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Uncover Ancient Cliff Dwellings at Bandelier National Monument

Published by Megan Eaves, Writer

Country: United States

The Experience

It was late in the day when we jumped in our car and headed out from Santa Fe, New Mexico for an afternoon hike at Bandelier National Monument. Steeped in history, this ancient Native American archaeological site is home to cave dwellings and the ruins of several prehistoric villages of the Pueblo People. With endless and interesting wildlife, and one of the state's most scenic canyons, Bandelier National Monument is a primitive paradise.

Arriving at Bandelier National Monument, the desert sun cast long shadows along the adobe visitor centre as we made our way inside, collected a trail map and set out on our walk. The Main Loop Trail is just over one mile long and takes you on an hour-long walk through several ancient Native American archaeological sites. A peaceful breeze ruffled tufts of desert sagebrush and chamisa bushes along the trail as we progressed to the first stop: Tyuonyi (pronounced like “chew-oh-ni”). Tyuonyi is one of the main attractions at Bandelier National Monument, and it consists of the ruins of an ancient Puebloan village (one of only a few that existed in Frijoles Canyon) where Bandelier is situated. The village consists of adobe structures in a round layout where an ancient community of a hundred people once lived: grinding corn, cooking, making pottery and farming.

Further along, we climbed the trail to a sheer south-facing cliff, along which we found dozens of cave dwellings known as the “talus houses.” Some of the caves have been partially reconstructed and are fitted with wooden ladders that allowed us to climb inside the caves to see the ancient Native American homes. The caves were small and dark, but the air inside was cool and provided relief from the summer heat and (no doubt) warmth in the winter as the south-facing cliff collected sunlight. At the far end of the rock face, petroglyphs (ancient Native American wall drawings) dotted the cliff in interesting scrawls and designs.

This section of the Main Loop Trail gave us an excellent view of Frijoles Canyon and Bandelier National Monument, and we enjoyed a few more moments of bright desert sunlight, clear blue New Mexico skies and gentle quiet before making our way down and back to the visitor centre. With dusty feet and hungry stomachs, we drove away from Bandelier National Monument as the sun set, casting purple hues across the desert landscape.

When to Go to Bandelier National Monument

Although the park is open all year round, the best time of year to visit Bandelier National Monument is in spring or fall when the New Mexico air is crisp and cool and the skies are bright blue. During autumn, there are many aspen trees around Bandelier that turn golden colours and, contrasted against the turquoise blue skies, are absolutely stunning. If you choose to visit during July or August, be aware that afternoon monsoon rainstorms can be dangerous, and opt to go mid-morning. Like most of northern New Mexico, Bandelier National Monument is located at high altitude and often gets snow during the winter. Though this can be a beautiful sight, it does make driving in and out of the canyon difficult and navigating the walking trails more treacherous.

Bandelier National Monument is open every day except December 25 and January 1. The operating hours are 8 a.m.–6 p.m. during the summer, 9 a.m.–4:30 p.m. during the winter, and 9 a.m.–5:30 p.m. during the spring and fall.

Odds n' Ends

There are several ways to enter Bandelier National Monument, the most typical of which is by car, which costs $12 per vehicle for a parking permit. If entering on foot or by bicycle, the fee is $6 per person. You can also purchase a very useful trail map in the visitor centre which leads you around each of the sites and describes the scenery and history of the area in detail. The visitor centre also has a gift shop and snack bar, but it can be much more pleasant to bring along a picnic of your own.

If you are an experienced hiker, you can buy a backcountry permit in the visitor center that allows you to hike and camp overnight in the 33,000 acres of Bandelier National Monument and Frijoles Canyon.

Bandelier National Monument is located at high altitude and is an extreme desert environment. No matter the time of year, be sure to wear lots of sunscreen, bring a jacket, wear sturdy walking shoes and bring plenty of drinking water.

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