-3861 x 517. Fire closures are most likely during June and early July.
Hiking in Frijoles Canyon
Trails lead both upstream and downstream from the visitor center and loop trail. Downstream, the primary trail climbs a short distance above the canyon bottom (hot and exposed during summer) en route to Upper and Lower Frijoles Falls, two attractive if variable waterfalls where Rito de los Frijoles cascades over resistant basalt cliffs interbedded with the prevailing tuff. The falls are usually at their most scenic in spring, when runoff from the mountains upstream guarantees adequate water flow; in the fall they may be nearly dry. One may turn around at either falls or continue downstream to the Rio Grande, with good views along the way. Total round-trip distance is about 7 miles (12 km).
The upstream trail leads past Alcove House (see above) and into one of the monument's few sections of truly narrow canyon. (Tread carefully here in potential flash-flood conditions.) The Bandelier Wilderness is soon entered and the crowds are left behind; fewer hikers pass this way than downstream. The trail continues to "Upper Crossing," where a trail coming down the canyon side from Ponderosa Campground meets the canyon trail, crosses the stream and continues up the south side of the canyon and into the wilderness. Travel along the canyon bottom beyond this point becomes rugged. Note that camping is prohibited in Frijoles Canyon; the backpacker will need to follow one of the trails up the south wall (see next section) to a campsite deeper in the backcountry.
In addition to hiking in the canyon, hiking into the canyon is possible, both from Ponderosa Campground en route to Upper Crossing and from Juniper Campground near the main entrance. The Frey Trail starts at Juniper and switchbacks down the canyon side with terrific views, eventually reaching the main loop trail. Remember, what goes down must come back up; both the Frey Trail and the trail to Upper Crossing are gut-busters in the uphill direction. Try to arrange a car shuttle.
Trails lead up the south side of Frijoles Canyon both at Upper Crossing and closer to the visitor center, offering the hiker access to the greater part of the Bandelier Wilderness. The nearest notable destination to the trailhead at the visitor center is Frijolito Ruin, a largely unexcavated archaeological site on the mesa top just past the canyon rim. The hike to Frijolito covers only 1.5 miles (2.5 km) but is considerably more punishing than the mileage suggests, as it switchbacks steeply up the canyon wall, gaining about 600 feet (180 meters) in a very short distance. This is a good short day hike for getting oriented to the Bandelier backcountry. The wilderness boundary is just beyond Frijolito.
Whether entering the wilderness via this route or from Upper Crossing, a network of trails covers the mesa top, with attractive views of the Jemez Mountains beyond a major scarp (terrain uplifted along a fault). At least the views used to be attractive; this area has been badly damaged by several forest fires in the last few years, and much of the terrain is just plain bleak despite the re-emerging young forest. Burned trees or no burned trees, these trails are a good place to see wildlife. The next major canyon south of Frijoles is Alamo Canyon, with smaller Lummis Canyon en route. Strong hikers can reach fine overlooks of Alamo and make it back to the visitor center in a reasonably comfortable day. Alamo Canyon is presently (September 2005) closed to camping, but campsites near Lummis are feasible.
One of the better-known archaeological sites in the park lies beyond Alamo Canyon: Stone Lions Shrine, a pair of stylized mountain lions (if you use your imagination) carved from rock buried in the ground. This shrine is still viewed as significant by some members of nearby pueblos, and you may find evidence of recent ceremonial activity there; please be respectful and don't disturb the artifacts. Another unexcavated dwelling site, Yapashi Pueblo, is en route to the Stone Lions. Hiking all the way from the visitor center to Stone Lions and back is possible in a day, but it's a real grunt; the hike is enjoyable as an overnighter.
Other trails follow the mesa between Frijoles and Alamo Canyons southeast toward the Rio Grande, with various other scenic opportunities. Unfortunately, many of the archaeological sites in this part of the park have been destroyed or damaged by flooding that resulted from the construction of Cochiti Dam downstream on the river, with Cochiti Lake forming behind it and sometimes reaching the mouths of the Bandelier canyons and beyond. It used to be straightforward to follow trails atop the mesa or in Alamo Canyon all the way to the Rio, walk upstream, and return to the visitor center via the trail in Frijoles Canyon. Depending on water levels, etc., this trip may or may not be possible now, but even if it is, water damage along the river banks will take some of the fun out of it.
Trails from St. Peters Dome
If the previous trails are still too crowded for you (even though, at least in off-season, you might hike to Stone Lions and back without seeing more than half a dozen people), try the trailheads reached via St. Peters Dome, a volcanic ridge on the northwest side of the monument. Trails here provide alternative routes to Stone Lions and also to the remote mesas and canyons beyond Alamo. You'll likely have this area to yourself -- and the rattlesnakes. This is a remote area. Make sure you leave word where you're going, and gas up in Los Alamos or White Rock before setting out.
Capulin Canyon is the next major canyon beyond Alamo. There are good backpacking campsites here, but check on availability when you get your permit. One difference between Capulin and the other backcountry canyons is that there are "modern" ruins as well as the usual prehistoric ones.
For a different kind of hiking experience, if you're in the park during the summer, see if you can get on a "Nightwalk." This is a ranger-led stroll by flashlight along the loop trail (which is otherwise closed at dusk), with an emphasis on "atmosphere" that is accentuated by poetry, Native American stories, etc. -- but to give the atmospheric details would spoil the fun, so just go and experience it for yourself. There is a fee, and advance registration is necessary; contact the visitor center for details. Nightwalks are only done during the summer months (there may be a very few around Christmas), and only once or twice a week, so some advance planning is required, but it's highly recommended for the visitor with poetry in his/her soul. Not suitable for most small children, as strict silence is expected and contributes to the experience.
Frijoles Canyon is at its most photogenic in early morning and around sundown, when the shadows are most interesting and there is a little extra color in the rocks. Photos taken near noon often look a bit stark. Good viewpoints for photographs looking down at the ruins exist along the "Long House" part of the main loop trail; better ones are along the Frey Trail. Skilled use of flash photography through the windows and vents of caves and dwellings make it possible to see both the interior and exterior views in the same photo. Ancient petroglyphs, both painted and incised, are visible along the walls of the canyon, but some of the incised petroglyphs can only be seen at certain times of the day due to the angle of the sun.
Books on the monument and region are sold at the visitor center. A small, separate gift shop next to the visitor center offers the usual tourist paraphernalia (t-shirts, mugs, etc.) and sundries, including hiking supplies. More interesting, however, is its selection of artwork from nearby Indian pueblos. It is usually possible to find a small but diverse selection of jewelry and pottery from highly-regarded centers (e.g. Cochiti and Santo Domingo Pueblos for jewelry, Santa Clara, San Ildefonso and Acoma Pueblos for pottery), and one can even stumble across a good Navajo rug -- somewhat ironically, as the Navajo were the ancestral enemies of the Puebloans who created the dwellings in Frijoles Canyon. Quality is variable; some pieces are "tourist trash," plain and simple, but the shopper with a discerning eye can often find high-quality (if not museum-class) work, sometimes at prices better than those for comparable pieces at galleries in Santa Fe. Be prepared for sticker shock; a 6-inch (15-cm) diameter black-on-black pot from San Ildefonso Pueblo can easily go for $500 or more if it's by a first-rate potter. Still, the prices are fair, and you won't do better in the galleries.
A basic menu of hot dogs and hamburgers is available at a snack bar associated with the gift shop. The snack bar usually closes before 5 p.m., so plan accordingly. Trail munchies, etc., can be purchased as well. The nearest restaurants are in White Rock, about 8 miles (13 km) away. There is a larger choice of places to eat in Los Alamos.
Free permits are required for overnight trips; obtain them in person at the Visitor Center during regular hours. Campfires are never permitted in the Bandelier wilderness, but fuel-type stoves are OK. No pets, weapons, or fireworks permitted. Be prepared to hang food at night and to purify water. For further information call the park service at (505) 672-3861 ex 517.
The nearest hotel/motel is a Hampton Inn in White Rock, about 8 miles (13 km) away. Los Alamos proper has more hotel options. Satisfactory bed-and-breakfasts can be found in both towns, but do a curiously poor job of advertising their existence and seem to change hands often enough to make information rapidly obsolete. One that appears to have been around for a while is Canyon Inn B&B in Los Alamos, phone (505) 662-9595. Competition for the tourist dollar in Los Alamos is not exactly cutthroat; if they don't have a room available when you want to visit, they can probably tell you about some other B&B that might.
As at any national park, petty theft sometimes occurs, typically involving removal of things from cars. (Lock yours.) However, this is usually a non-problem at Bandelier and nothing to worry excessively about. Some visitors are scared of wildlife encounters (rattlesnakes, black bear), but these too are generally non-problems, although the backcountry hiker should be attentive, particularly at dawn and dusk, and the usual advice "don't feed the wildlife" is as valid here as anywhere. The main safety issues in the monument have to do with terrain and weather.
Bandelier is at a comparatively high elevation, ranging from about 5600' (1700 meters) at the Rio Grande up to over 8000' (2400 meters) in the mountains. The upper reaches of the park are high enough that un-acclimated visitors can suffer from altitude sickness, and the visitor from sea level may feel some shortness of breath and dizziness anywhere in the park. The wise backpacker (or at least the one with some time) will spend a day or two getting acclimated to the altitude before venturing into the backcountry. Altitude fatigue further combines with steep, sometimes vertical or overhanging, canyon walls to create danger from exposure. People have died in the Bandelier backcountry from simply falling off a cliff. The "Stay on the Trails" signs are there for a reason; the trails are well planned and constructed, and by staying on them you will minimize exposure hazard. If you simply must get off-trail and go cross-country, know what you're doing (and don't do it in Frijoles Canyon, where it is illegal, at least in some areas). The rock of the canyon walls is composed mainly of soft, friable tuff and is not suitable for rock climbing or scrambling; going off-trail to get up or down a canyon wall is a particularly bad idea.
As for weather, Bandelier is in semi-arid country and is prone to rapid and sometimes extreme variations in temperature and precipitation. By far the most common "injury" among visitors is simple sunburn; make sure to use sunscreen and wear a hat. If venturing into the backcountry, carry more water than you think you'll need, as you will lose body water rapidly and water sources in the canyons are unreliable (and may be contaminated with Giardia parasites). The other main hazard from weather is thunderstorms, common during "monsoon" season, usually from about mid-July through Labor Day. Unlike the narrower "slot canyons" of Utah and Arizona, the Bandelier canyons are generally not susceptible to flash floods, although caution is still a good idea when there are storms over the mountains. (There are exceptions: for example, a narrow and scenic section of Frijoles Canyon upstream of Ceremonial Cave should be hiked only with great caution when flooding appears possible.) A greater thunderstorm hazard is lightning. The mesa tops are exposed, with mainly scrub forest not much taller than you are and few places to hide. Early starts to a hiking day are a good idea, as lightning usually does not become active until mid-afternoon. If you're caught in a lightning storm, do not take shelter under a tree, unless you happen to be close to one of the rare thick stands of Ponderosa pines on mesa tops or at the higher elevations; instead, head for a topographic low (avoid canyon rims) and stay there until the storm passes, which usually only takes a few minutes. It is better to see a storm coming and prolong one's stay in a canyon bottom (assuming it's not so narrow as to pose a flash-flood hazard) until it passes, than to have to sprint for the canyon if the storm catches you on the mesa top.
Winter weather in Bandelier is commonly delightful in the lower reaches of the park; daytime temperatures are usually in the 40s (Fahrenheit) and sunny days far outnumber cloudy or snowy ones. However, the winter camper should be prepared for night-time lows as cold as -10 F (-23 C), although lows of +10 F (-11 C) are more typical, at least at lower elevations. Night-time temperatures usually drop rapidly in the few days following a snowstorm; be prepared. Note that sunburn can easily occur in the winter owing to the altitude, so sun-screen up if you're going to be out for a while, even in December.
One other caution: bubonic plague is endemic in northern New Mexico, and its main animal reservoir is among the rodents that are plentiful in Bandelier. If you see a small animal that appears to be distressed or dead, leave it alone; buzzards are immune to plague, you are not.
Two parts of Bandelier itself lie off the beaten path. Tsankawi is a detached part of the monument that offers a chance to see ruins in an unrestored state and hike on more primitive trails or even cross-country. There are excellent petroglyphs in profusion here. It is on the southeast side of State Highway 4 shortly after it splits off from 502 (coming from Santa Fe) and before White Rock. Bring hiking boots and plan to spend 2-3 hours; the hike is not long, but as you must find many of the attractions (particularly the petroglyphs) for yourself, you'll be moving slowly.
In the winter, cross-country skiing is possible on loop trails at the upper end of the monument. Follow 502 northwest (left) from the main entrance, with sites of Los Alamos National Laboratory on your right (closed to public). The drive will show evidence of the disastrous forest fire in 2000 that started as a controlled burn within Bandelier, got out of control, and spread into the town of Los Alamos, destroying about 400 homes and apartments. A spectacularly winding and exposed road eventually reaches a parking lot high in the mountains, with the ski loops on the left-hand side. (The right-hand side at the parking lot is presently closed to the public despite being part of Bandelier, but as of fall 2005, plans are afoot to open it to some recreational use; stay tuned.) The trails range in length from 1.1 mile (1.8 km) to 8 miles (13 km) and are maintained for in-line skiing only, not being wide enough for diagonal technique. The terrain is suitable for the beginning XC skiier as the trails wind through serene conifer forest to superb views of the canyon. Check locally on snow conditions before embarking on this trip; snowfall in the Jemez Mountains varies greatly from year to year, and conditions can range from excellent through completely unskiable even in deepest winter. Hiking on these trails during summer is possible, though unexceptional; the road to St. Peters Dome takes off from 502 just beyond the parking lot and leads to more scenic and challenging trails.
Beyond St. Peters Dome road, 502 continues into the Jemez Mountains and passes through Valles Caldera National Preserve, another unit of the national park system. This is one of the newest of the national-park units and opportunities for the visitor are still being developed. Valles Caldera protects gorgeous mountainous terrain surrounding an enormous volcanic structure that erupted catastrophically about 1.5 million years ago and again 1.1 million years ago to produce the tuff that makes up the mesas and canyons of Bandelier. Forays into Valle Grande, the largest valley in the caldera, and to surrounding peaks can be arranged, and there is interesting XC skiing in winter that is somewhat more likely to have satisfactory snow conditions than the Bandelier loop. Inquire locally; doing things in Valles Caldera takes some advance planning owing to access restrictions.
Los Alamos is a quiet town of about 20,000 (including White Rock) with historical and science museums, a surprisingly good downhill ski area on nearby Pajarito Mountain, and its own archaeological sites -- the historical museum is right next to a set of restored ruins in the middle of town. Overlook Park in White Rock ends in a wheelchair-accessible viewpoint that offers stunning views of White Rock Canyon and the Rio Grande far below. Lodging and dining are possible in either the main Los Alamos town site or White Rock; all are satisfactory, none exceptional. For fine dining and much else, go back to Santa Fe.