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". . . Although the present-day Pueblo people do not occupy Tsankawi on a daily basis,
the site serves an important role in their spiritual lives and provides both tangible and intangible connections with traditions passed down through generations. As you walk these ancient trails
remember Tsankawi is a timeless place where echoes of a distant past intersect the present . . . "
- from the official  park service brochure for the Tsankawi Unit of Bandelier National Monument
This entry is a continuation of the one on Bandelier National Monument.  The Tsankawi (SANK-ah-WEE) 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 at Bandelier.

  • 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.
  • That 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.


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).

The soft, 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 much faster. 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!


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 two-way traffic.

Of 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 next photo:

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!


At the end of the mesa visitors have two choices: return the way they came or climb down a ladder to the upper cliff level. 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 cliff-side trail:

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 see the 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 ponder.

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 distractions, too!

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 deteriorated.

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 exposed rocks!

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.


The 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 (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 trail farther 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 to Tsankawi.

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!


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 Park!

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 airborne.

Next entry: exploring parts of the extensive trail system in and around Los Alamos and the Jemez Mountains

Happy trails,

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the Ultra Lab

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2009 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil