For our first few days in New Mexico, we took a day to visit Bandelier National Monument, an amazing location. This historical site was designated by President Woodrow Wilson as a National Monument on February 11, 1916, and designated for Adolph Bandelier, a Swiss-American anthropologist who studied the cultures of the area and promoted the protection of the sites. Although Bandelier’s monument status is 100 years old this year, her history starts over 10,000 years ago with ancient peoples migrating in and out the Frijoles Canyon. With a longing to learn history and see all things ancient, we set out in our truck to the area just outside of Los Alamos and Sante Fe, and near the Rio Grande River.
Getting to the Ruins
During the summer season, visitors are required to take a shuttle bus from the White Rock visitor center to access ruins. Due to lack of parking, no cars are allowed into the park from 9am to 3pm, although they do allow a few exceptions. The shuttle is free, but there’s an entrance fee of course, and our annual pass covers that. The biggest disadvantage for taking the shuttle is you need to take the last bus at around 5pm or be left behind. Since we arrived well after 9am, we had to take the bus. Our wait between shuttles timed at 30 minutes, so it’s not so bad.
Sidenote: White Rock Visitor Center is only 4 years old and also features a short term RV park with both 30 amp and 50 amp hookups, water, and a sewer dump station for $20 per night and up to 14 nights. The RV park is first-come-first-serve, so arrive early or pick an off-season to go.
History at the Bandelier National Monument Visitor Center
From White Rock, the bus took us to the visitor center near the cliff dwellings. After exiting the shuttle, a ranger greeted us and gave us a quick primer on what to do and where to go. Before heading out to the ruins, we took a quick tour of the visitor center. Inside, we discovered a museum filled with a wealth of history. Within one of the display cases of the museum, sat a Clovis Point, a kind of spearhead and the oldest artifact found at Bandelier. Left behind by one of the hunter-gatherer peoples back during the Paleo-Indian period, the Clovis Point is a testament to human habitation during an era when Wooly Mammoths roamed.
According to another display, the really cool cliff buildings didn’t happen until 1150 to 1550 CE, the apex of the local culture. A fascinating fact I learn is that the Ancestral Pueblo Peoples at Bandelier are related to other sites in the Southwest. So when you visit places like Mesa Verde and Chaco, those sites were occupied by the Ancestral Pueblo culture, but during different time periods.
I also learn that by 1550, the Ancestral Pueblo people moved from this area to pueblos along the Rio Grande. After over 400 years the land here could no longer support the people due to a severe drought. According to oral traditions, the people of Cochiti Pueblo, located just south and east along the Rio Grande, are the most direct descendants of the Ancestral Pueblo people who built homes in Frijoles Canyon.
Walking the Main Loop Trail
Hikers have their pick of ten short trails and three backcountry trails within Bandelier. We decide to take the Main Loop Trail since our visit is just for the day. The Main Loop Trail is a 1.2-mile loop trail (thanks to log crossings) through archeological sites. Most visitors spend between 45 minutes and one hour on this trail. Ladders along the trail allow visitors to climb into cavates (small human-carved alcoves).
Half way through the Main Loop Trail, there’s a spur trail that takes hikers up to the Alcove House. Formerly known as Ceremonial Cave, this alcove is located 140 feet above the floor of Frijoles Canyon and was once home to approximately 25 Ancestral Pueblo people. The only way to reach the elevated is by climbing 4 wooden ladders and a number of stone stairs. Once you reach the Alcove House, you’ll find a reconstructed kiva and the niches of former homes.
On the second half of the main loop, a Nature Trail takes us through a ponderosa pine forest and along a stream bed of Frijoles Canyon.
Back To Sante-Fe
I really enjoyed Bandelier for its fascinating history. On our drive back to Sante-Fe, I think about Bandelier and the other Ancestral Pueblo locations I got to visit. Places such as Casa Grande, Wupatki, Tuzagoot, Montezuma Castle, and Montezuma Well gave me a deeper and broader understanding of the Paleo-Indians that roamed this content during the lithic era, and their descendants in the millennia after.