Bandelier National Monument, NM

Santa Fe, NM

After two days of rain and high winds, we took advantage of a beautiful Thursday and drove about 45 miles northwest of Santa Fe for a visit to Bandelier National Monument.  The Monument is about 50 square miles of mostly wilderness.  The main attraction is a long valley filled with pueblo structures inhabited from 1150 to 1600 AD.

Bandelier was designated as a National Monument in 1916 and named for Adolph Bandelier, a Swiss-American anthropologist who researched the cultures of the area and supported preservation of the sites.  Bandelier is very popular and parking is very limited, so during the summer months you park in the nearby town of White Rock and ride a shuttle eight miles to the visitor center.

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The visitor center opens at 9:00 am and the parking area was beginning to get crowded when we arrived at 9:20.  We knew the trail would be crowded so we quickly picked up information at the visitor center and set out on the main trail.  There are about 70 miles of trails in the monument but the Main Loop is the one almost all visitors come to hike, as it takes you through some ruins and up into the cliff dwellings along a 1.2 mile paved trail.

Beginning of the Main Loop Trail

The trail quickly takes you through the ruins of Tyuonyi, one of several large pueblos in the monument.  Structures in the pueblo were one or two stories high.  It contained about 400 rooms, a central plaza with three Kivas, and was home to about 100 people.  The trail goes through reconstructed sections of the pueblo but it is best viewed from above where the trail goes along the cliff dwellings.

Structures of the pueblo in the foreground and cliff dwellings at the base of the cliff

View of the pueblo from the cliff dwellings

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An artist’s reconstruction of what Tyuonyi would have been like in about 1400

We continued along the trail to the base of the cliff.  The cliff itself is volcanic tuff (compacted ash), which is a relatively soft rock.  The inhabitants of this area cut cave rooms (cavates) into the cliff, then build stone rooms in front of them.

An ancient Puebloan enjoying the morning sunshine!

Tuff is very susceptible to erosion

More Cavates (cave-ates)

The stone room below is very large.  A group of five people climbed into it just before we took the photo below but you can’t see them.

The trail continues along an area known as the Long House, where people built multi-story stone dwellings along the cliff base and carved petroglyphs into the cliff.

The holes along the top of the cavates were for wooden roof support beams.  Some of the structures were up to four stories high.

Vertical indentations carved in the rock for side wall supports

The panel below was part of the back wall of a second story dwelling.  Uncovered behind a layer of plaster, this pictograph was probably created for a very specific purpose then later covered over.  The park service has it covered with a piece of plastic.

Looking back down at the Long House

There are many examples of petrographs along the Long House.  Most are high up, as the artist stood on a roof top to complete the work.

The Macaw

After viewing the Long House we turned off to our right for a half mile hike on a gravel trail to see the Alcove House.  The Alcove House is 140 feet above the trail and requires climbing up four narrow wooden ladders.  We reached the base of the climb just behind a large group of high school students.  Facing a long wait to get up the ladders, we turned around and headed back down the trail.

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The Alcove House

We returned to the visitor center and viewed a nice video about the area and went through the small, but very well done museum.

Diorama of a dwelling built along the cliff

Leaving the monument we drove through the small town of White Rock.  The main street through town is lined with large replicas of pottery made by puebloans who lived in this area.

Just north of White Rock is a small area of Bandelier NM called Tsankawi Prehistoric Sites.  The site is not well-marked and most people drive right by unaware of its existence.  We had been alerted to the site by Pat and Sheldon (Tin Can Travels Too) when we met them on the trail in Tent Rocks NM a few days ago.

We’re glad Pat and Sheldon alerted us to this site, as it is very cool.  A self-guided 1.5-mile loop trail provides access to numerous unexcavated ruins, caves carved into soft tuff, and petroglyphs.  In three spots a ladder is provided to help hikers up or down from the mesa.

The sides of the cliff leading up to a mesa consist of tuff, compacted ash from an ancient volcanic eruption.  Information on the site states that generations of pueblo people walking barefoot or in sandals wore deep paths in the tuff.  John is a bit skeptical about that since some areas along the tuff path showed no evidence of ruts.  Maybe the residents carved out some of the rocks to make moving up and down with heavy loads of water or crops easier?  Who knows?

At one point the trail cuts narrowly between the rocks.  You can avoid this by a go-around trail with a ladder.

Upon reaching the top of the mesa, we were treated to great views of the surrounding mountains.

Snow covers the Sangre de Cristo Mountains

On top of the mesa is the unexcavated ruins of the village of Tsankawi.  The village contained about 275 one and two story dwellings.

After the inhabitants left in the late 16th century, the buildings fell into ruin. The roofs collapsed and the walls crumbled. Wind blown materials filled the cracks and crevices so that only mounds of rubble can be seen with pieces of pottery lying on the ground.

The trail forms a loop, so after passing through the ruins we climbed down off the mesa to a narrow path along the cliff.

The inhabitants of Tsankawi not only had a settlement on top of the mesa, but built their homes along the base of the cliffs. They dug caves into the soft tuff stone and extended the dwelling with walls made of rock mortared with mud.  The dwellings are gone but the caves remain.

We were impressed with the amount of artwork along this part of the trail.

Kokopelli petroglyph

Two lane trail?

More pottery shards along the trail

As we rounded a bend in the trail we could see caves with steps carved into the tuff.

We enjoyed the wonderful ruins in the main section of Bandelier NM, but the large number of people on the trails made it difficult to enjoy the visit.  We can’t imagine what it must be like during the summer months.  The solitude of Tsankawi was much more to our liking!  The combination of the two sites made for a great day of exploration!

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15 Responses to Bandelier National Monument, NM

  1. pmbweaver says:

    I love the looks of that VC!

    I just marvel when I see ruins. I can’t even begin to image how they built those structures back then. I mean I know how they did, but just can’t believe it. Such amazing people. Pretty amazing place.

    That ancient Puebloan sure looks right at home.

    I love the huge pottery. I would have Paul running around taking all sorts of photos.

    Another awesome find….Tsankawi Prehistoric Sites. I can’t believe how well preserve everything is. I love the view from the mesa. The snow covered mountains look beautiful…from afar. What a fabulous day of exploring!

  2. colibabas says:

    Very interesting areas that we’ll add to our to do list. Thanks for the tour!

  3. geogypsy2u says:

    I definitely need to explore more of New Mexico. Bandelier has been on my list but thanks for adding the less visited Tsankawi. I like the idea of carving into the tufa to make cavates.

  4. On our day trip to Bandelier we only did the main part, we were ready to head home after that and passed right by Tsankawi….clearly we need to visit that part next time we are in the area!

    Sedona is super busy right now too…don’t know if it is spring break or just Sedona becoming a year-round destination!

  5. Laurel says:

    It’s been many years since I’ve been to Bandelier—it was off the beaten path at that time, but clearly not now! I wouldn’t have wanted to climb the ladders to Alcove House behind a large group of people, either. Tsankawi looks like a gem, though!

  6. It seems like everything is getting so crowded right now. I can’t even imagine what the summer will be like at any of these parks. Anyway, thanks for the tour. You’re the second blogger I read today that just visited Bandelier. Definitely looks like it’s worth a visit (maybe in January though???) 🙂

  7. girlonahike says:

    Fun! Another spot from my middle school memories!

    Alicia @

  8. Jodee Gravel says:

    Thanks for all the great pics at Bandelier, I should have just braved the crowds as they really are stunning ruins. Their ancients look quite nimble….. We must return for Tsankawi!! I’ll even try the ladders (I guess), but those carved stairs in the rock are really cool!!

  9. Sherry says:

    Really fantastic pictures of Bandalier. So sorry to hear there were so many people. Is there ever a time when that isn’t true?? January you say, snow and all? What a wonderful set of ruins. That was a very well preserved ancient Puebloan you found there. But I agree being able to see Tsankawi without all the noise and busyness of so many people makes for a much more rewarding experience. I’m still amazed at the pottery shards not being pilfered. Sure glad you knew about it to end your day on a beautiful note. Just love the over sized pottery in the streets

  10. LuAnn says:

    Bandolier has also been on our radar. Thanks to your posts it seems like a New Mexico trip has to happen soon.

  11. regularguyadventures says:

    I was there in 2012, really interesting place.

  12. It has been a decade since our visit to Bandolier NM and a return visit is in order with a different set of eyes. At that time we visited Los Alamos (Steve was thinking of working at the Lab there) and White Rock and of course we did not know about Tsankawi.

  13. Lorian Bartle says:

    Excellent write-up with great pictures. I have fond memories of visiting there.

    Lorian Bartle

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