The problem with New Mexico for travelers is that huge swaths of the state don’t appear to have much going on in them, and once you spend some time in Santa Fe, Taos or Albuquerque, what else is there to do?
Plenty, if you know where to look.
Many are familiar with the Georgia O’Keeffe-famous Sangre de Christo mountains, or the Sandia range, but 48 miles northwest of Santa Fe are the lesser-known Jemez mountains (pronounced like famous) and beautiful Bandelier National Monument, tucked into Frijoles Canyon in the Jemez.
It’s named for Swiss anthropologist Adolph Bandelier; he traveled and studied in this region, laying much of the foundation of modern southwestern archaeology. This park is in canyon and mesa country, part of the Pajarito Plateau formed by Jemez volcanic eruptions a million years ago.
The Canyon was spangled with fall color and bright yellow leaves the day that I visited with a friend (we were the Ladies of the Canyon!) to see ancient pueblos and cave dwellings.
There was a short wait in a line of cars to enter the park; ironic since there was no road at all into Frijoles Canyon until the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built one in the 1930s, along with a pueblo-style Visitor Center. Once we started looking around the park, it didn’t seem too crowded, but weekends are the busiest.
There are only three miles of public road in the park today, but 70 miles of trails offer an escape for the experienced hiker and relaxed walker alike. The Main Loop Trail is paved and much of it is wheelchair accessible. Buy a pocket-sized trail guide at the Visitor Center so you can read along at each numbered informational marker on the Loop, which takes about an hour to walk.
The park estimates that people have lived off and on in Frijoles Canyon for over 10,000 years. The Ancestral Pueblo people (no longer called Anasazi, an apparently outdated Navajo term) lived at Bandelier for over 400 years, and you can visit their descendants in the artistic San Ildefonso Pueblo about an hour away, or at the Cochiti Pueblo.
We looked at sacred kivas and former homes in the ruins of the Tyuonyi pueblo on the floor of the canyon, then climbed stairs to see the cave dwellings dug out of the soft volcanic rock (called “tuff”) of surrounding mountains.
You can go up and look into some of the cave homes via ladders; notice how the interior roofs are still smoke-blackened.
In addition to the rugged backcountry trails, there is a paved nature trail and very pretty picnic areas accessible by car or RV. It’s laid out so well that you don’t even notice they’re there, but the picnic areas are to the left of the Visitor Center and sit next to Frijoles Creek.
Tsankawi, another section of the Bandelier property, is 11 miles north of the main park entrance and has more primitive trails, an unexcavated village, cave dwellings and petroglyphs. Juniper Campground in the main park offers tent camping spots (the 1 1/2-mile Frey Trail, an ancient pathway into the canyon, connects the campground and the cliff dwellings.)
Don’t miss the Pueblo cultural demonstrations on weekends, from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Our national parks are under such strain from visitors and a lack of funding; support them with your thoughtful visitation and donations.
Consider buying a yearly National Parks Pass so that you can investigate many wonderful places like Bandelier.