Thursday, July 12, 2012

Bandelier National Monument

Hey everyone, I am turning over the reigns of my blog today for a special guest post by one of my best buds, Eric Jones (and he is an archaeological so yes, he is Dr. Jones). As soon as I saw the pictures of Eric's trip to Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico, I begged him to give me a write up which he has done in spades below! Also helping out Eric (and he needs the help) is his lovely wife Sharon DeWitte. I am so grateful for their insights and great writing. Enjoy!

The Basics
Bandelier is one of cool outdoor double threats: great hiking and impressive archaeological remains. The main archaeological sites are very accessible to all as there is a paved/well-groomed trail that runs through the main canyon that is flat and easily done in a couple of hours. There are hardcore backcountry/wilderness trails above the canyon accessible from the canyon and some nice, moderate distance and difficulty hikes to overlooks of the canyon and sites contained within. I’d be remiss if I didn’t single out one of the coolest sights, Alcove House, which is an archaeological site 140 feet up the canyon wall. The only negative at this point is that access to the park is restricted because of the recent fires and flooding. In order to get to the visitor center, you need to take a shuttle from the nearby village of White Rock and the shuttles don’t start until 9am and end at 6pm—not much time for the serious hiker to get in a nice, long dayhike on backcountry trails. However, there are other ways to access the park from the other side of the canyon, but it pretty much means you’ll miss most of the very impressive archaeological sites, unless you’re looking to hike in about 11 miles, camp, and then hike back out.

Our Bandelier Story
My wife and I are both anthropologists and college professors, so the archaeology attraction at many parks in the Southwest is pretty big for us. Consider this a warning about all of the archaeology discussion and pictures that are about to follow. If you’re like my students, half of you perked up at the word archaeology and the other half already started texting and thinking about why someone would choose archaeology as a profession over, say, being an accountant or a doctor (i.e. real professions that allow you buy a nice car). My wife also grew up in White Rock, New Mexico so she has great memories of riding on her dad’s motorcycle to Bandelier as a kid. It’s a special place for her, and it didn’t take long for it to become one for me.

We caught the second shuttle to the park and immediately realized that we were not the typical clientele. Most of our fellow shuttlers had on flip-flops or jeans and carried little else with them. Meanwhile, we each had a daypack with 3 liters of water, 4 energy bars apiece, wide-brimmed hats, and some extra clothes just in case of variable weather. Hell, I even bought a new knife for this trip. I guess if they had forgotten to cut my sandwich in half at the snack bar, I would have been all set. In other words, we felt like over-prepared dorks. We got to the visitor center around 10am. We immediately abandoned any hope of backcountry hiking seeing as we only had 8 hours. After impatiently listening to the park ranger and taking some awesome squirrel photos, we headed off to Alcove House, hoping that it would be relatively empty this close to the park opening.

The main focus of Bandelier is Frijoles Canyon, which contains the majority of the excavated archaeological sites. The hike to Alcove House is flat, shady, and little over half a mile along the beautiful stream that runs through the bottom of the canyon.  

You immediately get glimpses of the cliff dwellings and gorgeous canyon walls. 

In order to see Alcove House, you have to climb a set of four ladders and shimmy along some very narrow cuts in the rock face. 

We both started to feel the elevation a bit here, the canyon floor is around 7000 feet, but recovered quickly once we reached the top. Alcove House has a reconstructed kiva, an Ancestral Pueblo religious and community structure

and great views of the canyon. 

Hikers are free to explore the kiva and the alcoves within the walls. 

After spending about half an hour there, we headed back down to the main loop to see Long House, which is one of the most popular and accessible archaeological attractions in the park. Long house is a great example of an Ancestral Pueblo cliff dwelling. Only foundations from the houses remain, but you can still clearly see where the beams were sunk into the cliff face to create multiple story buildings. Bandelier was occupied from about AD 1250-1600, likely by migrants from places like Mesa Verde after the severe droughts of the late 1200s. Long House stretches along the cliff face for several hundred yards, visible by mortar and stone foundations, pictographs, and beam holds and alcoves carved into the cliff face.

After Long House, we veered off the main loop and onto the Frey Trail, which is a 1.5-mile path up the canyon wall to an overlook of the valley. It eventually connects to a parking area and campground, where we ate lunch. The hike is moderate to difficult at the beginning, but once you’re out of the canyon, it’s an easy hike. The overlooks provide some very nice views of the canyon and Tyuonyi, one of the other Ancestral Pueblo settlements in the valley.

We finished the main loop after coming back down the Frey Trail and took advantage of the opportunities to climb into a couple of the alcoves that used to be part of the cliff dwellings. There’s more great pictographs inside these alcoves. After a quick visit to Tyuonyi and the great kiva nearby, we headed up the opposite canyon wall to visit the unexcavated site of Frijolito. This was a 1.8-mile round trip that gains over 500 feet of elevation in the first half mile. Not a bad workout for your quads.

Being unexcavated, Frijolito is not as immediately rewarding as the sites in the canyon, but it is no less impressive. After walking around a bit, you are able to get a sense of the site and the fact that it was really not that –lito… it’s a big site. The ground is covered with artifacts, remains from stone tool production and pottery sherds, which makes it a very cool place to visit. I would be a bad archaeologist if I didn’t add here for anyone reading this that disturbing archaeological sites, regardless of how small the artifact is extremely detrimental to archaeological research. Context, which is the location of an artifact and everything found around it, is vitally important to archaeology. Without it, archaeological remains can tell us almost nothing about the past. So, unexcavated sites like Frijolito are really awesome to visit, but please do not disturb any of the remains. Doing so ruins any chance of archaeologists being able to learn anything about the people that lived there in the past… also, it’s a federal crime and you could easily get jail time and a five-figure fine if caught with artifacts or damaging any part of the site. I’ll step away from the lectern now and finish this up. We hiked back down from Frijolito, got some souvenirs at the nice gift shop (I’m a sucker for patches and fridge magnets), caught the shuttle back to White Rock, went to the White Rock Overlook where the opening scene to Silverado was filmed (one of my favorite movies), and drove back to Santa Fe. We’re already planning a trip back to hike the backcountry trails and visit a few more of the unexcavated pueblos.

Thanks Eric and Sharon, what a great trip report! One of the great things about moving out to Los Angeles is that it puts me in close proximity to all of these great hikes in the West. Now after reading this trip report, I am definitely thinking about putting some boots down in New Mexico! 

If you are interested in the trails of Bandelier NM you can check it out here:


  1. One thing I forgot: we did not feel like over-prepared dorks by the end. The sun was intense, so the hats were a godsend, and we both went through 3 liters of water. Even during what is the wet season here, it's real dry. So bring lots of water.

  2. You can't over-prepare in the Southwest, especially when it comes to water and sun protection. You know who are the dorks? The people who didn't have that stuff, you were the cool kids.

  3. Surprised and regretful that you didn't visit Tsankawi while you were in the area - no doubt your wife is very familiar with that separate section of Bandelier, since it is just outside of White Rock. No shuttle required for access, so you can go earlier or stay later (or both)and you would have loved it. Next time, be sure to go there!


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