The Puebloan people have lived in the American Southwest for many centuries. Archaeologists think they are descended from groups of hunters and gatherers who came to the region over 10,000 years ago. In the area that is now Bandelier National Monument, in Northern New Mexico, the villages of Tyuonyi and Tsankawi and their adjacent cliff dwellings appeared in the 13th century AD. Handsome Pueblo revival-style structures and Civilian Conservation Corps trails now serve the park, enabling visitors to discover the history and culture of the ancestral Puebloans. More than 70 miles of trails are available, including this 1.2-mile Frijoles Canyon Nature Trail to Tyuonyi and the Long House cliff dwellings. My brother Dave and I visited this charming national monument on Friday, May 1, 2015 from 7:30AM to 8:30AM. Our plan was to explore the ancient ruins along the Nature Trail behind the Visitor Center.
Hike Length: 1.2 miles Hike Duration: 1 hour
Hike Configuration: Loop Blaze: None needed
Hike Rating: Easy. Limited stairs climbing.
Elevation Change: 200 feet Elevation Start: 6,066 feet
Trail Condition: Excellent. Paved pathway. Portions are wheelchair accessible.
Starting Point: Frijoles Canyon Nature Trail behind Visitor Center.
Trail Traffic: We encountered only wildlife shortly past dawn.
How to Get There: Take NM Hwy 4 to White Rock near Los Alamos. Continue for 12 miles. Bandelier’s entrance is on the left. Entry fee is $12 per vehicle. It is approximately 3 miles from the entrance to the Visitor Center.
Bandelier National Monument protects over 33,000 acres of rugged but beautiful canyon and mesa country as well as evidence of a human presence here going back over 10,000 years. Petroglyphs, dwellings carved into the soft rock cliffs, and standing masonry walls pay tribute to the early days of a culture that still survives in the surrounding communities.
40-year-old self-taught anthropologist Adolph Bandelier came to the New Mexico Territory in 1880. His ambitious goal was to trace the social organization, customs, and movements of southwestern and Mexican peoples. He traveled and studied throughout the region, exploring canyons and mesas, living and working among American Indian groups. The sheer cliffs, year-round stream, and distinctive cave-room architecture of Frijoles Canyon captured his imagination.
He made the canyon and dwellings the scene of his novel, The Delight Makers, depicting Pueblo life in pre-Spanish times. He left New Mexico in 1892 and continued his studies in Peru and Bolivia. Bandelier’s pioneering work is now relatively unknown to the public, but it established the foundation for much of modern southwestern archaeology. Another archaeologist, Dr. Edgar Hewitt saw the need to preserve these ancestral Pueblo sites and was instrumental in getting Bandelier National Monument established in 1916.
There was no road into Frijoles Canyon until the mid-1930s when the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps built one, along with trails, the Visitor Center, and a lodge. The closest archaeological site is a mere 400 yards from the Visitor Center, and the paved 1.2-mile Frijoles Canyon Nature Trail to Tyuonyi and the Long House cliff dwellings can be walked in about an hour.
Dave and I were exploring the Los Alamos area and decided to check out Bandelier on our way by. When you enter the national monument property, the park road takes you down, down, down for three miles off the mesa and into Frijoles Canyon. We arrived bright and early, just past dawn, and were greeted on the Nature Trail behind the Visitor Center by a handful of white-tailed deer.
Soon after, we reached Tyuonyi. This is one of the largest ancestral ruins I have seen over the years, rivaling Pueblo Bonito at the Chaco Canyon National Historic Park, also in New Mexico. Archaeological surveys have found at least 3,000 sites in Bandelier. For generations the ancestral Puebloans lived in small, scattered settlements. As the population grew, they began coming together in larger groups, forming villages like Tyuonyi.
As you continue climbing stairs past the cliff dwellings, you will get a nice overview of Tyuonyi in the canyon below. The trail continues for miles up Frijoles Canyon, but our schedule didn’t allow the time. The Nature Trail loops back down into the canyon and a return to the Visitor Center.
Bandelier National Monument sits at the southern end of the Pajarito (Spanish for little bird) Plateau. The plateau was formed by two volcanic eruptions 1.6 and 1.4 million years ago. Home to the Bandelier Wilderness, Bandelier ranges from 5,340 ft. at the Rio Grande to the south and 10,199 ft. at the summit of Cerro Grande to the north, almost a mile of elevation change in just under 12 miles. After completing our walk through history, we set out by car to check out the rest.
Piñon-Juniper woodlands dominate in the southern parts of the park transitioning through ponderosa pine savannahs and forests finally reaching mixed conifer forests at the highest elevation. Scattered throughout the park are desert grasslands, montane meadows, and riparian areas in the canyon bottoms. 70 miles of backcountry trails navigate through Bandelier, so you can bet that we will be back to explore some of the high country.
Bandelier is set within vast amounts of open space. North and west of the park rests the Valles Caldera National Preserve (VCNP), an 89,000 acre nature preserve, which was created by the eruptions that formed the Pajarito Plateau. The size of the eruptions make Mount St. Helens in my lifetime puny by comparison.
On all sides of the park are over one million acres of the Santa Fe National Forest, with the Dome Wilderness adjoining the Bandelier Wilderness western edge. A large portion of the northeastern boundary is shared with Los Alamos National Lab, which covers 26,500 acres of restricted, mostly open space. Bandelier’s direct neighbors make the park’s 33,000 acres feel much larger than it actually is.
The forest and high country here is absolutely stunning, but there is also evidence of recent major wildfire. Thousands of acres have burned in the past 20 years, as wildfire continues to be a major issue plaguing the drought-ridden West.
Dave and I enjoyed our brief, but delightful, visit to Bandelier National Monument. If you find yourself in Northern New Mexico, near Los Alamos or Santa Fe, take the time to look around. The ruins and cliff houses are quite impressive, and the forests and canyons offer thousands of acres of adventure.
Updated October 5, 2016: Dave and I made another visit to the Frijoles Canyon Nature Trail with a goal of seeing Alcove House, a cliff dwelling 140 feet up the escarpment that guards the canyon. The trail to Alcove House goes about a half mile beyond the main Frijoles Canyon loop. Alcove House is accessible by a series of ladders that climb the rock face.
Frijoles Creek is still littered with log jams from the massive flash flood that roared through the canyon in 2011. Despite that, it is still a beautiful walk through pine forest and steep canyon walls. I was still sick, so when we arrived at the base of Alcove House, I volunteered to take pictures of Dave. Here are the results.