ruins site is a detached unit of the park, located about twelve miles
north of the entrance to Bandelier. The seven-day entry pass for one is good for both.
When Jim and I visited Bandelier in 2003 we didn't visit Tsankawi. I was
curious to see it the day I visited Bandelier this week but there are some things I
missed (besides being able to take as many pictures as I wanted). I cajoled Jim
into returning with me a couple days later. I was not only able to take more
photos, I also saw some additional things with another pair of eyes.
View from inside one of the caves
Tsankawi, which means "village between two canyons at the clump of
sharp, round cacti" in the Tewa language, is very different from the main unit
- Tsankawi is much smaller and doesn't have the extensive trail system that
Bandelier does. There is only a 1.5-mile trail open to visitors.
Tsankawi's pueblo rooms
have not been excavated. There are signs where the rooms were located on the
upper part of the trail on a mesa, but you can't see low walls made of blocks of tuff like the ones at Bandelier.
disappointed me a little until I discovered the cliff-side trail. Tsankawi has lots of interesting caves to explore on the lower level and
it has even more
pictographs and petroglyphs that are visible.
- Nowhere near as many people visit Tsankawi as Bandelier, so you probably
don't have to be concerned about crowded conditions. That's a good thing when
you're taking photos or want to examine rock art or caves.
It's real easy to miss the entrance, which is just a gravel parking
area next to busy Route 4 between the towns of White Rock and Los Alamos. The
sign is very subtle. You
walk through a gate in a fence, pick up a brochure in a wooden box, self-pay at
a kiosk if you don't already have a receipt from Bandelier, and hike the
self-guided path around the park. I didn't see any
rangers or volunteers on either visit, one a weekday and one on the weekend.
No problem -- I enjoyed being on my own to explore the site. Both times
we pretty much had the place to ourselves. Maybe a dozen people were spread out
along the trail (I almost said "course") and everyone seemed to be paying due
respect to the historical, sacred site. For the people of the nearby San
Ildefonso Pueblo, who are the descendents of the Ancestral Puebloans who used to
live here, Tsankawi remains much more than just an interesting glimpse into
their past. It still plays a big role in their present lives.
NOT SO TOUGH TUFF
At this site, even more than at the main Bandelier unit, it is critical
to stay on the marked paths. The 1.5-mile loop climbs onto a mesa, then descends back to
the middle of the south-facing cliffs where most of the dwellings were located
when Tsankawi was inhabited from approximately 1100-1550 CE (Common Era).
underlying tuff (volcanic rock) is extremely susceptible to erosion from our
modern footwear. I was totally fascinated with all the deep trenches and
remnants of ancient steps, footholds, and handholds used to reach the mesa top
and the caves on the lower cliff. Several centuries of use by the original
inhabitants of the village wore increasingly deeper impressions into the soft
rock, even though they were barefooted or in sandals.
Modern visitors in hard-soled shoes have cut the trails even deeper, and
Trying to avoid deep, skinny trenches, some people walk to the sides of
the trails and cause even more erosion. Not good.
A project in the 1990s used fill material to repair the badly-worn trail
but it was done "naturally" enough that it's not terribly obvious where
the repairs were made. I thought it was so cool to walk in the
"footprints" of the ancients that I didn't even consider getting off the
trail, even for photos. That's what zoom lenses are for!
ON THE MESA
The trail at Tsankawi is an elongated loop with an out-and-back section at the
beginning and end.
There are three wooden ladders along the trail but visitors can
avoid the first two and use short, steep trails to reach the next level up.
After about a quarter of a mile visitors reach the beginning of the loop and are directed in a clockwise direction up to the mesa level:
That's a good idea because most of the trails on the loop are too narrow for
course, as on any trail run or walk, it's a good idea to occasionally stop and
look at the views behind you so you don't miss them:
After climbing most of the way up to the mesa top you have another choice for
the last steep climb: walking up through a deep, skinny trench on ancient steps
made in the tuff, or climbing another wooden ladder. Both times I visited I chose the steps, just
because they are so interesting. You can see the lower part of the steps in the
There are wonderful panoramic views from the mesa trail on a clear
day. Park officials warn about going up there when it's very windy, raining, or
snowing because the trails and ladders get slick and lightning is a risk. On a
nice day you can see the Jemez Mountains and Los Alamos to the west, the Sangre
de Cristo Mountains and Rio Grande River to the north and east, and the Sandia
Mountains and White Rock to the south.
The unexcavated village of Tsankawi lies at the end of the mesa, overlooking
the valley below. Although there is no record of warfare among the early Pueblo
people or with outsiders, many of the villages in the region are built on mesas with
a good view of anyone or anything that might approach.
The pueblo has about 275 ground-floor rooms; some parts of the structure
were originally two stories high. After the ancestral Pueblo people moved away
in the mid-1500s the wooden roofs eventually caved in, the soft tuff and adobe
walls eroded, and the village was covered with wind-borne dirt. Layers of dirt,
plant roots, and rock actually protect the buried site today. It looks no
different than the rest of the mesa.
This site may never be uncovered. Most of the recorded 3,000 archaeological
sites at Bandelier have not been excavated. According to the park brochure,
descendents of Tsankawi who live at San Ildefonso Pueblo "prefer that the homes
and belongings of their ancestors remain untouched. Using new archeological
technology a variety of information can be gathered from an archeological site
without ever uncovering it."
Continuing on to the southeast side of the mesa and the ladder down to the middle
layer of the cliff, you get a good view into the valley where the inhabitants
maintained their fields of beans, corn, and squash:
You can also see down to two levels of the loop below you:
Getting there is fun!
CLIFF DWELLINGS ON THE LOWER TRAIL
At the end of the mesa visitors have two choices: return
the way they came or climb down a ladder to the upper cliff
The ladder here is steep but short. The climb is fun and well
worth the effort.
Here's the deep, skinny path to the top of the ladder:
This view looks back at the ladder from the
There's no escaping the ladder if you want to get down to the
cliff side trail at this point. The
ancient foot and handholds just aren't a viable option for most
of us! Can you
depressions in the tuff just right of the ladder in the photo
above? There are similar steps on the left side, too.
There are multiple levels of caves in this cliff, from the top
down to the valley, but visitors are supposed to stay on the
official trail. That means not being able to see many of the
caves. It helps to protect them and the fragile volcanic rock
from additional damage over time.
The caves you can walk by range from about twenty feet below the
mesa top (see photo above) to about fifty feet down.
You can see how the cliff-side trail and cave dwellings relate to the entire height of the
cliff in the next photo, where the whitish trail in the distance
is only about twenty feet below the mesa top:
You can see in the middle of the photo above where the trail
drops down to a lower level. The next photo shows several levels
of trail, although visitors aren't supposed to go down any
farther than where I took this picture:
I enjoyed the cliff side route better than the one
across the mesa. There are lots of nooks and crannies to
explore, intriguing old pathways to follow, and rock art to
As at Bandelier, some of the caves were eroded in the soft tuff
naturally by centuries of wind and water and some (called
cavates) were further carved out by hand with tools made
from the harder basalt and obsidian rock in the area.
Some caves are large enough
to crawl into. Jim is already sitting in the one below, which is just past the ladder and about as far
as you can or should go in that direction:
Check out this view from inside:
Visitors are encouraged to head toward the entrance when they
get on the lower level. It's about 3/4 mile back to the parking
area but slower going than up on the mesa because the trail is
more narrow, winding, and hilly. There are more interesting
As at Bandelier, most of the caves along the cliff trail had talus
houses built in front of them. The loose rocks (talus) at the base
of the cliff were used, held together with mud (adobe).
The thick masonry walls of the talus houses further insulated the
cave rooms in the back from heat, cold, rain, and snow. The only
low wall I saw appeared to have been reconstructed in modern
times. There are several caves and alcoves in the cliffs with
viga holes (below) for roof supports that long ago
There are lots of ancient stairways and foot/handholds going up
to the top of the mesa and down to the valley from this level.
Not only did the inhabitants have to be pretty agile to maneuver
these pathways up and down, they were also usually carrying a
load of something, too -- water, crops, tools, children, etc.
Visitors today are reminded to stay on the main trails and not
go investigating things. That's not only to reduce erosion of
the soft rocks, it's also for safety reasons. There are some
hilly sections along the lower trail, narrow passageways, and steep
drop-offs to the valley below. There's also the danger of
rattlesnake bites. Snakes and lizards love the warm sun on these
For those and other reasons, I don't think the trails at
Tsankawi are as suitable for young kids, people with acrophobia
(or ophidiophobia!), and seriously physically-challenged folks
as the main trail at Bandelier. In addition, the park lies at
about 6,600 feet elevation. Take plenty of water, especially on
a sunny day. The dry air and higher elevation really suck the
moisture out of you.
Just as intriguing to me as the caves is all the rock art found
along the lower trail. I swear some of it looks like graffiti! I
hope none of it is; that would be a travesty.
park brochure points out one petroglyph panel with carvings of arrows
that is not of Ancestral Pueblo origin. It was probably carved
by sheepherders during Spanish Colonial times in the late
1880s-early 1900s. I don't have a pcture of that panel. I hope
these photos are of authentic prehistoric Pueblo
pictographs (painted designs) and petroglyphs (carved designs).
As mentioned in the last entry, a combination of drought and
depletion of the land are probably the main factors that forced
the Ancestral Pueblo people to move to nearby sites along
the Rio Grande and other reliable water sources in
the mid- to late 1500s.
Today's Pueblo people at the San Ildefonso and other Pueblos live a delicate
balancing act, striving to continue old traditions and beliefs
based on living in harmony with the land, while keeping those
old ways relevant to new generations -- truly one foot in the modern
world, one foot in tradition.
One of the interesting self-guided driving tours out of Los
Alamos features the eight inhabited northern New Mexico pueblos;
there are another eleven pueblos in other areas of the state.
Visitors are welcome at all or most of the villages but the
rules vary with each. We saved that tour and a big driving loop
around "Georgia O'Keefe Country" for future trips to the area.
THE RIO GRANDE @ WHITE ROCK CANYON
The Rio Grande (Spanish for "Big River") has affected the lives of millions of
people through Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas. Jim and I have seen its
headwaters on the Continental
Divide along the Colorado Trail (2007) and crossed it on that
downstream before CT Segments 23 and 24 were
re-routed (2006) toward Stony Pass:
Although we've driven along the Rio Grande in Texas, probably
the most dramatic view we've had of the mighty river is from
Overlook Park in the pretty little town of White Rock, New
Mexico, just a few miles southeast of Los Alamos and even closer
The first day I saw White Rock, in transit between Bandelier and
Tsankawi, I turned onto Grand Canyon Drive on my way to the
overlook. What nice houses and yards, not pretentious, just very
attractive. I'm guessing because of its proximity to the
National Laboratory that housing prices are out of our range,
but what a beautiful place to live. There aren't very many
stores or services there, though, as Jim sadly discovered when I
took him to Tsankawi a couple days later and he was unable to
find any place selling hamburgers.
These views of White Rock Canyon are looking north and east:
The view of the river to the south is also impressive:
At least a couple of trails go down 1,000 feet to the canyon from the rim
but I/we just stayed at the overlook both times. The views of
the surrounding mountain ranges, mesas, and canyons are just as
impressive from this park as from any others on the Pajarito
Plateau -- superb!
GO FLY A KITE
Before we left White Rock, Jim was able to find something for lunch that was even
better than a fast-food hamburger: a freshly grilled ear
of corn and hot dog at a kite festival being held at Overlook
It was fun to watch the people who were just beginning to
fill the field to fly their kites. Vendors had every kind of
kite imaginable for sale and one booth, the "kite hospital," was
available for repairs after sudden crashes to earth.
It all made me want to literally go fly a kite! There's certainly enough
wind on every mesa in the Los Alamos area this week to get one
Next entry: exploring parts of the extensive trail system
in and around Los Alamos and the Jemez Mountains
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil,
and Cody the Ultra Lab
© 2009 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil