times." Not only does it accurately describe the difficult times ancestral
Pueblo peoples and their hunter-gatherer predecessors had in order to survive
in northern New Mexico's high desert terrain for over 10,000 years, it also
describes the soft, crumbly rock they used in more recent centuries to make
In the last entry I talked about the two cataclysmic volcanic eruptions
that formed the canyons and mesas of the Pajarito (pa-ha-REE-toe) Plateau over
a million years ago. As reference, scientists say that each of the two Jemez
(HAY-mess) eruptions was 600X more powerful than the 1980 eruption of Mount St.
Helens. Enough volcanic ash was ejected from the epicenter at Valles Caldera to
cover an area of 400 square miles up to 1,000 feet thick.
That's a lot of ash!
Most of the ancient stone houses and cave dwellings at
are concentrated in Frijoles (free-HOH-lace) Canyon. The pink
canyon walls are volcanic ash that packed down over time into the
soft, workable rock called "tuff." Softer areas of the rock
weathered naturally over centuries into caves and the
Swiss-cheese appearance (below) we still see today. Native Pueblo people
enlarged some of those caves for shelter and storage and cut
blocks of tuff to build extensive, above-ground masonry
complexes in which to live.
Frijoles Canyon is a small part of the extensive area in New
Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona that was inhabited by
ancestral Puebloans. Bandelier National Monument and the nearby
Tsankawi Unit are but two locations where visitors can see some
of their ancient dwellings, learn more about their interesting
culture, and marvel at how they survived such tough times
from approximately 1100 to 1600 CE (Common Era).
MEMORY LOSS, MEMORY OVERLOAD
Six years ago Jim and I visited Santa Fe, Los Alamos, and
Bandelier National Monument but my memory of that trip is vague. For one
reason, I seem to have selective CRS Syndrome. For another, I
didn't take as many pictures then as now. That was the first
year we had a digital camera (all of three megapixels!) but I
was still in "film" mode mentally and didn't realize I could
take a gigundus amount of photos digitally and not run out of
film. I learned pretty quickly, though, and now I've done a 180
and take tons of pictures. What a need to learn next is to
delete more shots when I'm editing them.
Funny thing is, on my recent trip to Bandelier and Tsankawi, I
DID run out of memory space on my one-G memory card for the first
time ever! You knew I took a lot of photos, right??
Well, not that many. It was more quality than quantity
that maxed out the card. I forgot to erase all the pictures I'd
already downloaded from the previous day's trip down the Jemez
Mountain National Scenic Byway. I also didn't realize
until I was two-thirds of the way through Bandelier that I had
our 10-megapixel Canon Powershot A1000 camera set on its highest
resolution both days: 3648x2736 pixels, or enough to
print out photos that are 15x20 inches.
I'm used to taking several hundred photos at a time on the next
lower setting, which is still pretty big, and had no clue I was
using up the memory capacity so fast. All of a sudden I saw that
I had only 20 shots left. Yikes! There was still a lot to see
and photograph! I immediately lowered the size setting but still
had only 32 shots left. I became much more selective AND
returned to Tsankawi another day to take pictures of some of the
things I missed there. It's only about six miles from our
camping location at the south end of Los Alamos.
Cliff dwellings in the Long House at
Two more small lessons learned the hard way:
always download photos promptly and erase them from the
memory card (I usually do that) and be more cognizant of the
size setting. Better yet, get a bigger memory card!! They're
pretty cheap these days.
Meanwhile, Jim's memory of Bandelier from six years ago was
intact and he didn't want to be climbing ladders and walking
around Frijoles Canyon so close to his race. We'd already done
some hiking on the trails in Los Alamos' open space that morning
and he wanted to rest. I took the opportunity to drive the Route
502-501-4-502 loop (about 40 miles) to explore the two Pueblo
ruin sites of Bandelier and Tsankawi by myself that afternoon,
finishing up that part of the Scenic Byway.
I enjoyed Tsankawi
so much I cajoled Jim into going with me the second time. He
agreed, since he hadn't seen that unit of Bandelier back in
EXPLORING THE RUINS AT BANDELIER
Although the ancestors of modern Pueblo people have lived in
this area for thousands of years, the approximate 3,000
dwellings that remain scattered throughout Bandelier National
Monument today are primarily ones built between 1100 and 1550
CE. As the population grew over the years, people congregated in
larger but fewer groups. Villages that had contained 40 rooms
grew to ones with 600 rooms or more. The villages of Tyuonyi (QU-weh-nee)
and Tsankawi (SAN-kuh-wee) and their nearby cave dwellings
exemplify the latest period of colonization in the units at
There are about 70 miles of trails throughout Bandelier but only
three miles of roadway. After the pay station near Route 4 the
entrance road passes the developed campground loops and a scenic overlook with
great views of Frijoles Canyon, the surrounding mesas, and
the Jemez Mountains:
The road winds down from the mesa to Frijoles Canyon, site of
the visitors' center, other buildings, and trailheads to the
This road, the trails, and most of the other infrastructure at
Bandelier were built in the early 1930s by about 200 young men in the
Civilian Conservation Corps. Although pioneering anthropological work by Swiss-born
Adolph F. A. Bandelier brought attention to the area in the
1880s, and the monument was officially established by Congress in
1916, the trail into Frijoles Canyon was so steep and difficult
that not many people visited until the road was built in 1933.
The low stone and wooden Pueblo Revival-style buildings
blend into their surroundings quite attractively.
The men in the Bandelier CCC carefully cut and placed each
stone, creating a distinctive southwestern style that is unique
to the park. You can still see hand-carved furniture and
decorative tin light fixtures they made. Bandelier has the
largest collection of CCC structures, tinware, and furniture in
the National Park Service.
On your first visit to Bandelier I recommend purchasing the very
informative Main Loop Trail guide in the Visitors' Center for a
small fee. I had the one we bought in 2003 and used it again;
not much has changed. The booklet has a map and very detailed
information about everything you'll see on the 1.2-mile
loop (or 2.2 miles if you continue on to the Alcove House).
Part of the trail is paved but not all of it is wheelchair
accessible. There are steep, narrow trails to all of the cliff
dwellings past the large Tyuonyi Pueblo. The trail to Alcove House AKA Ceremonial Cave is pretty
flat but not paved.
Visitors can see many of the ruins even if they aren't able to
climb ladders to peek inside some of the caves. Of course, if
you climb the ladders it adds a lot to the fun factor! I didn't
know how my deteriorating knees would handle the ladders,
especially the 140-foot grind up to the Alcove House, but they
did just fine both up and down. It is major fun to look or walk
inside the caves.
I'm just glad I don't have to live in any of them!
The only thing missing was being able to share it again with
Jim. This is one of the photos I took of him at Bandelier back
The first major ruins visitors see at Bandelier is the excavated
Village site. It was originally at least two stories high and
contained about 400 rooms built in a circular pattern around a
central plaza where most daily activities were done:
The tuff-block walls of the pueblo remain the same height as
when they were excavated. The park service has to occasionally
stabilize the fragile stone walls with new mortar to prevent
further deterioration. The original residents also had to
replace the mud mortar in the walls and the wood used for
Some of the dwelling sites at Bandelier remain unexcavated,
buried for hundreds of years.
According to the Main Loop Trail guide, a lot of valuable
information was lost or destroyed in the early 1900s when the
science of archeology was in its infancy and many of the more
sophisticated methods in
common use today had not yet been developed. Today the Monument
preserves unexcavated sites at Bandelier and Tsankawi for study
in future years when even better methods (and perhaps more
money) will be available.
Two archaeologists were working at the Tyuonyi site under a blue canopy when I visited.
You can see the canopy in the view looking down on the village
two photos up.
My favorite part of Bandelier comes next on the Main Loop Trail:
three different sets if cliff dwellings! Visitors can climb up into several of
the natural caves and carved rooms (cavates) along the cliff above Tyuonyi Village
and the Alcove House another mile up the canyon, but not the
caves in Long House.
Because I don't know which caves were natural and which were
carved, I'll just call all of them "caves" for simplification.
Following are two
distance shots of some of the caves above Tyuonyi and a cool rock formation
on the way up the trail to reach them:
See the little people and the hand rails?
The footing gets trickier up here.
The caves used as homes by the people in Frijoles Canyon are all
placed along the south-facing canyon wall. That was important
for winter warmth in this high-altitude terrain (about 7,000
feet). Some of the caves were naturally large enough to hold at
least one person but many were enlarged the hard and slow way,
by hand with stone tools made from basalt and obsidian.
Caves were seldom used alone; most in this canyon
were used as back rooms for houses like this talus (loose rock)
house, reconstructed by the park service to show what the
dwellings in front of the cliffs looked like:
I wish I could have seen what it looked like when hundreds of
these houses were built at the base of the canyon walls here and
at Long House! Wow.
You can look inside many of the caves and see soot on the
ceilings from prehistoric fires used for cooking, heat, and
light. The walls were often plastered (and re-plastered over
time) with clay, probably to keep the tuff from further
crumbling. This picture I took of Jim inside a cave six years
ago shows the soot and clay better than any of the photos I took
Entry into the caves was often tricky for the original
residents. You can still see
some ancient hand- and foot-holds in the cliff faces. Ladders
were necessary to reach some of the rooms, just as they are now.
THE LONG HOUSE
One of the most impressive sights at Bandelier is the Long
House, an 800-foot long condo-style community with caves and
talus houses that were anchored to the canyon walls with vigas
(roof beams) for support. You can see how many stories Long
House had by counting the rows of viga holes in the canyon walls:
Most of the talus houses along the wall were two or three
stories tall. All that remains of them now are low walls, which
you can see in several of the photos in this entry.
Many cave rooms in the Long House still have their original plaster
from 400-500 years ago, such as the darker colored wall in the
center of the photo above. The rooms were protected by the talus
houses for many years, and also by overhanging
Here are some wider-angle views of the Long House:
Many pictographs (painted designs) and petroglyphs
(stone carvings) can be seen in the area of the Long House. Here
are two of them:
I have no doubt those two designs are genuine
prehistoric art but a few at Tsankawi made me wonder if they
were the work of modern pranksters. I presume the park service
would cover any grafitti.
The rock art at Bandelier and Tsankawi fascinates me.
They're the closest thing to a written language during this
period of time.
Most of the designs have been studied and their original purpose
or "message" identified but I don't know what they are. Someday
maybe I'll research the meanings more closely.
I'll show more
pictographs and petroglyphs from Tsankawi in the next entry.
THE ALCOVE HOUSE
It's well worth the time and effort to take the level, shaded
half-mile trail at the far end of the Main Loop Trail and visit
this ancient ceremonial cave, another highlight of a visit to Bandelier.
Along the way you can see views of other cliff dwellings in the
distance. You can look but not go over to those:
Although the Alcove Trail is level, the park service warns visitors with a fear
of heights or physical limitations about the strenuous climb to the cave:
140 feet up steep wooden ladders and stone steps cut
into the canyon wall. I was pleased to see how many "older" folks
made the climb the day I was there!
First ladder at the base: just a warm-up!
The last ladder to the top is the longest and steepest.
The large alcove was occupied by several families between 1250 and 1600 CE.
A sign at the base depicts the twenty-three rooms, two stories high in places, that
were built inside the alcove:
None of the rooms remain inside the alcove now, only a couple of
At the front of the room is a reconstructed kiva used for
religious activities, teaching, and meetings. This is one of
several underground kivas in Frijoles Canyon but the only one
that the public can enter. I didn't go down into it this
time -- there were too many other people up there -- but I have these photos of Jim
at the kiva from our 2003 trip:
Here's a view I took looking out toward the canyon from the kiva:
This was the only place at Bandelier where I ran into anything
resembling a "crowd." Most were just sitting around, enjoying
the view and/or catching their breath after the big climb, and I
didn't want to out-wait them to take more pictures. Otherwise, a
sunny weekday May afternoon is a perfect time to visit the park
because temperatures are moderate and it isn't too crowded.
There are several other underground and cave kivas (KEE-vahs) in the
canyon. They were used for religious activities and the
education of boys and young men. Since these people had no written
language at the time, they passed down knowledge from one
generation to the next through oral traditions like
legends, stories, prayers, and songs.
One of the kivas at Bandelier
Kivas are sacred sites
that are still used by modern Pueblo people.
By the mid-1500s the villages in Frijoles Canyon were abandoned,
probably because of repeated
droughts and the exhaustion of natural resources in the valley.
No one knows for sure but there are some likely reasons. The permanent stream which runs through the canyon, El Rito de
los Frijoles, may not have been bold enough to provide enough
water to irrigate crops for so many people for so long. Up to
500 people once lived in this canyon at a time, with other
villages nearby. After 400 years of intense farming, cutting
trees for firewood and building, collecting plants, and hunting
wild animals, it's likely the land could no longer sustain the
Those people initially re-settled in villages along the Rio
Grande ("Big River") several miles away. Today there are nineteen
Pueblos (villages) in New Mexico, eight of them within 80 miles
of Bandelier Park. People of the Cochita Pueblo, a little south
and east along the Rio Grande, are the most direct descendants
of ancestral Pueblo people who lived in Frijoles Canyon. The
people of San Ildefonso Pueblo are most closely linked to
RESPECTING THE PAST, PRESERVING THE FUTURE
Pueblo people in the area have great regard for the dwellings in Bandelier and are represented when park staff make decisions
affecting their ancestral homelands.
Visitors to Bandelier and Tsankawi (as well as other sacred
Native American sites around the country) are asked to treat the
area with respect and care:
"Spiritually, our ancestors still
live here at Bandelier. You see reminders of their presence here
-- their homes, their kivas, and their petroglyphs. As you walk
in their footsteps, value the earth beneath you and show
everything the same respect we do when we re-visit this sacred
place." - Affiliated Pueblo Committee, in the
official NPS park brochure visitors receive upon entry
Remember, too, that collecting any historic artifacts or
disturbing the ruins could land you in jail; those are
There are other trails from the visitors' center to the upper
and lower Frijoles Falls, the Rio Grande River, Juniper
Campground, and dozens of miles of backcountry trails. We
haven't explored any of those trails yet. This park is
huge, 33,750 acres big, and most of it can be seen only on foot.
Day hiking and overnight backpacking are allowed with a
wilderness permit. Hiking is the only way to see most of the
park's wildlife and some of its remote archeological sites, petroglyphs,
Pets, bicycles, motorized vehicles, and campfires are not
allowed on the trails or in the backcountry at Bandelier. Dogs
are allowed on leashes only in the parking lot, picnic areas,
The park entry fee is well worth the cost to see just the
exhibits in the visitors' center and the ruins along
the Main Loop Trail. Since the pass is good for seven days,
highly recommend also visiting the Tsankawi Ruins several miles
to the north. That site is completely different. Add in some of
the other trails at Bandelier, and you've got some real
bang for your bucks!
Next entry: exploring the Tsankawi Ruins and getting a
fantastic view of the Rio Grande from White Rock Overlook
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil,
and Cody the Ultra Lab
© 2009 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil