Bandelier National Monument
15 Entrance Road
Los Alamos, NM
RVers and other vacationers traveling through New Mexico will be thrilled with the variety of cultural attractions as well as scenic byways they can experience. Here’s our review of Bandelier National Monument, following a recent hike through the park in March 2019.
There’s much more to Los Alamos, NM than the Manhattan Project.
There’s also Bandelier, where you can take an hour or two out of your busy day and travel back in time, over 10,000 years ago, when the Pueblo people began to set up various settlements in this area. According to the literature, the Pueblo people say they have always been here. When you visit during the off-season, as we did on a rainy day, the stillness speaks to you, as do the caves and the remains of their homes. You feel their spirits in the sound of the water and the birds nesting in the caves. Let it speak to you, and Bandelier will leave a lasting impression.
The sites are almost indescribable. This part of New Mexico is the result of a major volcanic eruption from the Valles Caldera that spewed lava streams over 900 feet thick. This lava rock is susceptible to water and erosion, so it became ideal for the Pueblo people. Caves were made by nature, then shaped by man.
The park is open year round, except for Christmas Day and New Years. Try to avoid the summer crowds if you can. When you visit, there are several hiking trails for you to consider. This is not a drive-through park. Be prepared to hike. There are only three miles of public roads within its 33,750 acres, but 70 miles of trails.
It’s also not handicapped friendly, as only a short portion of the trails are level, but there are trails that are quite doable for children and older adults. Most require you to climb stairs, as you ascend up the side of the mountain. You are also not allowed to bring your pets. Instead, pack water and waterproof gear.
Visiting as we did in March, especially on a slightly rainy day, was ideal. There were only a few other families near us on our hike, and we could choose to let them go ahead as we explored the caves or just stopped on outcroppings to take pictures. Don’t forget to bring your camera. Since it was raining, I only had my cell phone camera, but I still shot photos that were impressive. That’s because the site is impressive.
The easiest hike is the one mile Main Loop Trail to the cliff dwellings. It can be walked in about an hour. Buy a guidebook about the canyon. There are 26 markers on this trail. Each area is explained in the guidebook. We were loaned a guidebook. I think that’s one of the off-season perks.
You will pass Tyuonyi ( QU-weh-nee), on the floor of Frijoles Canyon, which is the remains of a village, located adjacent to the cliffs, that was abandoned around 1450. The inhabitants had moved into new villages along the Rio Grande River.
Your guidebook will tell you that the ancestral Pueblo people in Bandelier were farmers who grew corn, beans, squash, and cotton (for their clothing). Turkeys were also raised for their clothing. The feathers were woven into yucca-fiber string to make their blankets.
As you start to ascend the steps that wrap around the Frijoles Canyon, you will see the cave rooms, as well as the remains of the Talus houses that were built on the slopes in front of the caves. A reconstruction of one of these houses can be seen near Tyuonyl. If you don’t mind climbing a 10 to 12 foot wooden ladder (John made the climb) you can see inside several of the cave dwellings.
On your walk back to the Visitors Center, you cross over a plank bridge that straddles a creek. It’s a scenic, level walk alongside the babbling water. You might even spot some of the indigenous animals, such as black bears, bobcats, and mule deer.
If you want to extend your walk, follow the trail to Alcove House, a cliff dwelling reached by climbing a longer wooden ladder. Another trail choice is the three-mile Falls Trail (moderate difficulty) that leads to Frijoles Canyon’s Upper Falls. That one’s all about the scenery. The focus isn’t on the area’s early inhabitants.
There is also Tsankawi, a 1.5-mile loop walk on a more “primitive” trail on NM 4 about 11 miles north of the main entrance. A guidebook is available for purchase that points out a large unexcavated village, cave dwellings, and rock carvings.
You can also backpack through the National Wilderness Preservation System. Just get a wilderness permit at the visitors center. And be prepared. And knowledgeable. And aware that the average elevation of 7,000 feet can make hiking difficult. But imagine what you might discover! FYI: Bicycles, motorcycles, pets, and campfires are not permitted on trails or in the back country.
If you want to camp in the park, be advised that we measured off the RV slots. Some can manage a 20 foot rig, but not much bigger. And they place boulders at the back of the parking pad to prevent you from placing your rig on the grass/dirt.
Getting There: Bandelier National Monument is 48 miles northwest of Santa Fe, NM. Go to their website if you need directions, but we just typed “Bandelier National Monument” in our GPS and it took us right to the Visitors Center.
Cost: We showed our senior pass and it cost us zero. All national passes are recognized. Otherwise, it’s $25 per car or $15 if you are driving solo. For motorcycle or group prices, check out their website at https://www.nps.gov/band/planyourvisit/fees.htm.
While in the area, also visit the Bradbury Science Museum in Los Alamos, NM to understand the history of the Manhattan Project, as well as what they do behind closed doors today.