Bandelier to Valles Caldera

New Mexico

A one-hour, scenic drive northwest of Santa Fe transports you back 10,000 years to the ancestral home of the nomadic hunter-gatherers who lived high in the cliffs of what is now Bandelier National Monument.

Bandelier cliff dwellings, Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico

The Bandelier Cliff Dwellings

Sitting on the southern end of the Parajito Plateau, Bandelier National Monument climbs almost a mile in elevation from the Rio Grande, to the 10,199 ft. summit of Cerro Grande.  Hiking trails wind through Frijoles Canyon and up along the narrow cliffs beneath abandoned caves; down across stream beds littered with the ruins of past floods; through the scented forests of  Pinon-Juniper and Ponderosa pines, and up a series of ladders and steep staircases that lure you on to the high perch of Alcove House and a glimpse into the past.

We arrived at the park in the early morning before the Visitor Center opened.  The lone car in the parking lot told me we had the trails to ourselves and I couldn’t wait to begin this adventure.  Echoing in the early silence of the morning, our footsteps fell onto the paths of history as we wound our way toward the dark caves peering down on us from the sheer cliffs, still shaded in the morning light.

Though the morning air was cool – only in the high 50’s in August, the chill I felt was not weather-related.  In my mind, I was imagining the daily life and rituals that existed here 10,000 years earlier.

 

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Minutes into the hike, we found ourselves peering into a large underground kiva – the ceremonial gathering place used for religious activities, education and decision-making of this ancient culture.  The passing of knowledge from parent to child took place within these stone walls we gazed into.  In ancient times, the kiva was covered and entered through an opening in the roof and descended by a ladder.  Because the interior was lit by torches, a ventilation shaft was built to circulate air.

From here, the trail leads past Tyuonyi Village where the Pueblo ruins are estimated to have housed 100 people in close to 400 rooms, most of which were used for storage and pens for turkeys.  As the trail begins to ascend, winding past boulder-size pink rock formations made from volcanic ash called tuff, more layers of cliff dwellings come into view and the enormity of this ancient culture really begins to takes shape.

We rounded one bend and immediately felt the heaviness of a significant pocket of warm air which stopped us in our tracks.  What could possibly produce such a drastic change in temperature at this hour of the morning?  I touched the walls of rock and they were cool – not the slightest bit of warmth and the sun had yet to rise high enough to reach this part of the trail.  We silently glanced at each other as if to say – let’s not piss off the spirits – and walked on.

We reached the first cave accessed by a ladder and I scrambled up inside.  Part of me wanted to spend half a day just sitting in here letting my imagination run wild while enjoying the view over Tyuonyi Village, and the other part of me couldn’t wait to see what came next.  I bent low and crouched around the two-toned interior which is black from the middle of the walls and across the ceiling.  Traditionally, the interior was burned to harden and stabilize the ceiling.  I snapped a few photos and headed back down.

For the next hour or so, we climbed into cave after cave, gaped at the repeated circular pattern of petroglyphs, studied the remains of various structures, enjoyed the panoramic vistas below us and proceeded to follow a trail left by a civilization we knew little about.

From the high cliffs, we worked our way back down to the floor of Frijoles Creek, now just a trickling stream strewn with downed trees from a previous flash flood, and massive dam-like piles of debris that look like they were created by T-Rex-size beavers.  We criss-crossed our way back and forth until we were at the base of Alcove House – the highlight of this hike.

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This 140 ft. ascent on four wooden ladders and a series of narrow, primitive staircases traverses vertiginous angles and leads to a remarkable site that was once home to a Pueblo community of approximately 25 people.   Why would they choose this spot precariously perched on the edge of a plunging cliff?   A primitive penthouse with a small kiva on the far side and dizzying views of the canyon below.   Straight across, buzzards circled above the high peaks.

All our lingering and photographing allowed the only other couple we saw on the trail to catch up to us in Alcove House but they came and went as we remained to ponder -soft-jawed and wide-eyed – at this incredible place.

Heading back along Frijoles Creek toward the Visitor Center, the National Park Service installed plaques to inform visitors about the area’s wildlife which consists of black bears, mule deer, mountain lions, coyote, western diamond back rattlesnakes, whiptail lizards and stink bugs among other, more-friendly creatures like rock squirrels.  The park is also a protected habitat for four endangered species including the Mexican spotted owl, Jemez Mountain salamander, and two plant species – the wood lily and the yellow lady’s slipper.

As we crossed the final wooden bridge to the parking lot, we spotted the first shuttle bus arrive.  Hardly the outdoorsy-type, this group came equipped with oxygen tanks on wheels and one hovaround.  Hoping the bulk of them would limit their adventure to the looping video in the Visitor Center, we imagined the bottlenecks that were forthcoming on the tiny trails ahead as we watched the struggle as they tried to maneuver as a pack into the Visitor Center.  Note to self:  Get there early before the crowds.  Keep in mind, the canyon floor sits at 6,000 ft. elevation and from there, you climb higher so this park can be problematic for the elderly, people that are generally not in good shape or anyone prone to altitude sickness.   Not a good idea to be hanging from a ladder when a dizzy-spell hits.

From Bandelier National Monument we continued further northwest into Valles Caldera where spear heads dating back 11,000 years have been found.  This 13.7 mile-wide volcanic caldera in the Jemez Mountains is a panorama of mountain views across Valle Grande – a huge, grassy valley where herds of elk freely roam at dusk.  A gravel road cuts through the valley to a small visitor center where you can arrange a number of four-season activities including cross-country skiing and sleigh rides in winter, fly fishing in spring, horseback riding in summer and elk hunting in fall.

Valle Grande at Valles Caldera

Valle Grande at Valles Caldera

Make the full loop through Bernalillo back to Santa Fe, and stop for lunch at Los Ojos Saloon in Jemez Springs where local cowboys and bikers meld with black-robed monks in a dining room that would need no attention should Hollywood stop by to film an episode of Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman.  The food was good and the place was packed with locals which is always a good sign.

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On my day-trip scale of 1 to 10, this is an 11.

Directions from Santa Fe, NM to Bandelier National Monument and on to Valles Caldera

 

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