Detour: Bandelier National Monument

Established in 1916, Bandelier National Monument protects 33,677 acres of the Pajarito Plateau on the southern slopes of the volcanic Jemez mountains, located west of the Rio Grande Valley and Santa Fe in northern New Mexico. Over twenty-three thousand acres of the Monument are federally protected wilderness. But the heart of Bandelier is the thousands of Ancestral Puebloan sites scattered across the plateau and its steep canyons. Among these, the many sites in Frijoles Canyon are the most famous and dramatic. The hub of visitation in Bandalier, this canyon was where Sean and I headed for our all-too-short visit to the Monument on November 13 [2021].

It’s an hour and twenty minute drive from the Visitor Center at Pecos National Historical Park to the Visitor Center at Bandelier. We descended from Glorieta Pass and drove back the way we’d come, into Santa Fe, and then north out of the city. We munched snacks and listened to podcasts as we drove along. We passed through Tesuque Pueblo, Cuyamungue, and San Ildefonso Pueblo, crossing the Rio Grande and beginning our ascent into the Jemez Mountains.

A twisting road led up to the entrance station, where we were greeted by a portly Ranger. Then we dropped somewhat hair-raisingly into Frijoles Canyon.

We arrived at the parking area for the Visitor Center just at 2pm. And it was quite busy on that mild, sunny afternoon.

We had a brief look around the Visitor Center and stamped our passports before setting out on the 1.5-mile paved loop past the major ancestral sites of the lower canyon.

The walls of Frijoles Canyon are made of tuff, formed by compressed ash from volcanic explosions 1.6 and 1.2 million years ago. Although ash from the explosions drifted as far away as Iowa, here on the slopes of the mountains, it accumulated in a layer 1,000 feet thick in some places. It is the tuff from these explosions that created the Pajarito Plateau, now incised with canyons eroded into the soft rock.

Big Kiva

Big Kiva

Although people had lived on the plateau and in the canyons for thousands of years, in the mid-1200s the population exploded in Frijoles Canyon and the area of what is now Bandelier. This roughly corresponds with the post-Chaco migrations when Ancestral Puebloans abandoned the area around the Four Corners and Mesa Verde to the northwest.

Suddenly the calls of Sandhill Cranes echoed across the canyon and reverberated off the canyon walls!



On the canyon floor near Frijoles Creek sits the site of the circular village of Tyuonyi, a large pueblo with some four hundred rooms that would have housed roughly one hundred residents. It was at its height around 1400, almost exactly halfway between the emptying of Mesa Verde and the arrival of the Spanish.


Kiva in Tyuonyi

By the time the Spanish arrived, though, Frijoles Canyon had been abandoned too with most of its population moving to the still-active pueblos near the Rio Grande.

Mule Deer


After passing through Tyuonyi, the trail led us toward the northern wall of Frijoles Canyon, up to a remarkable array of cliff dwellings.


The canyon walls are pocked with naturally occurring cavates, or shallow caves. The Ancestral Puebloans discovered that it was fairly easy to enlarge and shape these caves into rooms.

The walk up and along the cliff dwellings is self-guided with ladders into some of the cliff dwellings.

As at Mesa Verde, the original wood beams still emerge from the masonry where residents constructed structures along the cliffs.

The paved trail winds and twists along the cliff face, often cleverly obscured from being noticeable from the canyon floor.

One of the dwellings that visitors are allowed to enter is particularly restored with layers of plaster.

Often these rooms in the cliff would have been used for the storage of harvested crops, while the living quarters would have been the built structures extending from the front of the cliff.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Long House

Unlike at Mesa Verde where structures were built in the natural shelter of enormous sandstone alcoves, at Bandelier the cliff face is basically vertical. Nearly all of the rooms and structures are on the northern wall of Frijoles canyon, which is usually bathed in sunshine.

Long House

As we continued on, we passed a portion of the dwellings called “Long House,” for the dozens of rooms running along the bottom of the cliff.

Long House

Long House

Long House


The rooms of Long House boast both petroglyphs carved into the soft tuff and pictographs painted onto the rock.


Many of the Bandelier petroglyphs and pictographs are geometrical, but there are also recognizable human and animal figures, including a wild turkey—immensely important to the Ancestral Puebloans—visible in the photograph above (in the upper right quadrant).


Some of the petroglyphs still have visible added pigment.

Pictographs, including a human figure (center)

Tree Cholla

Although there is remnant pigmented plaster visible for many of the rooms, a couple stand out breathtakingly.

Long House


We reached the end of the paved portion of the trail, but continued counter-clockwise on the loop as it became a footpath

We dropped down from the edge of the north wall of the canyon and crossed Frijoles Creek. Here in the shade of a November afternoon it was much cooler, and Sean put his jacket back on.

Ponderosa Pine

Abert’s Squirrel

We spotted a large and wonderful Abert’s Squirrel sitting in a Ponderosa Pine happily having a snack. After my obsession with seeing a Kaibab Squirrel when we were at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, it was fun to see that species’ much more widespread cousin.

Red-Tailed Hawk

We saw lots of folks on the trail, including families, senior citizens, a range of races and ethnicities, and even some other gays.

Our walk over, we wandered about in the Visitor Center checking out the exhibitions. And also spent too much money in the bookstore. (Kidding. That’s not actually possible.)

Image: Sean M. Santos

Model of Tyuonyi

It was getting on toward 3:30 and we wanted to go up and have a look at Valles Caldera National Preserve before it got dark, so we drove out and up from Frijoles Canyon.

Los Alamos National Laboratory

Right where the road out of the canyon tops out onto the plateau, Bandelier National Monument touches the sprawling property of Los Alamos National Laboratory.

We stopped briefly at an overlook above Frijoles Canyon to have a look.

Frijoles Canyon

In the distance the volcano’s caldera dominated the horizon. It was our next destination.

Frijoles Canyon

A couple hours was an absurdly short time to spend at Bandelier National Monument. It is high on my list to return to. Happily, it is so close to Santa Fe that hopefully we’ll return fairly often.

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  1. Pingback: Chaco Culture National Historical Park: Pueblo Bonito | As They Are: Exploring the National Parks

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