Los Alamos, NM

Crowds at Ancient Bandelier National Monument Low, but Increasing

Rene Cizio

Bandelier National Monument is open for business all except the visitor's center and people are starting to flock to it.

Imagine if you could go back in time and see the way that ancient people lived. Pretend you could even go into their homes, see where they planted their food, learn about how they survived. You can, at Bandelier National Monument.

I recently spent a day hiking around the park, climbing ladders, and exploring these ancient homes. All of it was amazing and some parts were easier to get to than others. Regardless, it is a one-of-a-kind experience that everyone interested in hiking and history should try.

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Bandelier National Monument

Bandelier National Monument near Los Alamos, New Mexico, has some of the most curious ancient cliff dwellings in the Southwest. There are also petroglyphs and pictographs, steep and narrow canyon trails and elevations up to 10,200 feet from the Rio Grande Valley.

At  33,677-acres, Bandelier National Monument is a showcase to has one of the most extensive Ancestral Puebloans populations of the Southwest.

While the park is massive, most dwellings are concentrated at the bottom of a 400-foot deep, sheer-walled gorge called Frijoles Canyon. There, they have built a visitor center, café and gift shop too.

For $2, you can buy a map with information about the Pueblo people and markers that tell you about the different sites you’ll see.

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Canyon Features

It’s the unique formation of the canyon that made the dramatic cliff dwellings possible.

Frijoles Canyon was created by erosion from a creek that wore down massive volcanic rock deposits, called tuff. Tuff is a soft volcanic rock filled with big natural air pockets. The air pockets can be up to 20-feet in diameter, so the ancient Anasazi people carved them out and turned them into homes called cavates.

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Now, if you hike through the canyon, you still see dozens of cavates and be able to climb up ladders to enter them. There is also still evidence of the additional structures they build outside of the cavates to extend the homes with the cliff as the building's back wall.

Ancient Housing

Holes in the cliffs indicate where they used the local Ponderosa pine tree trunks as beams to support the roof for added structures attached to the canyon walls. Around the parameter of the home, there are more traditional underground Anasazi kivas, entered from holes in the roof, and areas where they would have planted their crops in the mesa top fields.

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Hiking Trails

There is a 2.5-mile Main (Pueblo) Loop Trail, and branching off that the elevated Frey Trail is another optional 1.5 out and back trail to the top of the cliff as well. The views from the top and on the way up are spectacular, and the thigh workout is excellent.

After that, If you still haven’t had enough, you have the option to head to the most exciting cliff dwelling – Alcove House. The Alcove House trail is another .5 mile further (and .5 back). Halfway through the Main Loop Trail, visitors can turn back toward the visitor center or continue toward Alcove House. It looked like only about 15% of people continued.

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Alcove House

You must hike through sandy trails and across plank boards crossing back and forth over the narrow creek to get to Alcove House. The smell of the ancient forest pines, the sandy earth and the nearby stream away from the bustle of the main loop are worth it alone. After a few minutes, if you look up amid the tall pines, you’ll see, up high on the cliff face, Alcove House.

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Alcove House sits 170 feet high on the cliff, and you can only access it by a series of five long wooden Pueblo-style ladders up the side of the cliff. After climbing the first ladder, you must walk through a narrow passage wide enough for only one leg at a time to get to the next ladder. This process repeats until you are high atop the cliff.

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In Alcove house, you will find the largest cavate, complete with a brick kiva and a few small rooms off on the side. I couldn’t help but wonder who would live in such a place. It couldn’t have been comfortable. Not to get to it or to sleep in it, but they did. Researchers believe the choice to live in the high cavates or on the canyon floor may have been based on family, clan custom, or preference. We don’t know.

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For a few minutes, I was the lone person in Alcove House, and I debated these things and wondered about the people who lived there.

Leaving Alcove House is a bit more daunting than arriving as you must take all of the ladders backward while trying not to look down. Once upon a time, my fear of falling would have prevented me from trying this climb. Many people opted to stay at the bottom and forgo the climb. It is not for the faint of heart. But they went without experiencing a unique moment of ancestral life. There's also the view from the top of the tall pines you'll get nowhere else.

Lost People

While there isn’t a lot known about how or why they lived as they did, there is evidence about why they left.

After over 400 years, the land could no longer support the people and a severe drought ended their ability to survive. Descendants of these people still live in the surrounding areas.

Fun fact: The park's name comes from Swiss-American historian and ethnologist Adolph Bandelier. He explored the ruins extensively in the 1880s and fought for national funding.

Find Bandolier National Monument 10 miles south of Los Alamos at 15 Entrance Rd, Los Alamos, NM 87544.

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