I spent a week in Santa Fe, and was surprised at how much I really enjoyed it. I knew it would offer great arts, culture, and wonderful dining, but I underestimated it’s powerful combination of history and nature.
My first taste of this was visiting the famous Bandelier National Monument. Going in, I only knew they were ruins with some ladder climbing. Actually, Bandelier National Monument is a National Park that covers 33,000 acres that includes multiple signs of the people who have lived here in the past 11,000 years in various locations. They are open daily, year round, from dawn to dusk, and includes a campground (Juniper Campground) and a Visitor Center (9 AM -6 PM mid May – October, 9 AM -4:30 PM off peak season).
During this peak season, during peak times, the park limits congestion as well as pollutants by requiring in most cases visitors to take a free shuttle bus into the park with a few exceptions based on time, campers, and bicycles, going to other trails besides the main one (Main Loop Trail) for instance. There is ample parking by where the shuttle bus picks up at the White Rock Visitor Center, and by riding the bus you can enjoy some of the views on the way to the Bandelier Visitor Center.
When we arrived, a park ranger was standing outside to greet our bus with a short welcome as well as telling us about the two main sites along the Main Loop Trail. Many people might only visit the village of Tyuonyi and Cliff Dwellings and turn around after an approximately 1 hour round trip and easy 1 1/4 mile total walk. Others like F and I went on for an extra 30 minutes and 1/2 mile each way to Alcove House which has a steep 140 foot climb on 4 ladders – so definitely is not for those afraid of heights.
There is a little pamphlet the ranger pointed out that besides the $12 entrance fee for the park, that you can purchase for an additional $1 to give you more information about everything you see. I think the mini guide is highly worth the small additional fee as it gives you information at 21 numbered points along the Main Loop Trail.
Here’s a little look at some of the wonderful views while I’m still standing in the parking lot of the Bandelier Visitor Center… we haven’t even walked into the visitor center yet. Also make sure you do your bathroom stop here before you to go out as there are no facilities past the visitor center along the trails! There is also a small cafe for food and drinks if you wish.
The pink rock of the canyon wall here in the Frijoles Canyon is volcanic ash that compacted over time into a soft crumbly rock called tuff. Tuff is very easily eroded wind and rain, with some components of the tuff eroding more easily than others so that over time the exposed rock takes on a Swiss Cheese appearance. You can see then why this area was popular with the Ancestral Pueblo people (also known as Anasazi) who could use tools to enlarge openings and create stone dwellings.
Tyounyi and Cliff Dwellings
Let’s start with the Main Loop Trail towards Tyounyi and Cliff Dwellings. This is the most popular route, a 1.2 mile loop trail that is easy and may take you an hour round trip and includes the 21 stops along Tyounyi pueblo and Cliff Dwellings before you loop back described in the $1 mini guide from the visitor center.
The first thing you will come across is a Kiva, an underground structure that serves as a community center. Back in the day, it would have been covered by a roof of wood and dirt that was plastered with mud strong enough so people could walk on it. and the roof itself is also supported by six wooden pillars. People would have entered the darkened underground room lit by torches by climbing a ladder down.
Not far after the kiva you will encounter the walls of the village of Tyuonyi, which is only one of several large puebelos inside the Bandelier National Monument. Tyuonyi was about two stories and four hundred rooms.
One of the fascinating thoughts I had was how Tyuonyi was constructed six hundred years ago – but at those same times, the caves were also occupied. You can even see the cliff dwellings now from Tyounyi – and the photos above were when I was at the cliff dwellings look back upon Tyuonyi. It makes you wonder what determined who lived in the caves or in the canyon. Family? Clan? Preference, like the way some people choose to live in the city and others in the suburbs?
There’s a fork slightly after the Tyuonyi village where you can choose to go to the first set of Cliff Dwellings, called Talus Houses, but which have several stairs, or you can take the trail to the Cliff Dwellings called Long House that has fewer stairs. We visited both so you can see the difference between the two. The Talus Houses will have ladders to visit inside the dwellings, but the Cliff Dwellings will not.
The Cliff Dwellings in the Talus Houses area are many cave rooms / cavates and alcoves, often with ceilings blackened by soot to harden them, and perhaps some rock drawings. Be sure to stay on the trail and only enter caves that have ladders because you don’t want to contribute to eroding the tuff.
The trail here zig zags with stairs through the cliffs, and provides access to more dwellings. The Ancestral Pueblo were small people, averaging five feet for women and five feet six for men, and living to about 35 years. The fact that there are many homes in this row along the canyon wall made me wonder if it was humming with activity like the village of Tyuonyi, or maybe this was the quieter suburbs with slightly more privacy? Or was this the “city high rise” life of its time?
Some of the pathways were quite slim, fitting only one person. You can also see when we looked back why we were pretty much alone or only with a handful of people – there was a big storm on the horizon, including lightening. Fortunately the wind blew the storm a different direction past us. I didn’t encounter it until much later in the evening, while driving from back to our lodgings after a post hike stop at Santa Fe Brewing.
Now we have arrived at the part of Cliff Dwellings known as Long House. These are multi-storied dwellings along a cliff base and with carved petroglyphs. You can count the stories by counting the rows of holes. Extended families lived together with each group having their own storage room, sleeping quarters, and kiva. There are no ladders to visit any of these dwellings.
Walk another 30 minutes, about 1/2 a mile one way, rather than turning around to return to the visitors center if you want to visit Alcove House. It’s an easy walk, but once you are at Alcove House there is nothing to look at unless you brave the ladders – 140 feet of 4 steep ladders.
Eats and Drinks
On the way to Bandelier National Monument, consider stopping to eat before or after your visit at Gabriel’s. We happened to pick Gabriel’s to fuel us, and then went to Santa Fe Brewing Company (which is just a simple no frills tasting room with beer only) after the park visit.
For the vegetarian, you have choices like the vegetarian Black Bean Burrito with southwestern style Black Beans and served with rice and corn. Also available were vegetarian enchiladas tamales, and fajitas.
I was tempted by multiple dishes but eventually picked out the Green Chili Stew (which I forgot to take a photo of, it was a chunks of pork and potatoes stewed in New Mexico green chile served with soft tortillas) and this Puerto Vallarta dish of lump crab, tiger prawns and chicken breast sautéed in a fresh tomato and white wine sauce and topped with melted cheese. I would definitely recommend Gabriel’s and would return myself for more of the menu that I was tempted by!
Have you been to New Mexico, or Santa Fe, or Bandelier National Monument? What do you think of the sights I shared at Bandelier? Would you go up and down the ladders of Alcove House?