Climbing into the Past - Bandelier National Monument
Updated: Jul 5, 2021
March 14, 2021
The road into Frijoles canyon snakes along the top of the north side of the canyon, then turns sharply west, opening up to expansive views of the canyon below. The road is somewhat narrow, having been built in the 1930s, and the only thing standing between the edge of the road and the canyon below is a knee-high stone wall.
But the views are breathtaking. It’s easy to see why Ancestral Puebloan peoples made home in this canyon, carving rooms--called cavates--in the volcanic tuft canyon walls and constructing buildings with bricks carved from that same tuft.
Bandelier National Monument was on my list to visit ever since we moved to New Mexico in 2017, but for some reason it took us three years to get there. Stacia and I headed to Bandelier in the Fall of 2020, right around my birthday. We new better than to visit during the summer, since temperatures can get pretty hot and make hiking in desert environments somewhat unbearable. Early Fall was still warm, so we arrived at the National Monument entrance early to both beat the heat and the traffic.
While Bandelier boasts over 70 miles of hiking trails, we decided to stick with the tourist routes that take visitors through the ruins Ancestral Puebloans left behind several hundred years ago. From the visitor’s center, we headed out onto the Main Loop trail.
The Main Loop is paved and heads straight through the Tyuonyi and Big Kiva ruins before turning toward the north canyon wall and up into some of the carved dwellings. The cliff walls themselves were interesting to see, shaped by erosion and chalked-full of holes made or made home by birds and perhaps other small creatures. But the real fun came when we reached the first ladder leading into one of the cavates.
Bandelier National Monument is one National Monument that was created and functions mostly in accordance with the original language of the American Antiquities Act of 1906; that is, to preserve and protect “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States.” The Antiquities Act came about somewhat in part because of gathering pressure to preserve similar ruins and ancient sites across the southwest (from looting and other destructive behaviors), but mainly in the area that is now Mesa Verde National Park.
Interestingly, Mesa Verde was never declared a National Monument, but was designated a National Park the same year that Congress signed the Antiquities Act into law. Bandelier National Monument was enacted in 1916, only ten years after the signing of the Antiquities Act.
Stacia and I walked along the trail, poking our heads into Talus House, climbing wooden ladders into the few cavetes the NPS allows visitors access to, and inspecting the gardens and artwork still intact at Long House. What strikes me about these ruins is how creative it’s builders were, to look at this landscape of volcanic tuft cliffs, stream running through, and build dwellings suitable for a presumably large community. Their imaginativeness to carve a home out of what was available to them.
As we passed the intersection of Frey Trail, we ran into a park ranger sitting on a bench beneath a tree. He was an older man and lean, and was out on a leisurely stroll around the developed trails. We greeted one another and started a casual conversation about the area. He informed us of some of the monument’s history, explaining how Frey Trail was the only route in and out of the canyon for years before the canyon road was built. Inhabitants and visitors to the monument in its early days had to carry everything down the 1.5 mile trail riddled with switchbacks as it descends 550+ feet into the canyon (and up the canyon too).
We did not head up Frey Trail since we were concerned with the mid-day heat and since I was testing out a new pair of hiking boots, which I ended up returning because their thin soles hurt my feet. Instead, we headed toward Alcove House.
At Alcove House, four ladders allow visitors access to an alcove 140 feet up the canyon wall. Standing on the ground beneath he wooden ladders, Stacia considered sitting this one out. But she quickly overcame her hesitation, fueled by a fear of heights, and led the way up the ladders that replicated how original inhabitants reached this dwelling. We spent around fifteen minutes observing the ruins in this cave, then headed back down to allow others access. As with most climbs, the descent was a bit more shaky than the climb up, and a bit harder on my knees.
We stopped at the park store on the way out, purchasing some souvenirs and supporting the upkeep of this magical place. We had intentions of hiking the 1.5 miles to Upper Falls, in addition to completing the Mail Loop Trail and Alcove House, but temperatures were rising and my joints were hurting.
Though we didn’t make it outside of the commonly traversed trails, it’s worth noting that Bandelier offers a variety of different hiking and backpacking opportunities for the outdoor enthusiasts with more time on their hands and a greater level of mobility. I recommend checking the temperature when planning a trip to this National Monument, since the summer heat may make hiking more difficult and even dangerous if hikers are unacquainted with desert hiking. All in all, Bandelier is definitely worth the trip for hikers and tourists alike!