Bandelier National Monument encompasses 33,000 acres of rugged, beautiful canyons and mesas in the Jemez Mountains between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. The monument includes Bandelier Wilderness. Bandelier is flanked by the 89,000 acre Valles Caldera National Preserve to the northwest, the Dome Wilderness neighboring on the western edge, Los Alamos National Labs 26,500 acres of restricted, albeit open, space (deer and raccoons are welcome, but humans without authorization aren’t), and a million acres of the Santa Fe National Forest filling in the gaps around it. This means that Bandelier and the surrounding areas really are wilderness. You may encounter wildlife when traveling in the back country. Please pack your trash out.
Bandelier is located at the southern end of the Pajarito (Spanish for little bird) Plateau. Several massive volcanic eruptions formed the plateau, including one roughly 1.2 million years ago. The Valles Caldera spewed 300 cubic kilometers of ash, which cascaded from the caldera to form the tuff (rock composed of volcanic ash). A hot slurry of ash particles and gas flowed like a river, moving at a speed of over 60 mph (100 km/hr), extending and covered a 20 mile area around the caldera, creating a layer of rock that is over 500 feet deep in places.
There is a layer of rock above and below the layer of tuff comprised of airborne sediment from the explosion. Geologists have identified air-fall ash from the Valles Caldera eruption in Iowa. That was a bad day to be in the Jemez. It was probably a bad day to be standing in New Mexico.
Variety of Landscape & Terrain
The terrain and landscape at Bandelier varies dramatically, with elevations ranging from 5340 feet at the Rio Grande to 10,199 feet at the summit of Cerro Grande. These two destinations are twelve miles apart, with a mile of altitude difference between them. For hikers who want to get away from other humans, the back-country trails at Bandelier are ideal. They descend into deep canyons and cross large mesas. The trek provides a full spectrum of volcanology for anyone with an interest in geology, as well as beautiful views for photographers.
Bandelier Monument’s headquarters, visitor center, and most accessible petroglyphs and caves are in Frijoles Canyon. Unlike many of the canyons on the plateau, Frijoles canyon has a consistent water supply. The Rito de los Frijoles (Spanish for Bean Creek) provided water to cultivate fields of corn, squash and, of course, beans. Frijoles Canyon is also fairly wide, which was ideal for fields. Researchers have found remnants of Ancient Puebloan agricultural endeavors throughout the canyon, though the fields were abandoned long ago.
Humans arrived early. Paleoindian hunters were the first humans to traverse the Pajarito Plateau, arriving here more than 11,000 years ago. Archaeologists found a Clovis point at Bandelier that is approximately 12,000 years old. The point, mounted on a spear, was used for hunting large animals and was propelled by an atlatl (a primitive spear launcher allowing more power and distance). These early hunters arrived in the area following now extinct herds of ancient bison and mammoths. Climate change, and the ensuing extinction of many species of large animals, brought an end to their way of life.
Next up were the Archaic peoples. They moved less than their Paleoindian predecessors, but they still migrated based on seasonal availability of food. They settled at Bandelier due to the food supply: rabbits, deer, piñon nuts, and wild grass seeds. The initial inhabitants didn’t plant crops. They knew when different plants were in season and when the elk came down from the high country. Their survival was contingent upon living in accordance with the natural world.
They did not make pottery. It wasn’t practical for migratory people. Pots weigh too much and they break easily. They used hand-woven yucca and willow baskets for gathering and storing plants, nuts and other wild foods. They are lighter and can be fashioned with shoulder straps to be carried like a backpack.
New Mexico’s state flower, Yucca, was a vital plant for the Ancestral Puebloans. They peeled the roots and ground them to produce a sudsy pulp, mixing the pulp with water for soap or shampoo. They collected yucca leaves and stripped the fibers, weaving them into sandals, baskets, or rope. Home decor was an option as well. They twisted the twine from yucca fiber with wet turkey feathers or strips of rabbit fur to make blankets. Chewing one end of a yucca leaf to expose the fibers produced a paintbrush for decorating pottery.
The sharp points at the tip of each yucca leaf could be used as needles for sewing. The soft, fleshy fruit was a staple of the ancient diet; eaten raw, cooked or mixed with other available ingredients. The early summer blooms are sweet and they ate them raw. Even the root is edible and nutritious when food is scarce. However, this is the part of the plant they normally used for soap and that is what it tastes like. Yucca needle, yucca thread, yucca fashion, and yucca food.
Ancestral Puebloans migrated into the area from other locations to the north and west around 1150 AD. They built large, permanent structures and grew crops on top of the mesas, and in narrow fields on the canyon floor. Domesticating turkeys yielded feathers and an additional source of protein. Dogs, which were likely wolves with an affinity for humans and scraps, assisted with hunting and provided companionship. Native plants and deer, rabbit and squirrel provided additional food sources. Thousands of petroglyphs, dwellings, storage rooms and masonry walls remain as tribute to the ancient culture and craftsmanship that built them.
Bandelier’s builders were likely settlers migrating from Chaco or Mesa Verde. All three were sites occupied by Ancestral Puebloans; however, each flourished during different time periods. Mesa Verde thrived between 500-1300 AD, Chaco between 500-1300 AD, and Bandelier between 1100-1550 AD. Each reached peak population at different times, with Chaco and Mesa Verde preceding Bandelier. However, trade and migration occurred throughout New Mexico’s history, including in the ancient world. People knew about these large communities throughout the region. Furthermore, people would travel to them from other areas to engage in trade and commerce.
Many large, ancient villages were abandoned throughout the southwestern United States between 1100-1300. People moved for a variety of reasons, but water and war were the most common mitigating variables. Most migration patterns involved relocating closer to a reliable water source. By the time the Spanish arrived in the mid 1500s, the population was concentrated along tmajor and minor waterways, with the heaviest density along the Rio Grande, Rio Pecos and Rio Chama.
Many Pueblo migration stories recount how ancestors moved from place to place over time, including the well-known sites. It is possible that Mesa Verde’s inhabitants may have briefly reoccupied Chaco sites.
Construction of a Community
During the 450 years of settlement in Frijoles canyon, the early inhabitants carved caves into the volcanic tuff and planted corn, beans and squash (“The Three Sisters”) in fields on the mesa tops. Smaller fields were located in the canyon, but the canyon walls created too much shade and the canyon floor serves as a cold sink. The mesa top fields were more productive. They planted crops where afternoon thunderstorms were more likely to provide precious moisture.
Water is the most important ingredient for successful agriculture in New Mexico. That was true thousands of years ago and it is true today. The Ancestral Pueblo people developed a number of farming techniques to conserve water. They used pumice (a light, frothy volcanic rock that is full of gas) as mulch in the soil. It serves as a sponge, absorbing water and releasing it slowly over time. Other water-preserving practices included terracing, check dams that slowed water moving across slopes, and waffle or grid gardens. They constructed waffle gardens by forming small depressions surrounded by a low earthen wall, with seeds planted within each cavity.
The selection of crops was mutually beneficial. Corn is sun-tolerant and grows tall. Beans and squash are less sun tolerant but corn provides shade and gives bean stalks something to climb. Beans provide nitrogen to the soil, keeping it healthy for future crops. Although Ancestral Pueblo people were not reliant on gathering like their predecessors, they still depended on native plants and hunting to supplement their diet.
Volcanic Tuff Building Blocks
Mother Nature took care of the masonry. Early inhabitants constructed their homes with blocks of volcanic tuff. The rock is soft, fairly easy to break into blocks, and there is a lot of it readily available. Erosion has crumbled cliffs, with block-like boulders and blocks of tuff strewn along the base of the canyon walls. Smaller chunks worked as pre-cut bricks. The blocks of tuff were mortared with a mud mixture. The Ancestral Puebloans used harder stones, like basalt, gathered from elsewhere in the canyon to create axes and hammers.
These tools allowed them to shape and carve the softer stone. The axes were also used to chop down large Ponderosa pine trees. The straight, thick trunks made sturdy vigas (beams used to support the roof). Dwellings built along the base of the canyon wall were often stacked higher than similar structures on the canyon floor, because they had the support of the canyon wall. The number of stories can be determined by looking at the rows of viga holes. Each floor needed the vigas to support the floor/ceiling of the next level.
“Cavates” is a combination of the words cave and excavate and Bandelier has a lot of them. The cliff dwellers would carve rooms at the base of cliffs. Although the tuff is soft, it would have been an arduous task to hack a cave using stone tools. The walls of the cavates were plastered and the ceilings smoked to inhibit crumbling of the tuff, preventing grit and dirt from constantly raining from the ceiling. Sometimes pictographs were painted on the plaster or petroglyphs were carved into the walls. In 2001, the cavates in Los Alamos and Sandoval counties were listed among the Most Endangered Places in New Mexico by the New Mexico Heritage Preservation Alliance.
Ancient Apartment Complex
On the canyon floor there were 245 ground level rooms. Based on similar Ancestral Pueblo dwellings, with rooms stacked 2-3 stories high, it is believed that a similar architectural style was utilized at Tyuonyi. The ancients of New Mexico mastered the first apartment developments in North America! Unlike other sites, where support holes for the vigas can be seen lining the canyon walls, there is no way of knowing how many rooms were constructed in the canyon. The individual rooms were small, but it isn’t like people had much in the way of material possessions. As long as there was a safe place to sleep, with a roof, there was no need for significant living space. There was ample workspace outside or on the rooftops.
Based on artifacts, the cave dwellings and the canyon dwellings were occupied simultaneously. Archaeologists speculate that people may have moved seasonally with access to the creek preferable in the summer and the heat of the cliffs preferable during the winter. The canyon walls are typically thirteen degrees warmer than the canyon floor due to the amount of glass in the volcanic tuff. It absorbs heat; however, the glass granules pose a hazard when used for cooking pottery. Small particles of glass couldn’t have been good for ancient digestive tracts and intestines. The glass particles would also have been bad for the individuals who carved the cavates.
Another unique aspect of Bandelier is that it was home to two groups of Pueblo people. These groups, the Tewa and the Keres, share many cultural commonalities, but their languages are unrelated. Today, Tewa speakers live north of Bandelier in San Ildefonso Pueblo and Keres speakers live to the south in Cochiti Pueblo. The large ancestral village in the main canyon of Bandelier retains its Keres name, Tyuonyi. Some Keres speakers say the name Tyuonyi means a place of meeting or treaty, which is possibly a reference to mingling between the two cultures in that area. The main Tewa ancestral village, Tsankawi Owinge, means the village near the narrow gap in the mesa and the round cactus. Descriptive, eh?
These communities thrived for more than four hundred years, far longer than our current Republic has existed. A prolonged drought forced migration to more reliable water sources by 1550. They established multiple settlements along the Rio Grande, including Cochiti, San Felipe, San Ildefonso, Santa Clara, and Santo Domingo pueblos.
In the mid-1700’s Spanish settlers established ranches in Frijoles Canyon based on Spanish land grants received from the King of Spain after the re-conquest of New Mexico in 1692.
In 1880 Jose Montoya of Cochiti Pueblo offered to show Adolph F. A. Bandelier his people’s ancestral homelands in Frijoles Canyon. Adolph Francis Bandelier was a Swiss-born scholar who grew up in Illinois. He had a life-long preoccupation with the Southwest. His dream was to explore the ancient sites of the Pueblo Indians. He learned the local languages, which involved assimilating multiple dialects of multiple languages. He was the first to study the dwellings in Frijoles Canyon, reporting on them in 1880.
In addition to his scientific reports, he published The Delight Makers, a fictionalized narrative of Pueblo life before the arrival of the Spanish. With the aid of more prominent archaeologists, he illuminated the importance of preserving the culture and heritage in Frijoles Canyon. His contribution and dedication was recognized when President Woodrow Wilson established the area as a national monument in 1916 and named it after him. Though Bandelier’s life ended in Spain, his ashes were spread in the canyon in 1980.
Judge Judson Abbott build the first lodge in Frijoles Canyon in 1907. Abbott was from Santa Fe. He moved to Bandelier and became the caretaker for the Frijoles Canyon archeological sites. The lodge, The Ranch of the 10 Elders, was located across Frijoles Creek from Tyuonyi. In 1925 Evelyn Frey, her infant son and her husband, George, arrived to take over the Ranch of the 10 Elders at the newly minted Bandelier National Monument. At that time, there was no road. The only way in and out of Frijoles Canyon was a steep, dirt path. Everything the Frey’s owned had to be strapped to mules for the journey down to the canyon floor, including household goods, furniture, 75 fruit trees, several hundred chickens and a piano. You thought moving in or out of a 2nd or 3rd story apartment was bad?
Evelyn and her husband divorced soon after, but she stayed in the canyon, raising her son alone. Between 1934 and 1941 workers from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) established a work camp in the canyon. They built the road, the current visitor center, a new lodge and cut miles of trails. Evelyn was there. Her son died in an accident in his mid-20s. Though she never recovered from the loss, she never gave up her home, playing hostess to the scientists and spies that took over the Bandelier Lodge during the Manhattan Project. The park was closed to the public for several years. In total Evelyn lived in Frijoles canyon for 63 years, dying peacefully at home in her 90s.
Fires in recent years, and the flood in 2013, did a lot of damage to the excavated portion of the canyon floor, but, fortunately, the cave dwellings were largely spared.
There is an abundance of options available for outdoor enthusiasts, from day hikes to back country backpacking. The main ruins and short hikes are ideal for a day trip from Santa Fe or Albuquerque, but there is more to see in the back-country for those accustomed to more primitive camping. Links for trail maps, camping, hiking, dining and lodging are included.
Bandelier offers ongoing events throughout the summer, including moonlight walks, evening programs, wilderness hikes and crafts demonstrations. Fall fiesta is October 8. Cross Country skiing is available when snow is available. There are several fee free days. Please see sidebar for details and links.
Bandelier National Monument
15 Entrance Rd.
Los Alamos, NM 87544
(505) 672-3861, ext. 517 for visitor center
Bandelier National Monument is open daily, year round, from dawn to dusk except during heavy snow days or other emergencies. Juniper Campground is open year round, but may be closed to only “A” loop.
Visitor Center Hours (mid May – mid October)
9 AM to 6 PM
Frijoles Canyon, Tsankawi , and all park trails are open to recreation from dawn to dusk. Backpacking permits must be obtained at the Frijoles Canyon Visitor Center for any overnight stays in the park’s backcountry.
Automobile/Vehicle 7-Day Entry Permit – $20
7-Day Single Entry Permit – $10
Motorcycle 7 Day Entry Permit – $15
Bandelier National Monument Annual Pass – $40
Fee Free Days
- National Park Service Birthday
- National Public Lands Day
- Veterans Day
There are three different ways to camp in Bandelier. Juniper Campground is a family campground, intended for small groups of 10 individuals or less. There are two campsites in Juniper Campground designed to handle small groups (10 – 20 people). Ponderosa Campground is a group campground for groups larger than 10 individuals. Backcountry camping is also available with a permit that can be obtained for free at the visitor center. The closest backcountry camping zone is approximately two miles from the visitor center.
There is a 24-hour pay station close to the entrance to pay camping fees (not entrance fees). The station accepts cash and most credit cards using a do-it-yourself keypad and credit card reader. After dark, its lights turn on automatically when someone approaches the station.
Campsite fees are good until noon and they accept payment for more than one day at a time. First-come, first-serve, no reservations. 94 sites, no hook-ups, but centrally-located water taps and a dump station are available. Each site has a paved parking pad, picnic table and fire grill. The restrooms have electrical outlets, flush toilets. No showers. YMCA has showers in Los Alamos. Limit 10 people/2 vehicles/3 tents per site. They don’t allow firewood gathering. Keep pets on a leash. They allow pets in campsites, parking areas, or along roadways. The park rangers offer Evening programs at the campground amphitheater during the summer.
Golden Age and Golden Access passes provide 50% discount.
$12 per night, per campsite Fee is $6 for holders of Golden Age or Golden Access Passes. The campground is self-registration; reservations are not available, but there are almost always spaces available. (505) 672-3861 ex 517
$35 per night – Ponderosa Campground is available for groups (minimum 10, maximum 50 people per site). Reservations are required for the two sites.
Campfires are not permitted. Fuel-type stoves are OK. No pets, weapons, or fireworks. Be prepared to hang food at night and to purify water. For more info, call (505) 672-3861 ex 517
- Pueblo Independence Day – “Canes of Power” special showings, August
- NPS Founders Day 100th Anniversary, 8/25/1916 “100 Years” Guided Hike, August (Dome area)
- Night Sky Program, August
- Public Lands Day – No entry fee, September
- Opera On The Rocks, September
- Fall Fiesta, October
- International Observe The Moon Night, October
- International Archeology Day, October
- Bandelier Wilderness Day, guided Hike, October
- Veterans Day – No entry fee, November
- Winter Solstice Guided Sunrise & Sunset Walks, December
- Moonlight Walks: Saturday nights 9/17, 10/15
- Evening Programs: Saturday nights in July & August
- Nightwalks: Friday Nights in July & August
- Wilderness Hikes: Saturdays in July & August
- Crafts Demonstrators: Most weekends from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
- For details or to register, contact the Bandelier Visitor Center at (505) 672-3861 x 517
There are over 70 miles of trail throughout Bandelier’s 33,000 acres. Some trails are short easy loops. Others are many miles through rugged country with steep rocky switchbacks. There are two trails designated for cross-country skiing in the winter. Pets are not permitted on any park trails.
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
- Main Loop Trail
- Alcove House
- Falls Trail
- Frey Trail
- Frijolito Loop Trail
- Tyuonyi Overlook Trail
- Burnt Mesa Trail
- Cerro Grande Route
- Alamo Boundary Trail
Back Country Hiking
- Drink plenty of water, e.g. 1 gallon (4 liters) of water per person per day is recommended. Take high energy snacks.
- Rest often | Take frequent breaks out of the sun to avoid heat stroke.
- Know where you are | Stay on designated trails. Carry a compass and fully charged cell phone. Keep landmarks in sight. Cell phone service is available in the Valle Grande area of the preserve.
- Be prepared | Wear a hat and sunglasses. Apply sunscreen even in winter.
- Beware of lightning | During a lightning storm, take cover in a solid, closed-door building or in your vehicle. If you are not near any of shelter, squat low to the ground and place your hands over your ears and your head between your knees. Watch out for flash floods.
- Dress appropriately | Temperatures are hot during the day in the summer and drop drastically after sunset, from 20 to 30 degrees. Prepare for the weather to change, i.e. wear loose, light-colored clothing to help keep your body cooler in the summer, but have a light jacket on hand for when the sun goes down.
- Respect wildlife | Be bear aware. Please slow down and use pullouts to watch wildlife and do not approach wildlife.
Juniper campground does not allow pets.
Hot dogs and hamburgers are available at the snack bar in the gift shop, which closes at 5 pm. Trail munchies are also available. The nearest restaurants are in White Rock, (8 miles) and Los Alamos (12 miles).
Blue Window Bistro
813 Central Avenue
1743 Trinity Drive
166 Central Park Square
1903 Central Avenue
751 Central Avenue
1360 Trinity Drive