Bandelier National Monument

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Stretch on the main loop trail at Bandelier National Monument.

Post PCT Blues

We have spent the last three months recovering from our 1,400-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail.  I say recover, but really we are languishing away.  We are getting antsy for adventure.  It is difficult to come home after being emersed in travel for six months.  You find yourself changed.  Everything is how you left it, more or less, but things are different somehow.  You find yourself daydreaming of mountains and waterfalls.  You find yourself longing for sore feet and long days of backpacking.  It was not a perfect life, but it was an amazing one.  We have spent the last three months trying to put those amazing months into words a task in which we find ourselves feeble.

Road Trip

It is time to hit the road again.  It is the end of December 2017.  We have decided to explore places that are winter-friendly, meaning we can car camp without freezing to death.  Driving west from San Marcos, Texas, the temperature is surprisingly cold for our area.  It is near freezing, in fact.  We travel west until the hill country turns to butte country and then flat desert.  Suddenly, just outside of Fort Stockton, the weather turns.  Driving under a blue bowl of clouds, the winter has closed in around us, turning the desert into a frozen, icy delight.  Everything is transformed into a sculpture of immense winter beauty.  The plainest shrub is now a work of art.

Within 20 minutes the winter wonderland is gone.  The highway returns to its normal snowless state, and it is as if the brief winter storm never existed.  Soon the day turns into twilight as we pass through El Paso, Texas, and enter the state of New Mexico under the cover of night.  The moon hovers over the distant mountains' shadow a bright, orange orb slowly climbing to its zenith where it then shrinks and becomes a silver circle cold, lonely, and bright.  The car moves seamlessly through the night, and when we are ready to stop, we find ourselves in Albuquerque at a crap motel situated between a porn shop, a Starbucks, and a truck stop.

A Detour

The morning dawns full of propositions.  We formulate a plan over Starbucks fully-loaded brew.  Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument will be the honored first destination of our 2018 Southwest Road Trip.  The route, according to Google Maps, is clear.  We will take dirt road 266 through the Santa Fe National Forest.  We travel through Jemez Pueblo and turn right onto a bumpy forest road.  Winding through the mountains we climb.  Our parents have loaned us a hearty four-wheel drive vehicle without which we would be unable to proceed along the uneven terrain.

It is miles and miles before we begin to see confusing signs "no exit through Tent Rocks National Monument."  Does this mean we can get to Tent Rocks on this road but just not exit through it to highway 25, or does this mean Tent Rocks cannot be accessed at all from this road?  Google Maps is never wrong, of course.  Our atlas shows a through-road as well.  So we proceed, jostling around in our seats for hours now until we finally reach a sign that is not at all confusing: "Tribal Lands no trespassing.  Violators subject to $5,000 fine."  Well, this is the end of the line.  In defeat, we about face and return down the long, twisting rocky road.

Valles Caldera

We stop for lunch and explore a Department of Agriculture camp long since abandoned to nature.  A log cabin sits in ruins.  In one corner the bathtub rests in one piece filled with detritus.  The ground is littered with glass bottles and tins from used provisions.  Cows graze nearby.  They stop to stare at us.  Their eyes are devoid of intelligence.  A few hours later on the scenic road 4, we find ourselves passing through the Jemez Volcanic Field and the Valles Caldera National Preserve.

The Valles Caldera National Preserve is just outside Santa Fe, New Mexico.  It is a 13-mile wide expanse the result of a volcanic eruption that occurred 1.25 million years ago.  The resulting meadow is a beautiful sight.  It is a wide open space with a serpentine river flowing through its grasslands.  The Valles Caldera offers opportunities to hike, mountain bike, horseback ride, fish, cross-country ski, snowshoe, and view wildlife.  Alas, this is not our stop, and we continue our way along the scenic drive entering the grounds of Bandelier National Monument close to sundown.

Juniper Campground

The temperature is dropping as we set up camp.  Juniper Campground has nice sites with picnic tables and grills.  Heated, clean bathrooms (no showers) are available, and there are utility sinks for washing dishes.  The price is a mere $12 per night and a digital teller is available for credit card payment.  There are sites for RVs up to 40 feet (no electrical hook-ups), and a dump station is provided.  It drops below freezing during the night, and although, we have plenty of blankets and clothing neither of us is able to get warm enough for any real sleep.  In fact, RamboJuice finds frost on his mustache.

Outside the tent door, I find the contents of my pee bottle frozen solid.  The sun is rising.  Pinks and oranges diffuse across the sky.  We jump around while waiting for the water to boil for coffee.  Our borrowed 4-wheel drive vehicle carefully runs along the cliffsides as we descend into the park.  The Rangers welcome and sell us an Annual Pass.

Bandelier National Monument

This pass is $80 and you are allowed entry into any site under the following agencies that charge a fee: the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the USDA Forest Service, the US Army Corp of Engineers, and the Bureau of Reclamation.  It is a good investment if you are planning to visit multiple sites that fall under these.

Soon we are exploring the tidy museum adjacent the foyer.  Various artifacts, including pottery, baskets, and tools, tell the story of the Ancestral Pueblo People that used to live here.  The main attraction at Bandelier is their cliff dwellings, which are carved from the volcanic tuff.  Visitors can crawl into these homes via wooden ladders.  This is unique.  You are able to touch, climb, and sit in a space that Native Americans of this region constructed over 500 years ago.  If you pay close attention, you can even pick out petroglyphs high above the cliff dwellings.

History of Bandelier

Scientists estimate that the Ancestral Pueblo People constructed their cliff homes in the time between 1150 CE to 1550 CE.  However, the Pueblo People have been in this region for much longer inhabiting the four corners of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico.  Descended from hunters and gatherers who lived here 10,000 years ago, the Pueblo People farmed the surrounding mesa tops of Bandelier, growing beans, squash, and corn.  Turkeys were domesticated and used for their feathers and meat.  The Ancestral Pueblo People were skilled craftspeople and worked within a trade network extending hundreds of miles.

Adolph Bandelier, a Swiss-American anthropologist, visited this area in the late 19th century.  He pioneered studies of the indigenous people in this region, exploring over 166 archeological sites.  In 1916, Dr. Edgar Lee Hewett, a southwestern archeologist recognized the significance of and need to preserve these historical sites and labored to establish the monument, naming it after the self-taught Bandelier.

Bandelier National Monument is situated in the Frijoles Canyon on the Pajarito Plateau in the Jemez Mountains.  A million years ago a volcano erupted nearby.  The ash piled high and cooled to form rocks called tuff.  Over time erosion formed holes in this tuff, and the Ancestral Pueblo People used tools to enlarge these into dwellings referred to as cavates.  These cavates were just a portion of the extended settlement that grew to include circular villages containing 40-room structures.

Interestingly, the monument was closed for several years during World War II.  Its buildings were used to house military personnel doing atom-bomb research at the nearby Los Alamos Laboratory.

Hiking Bandelier National Monument

After exploring the museum and learning the history of the area, we set out to explore the cliff dwellings.  The main loop trail is the most expedient way to see these.  It is paved and railing is provided.  There are stairs and a few climbs, but overall, this trail allows visitors to view the dwellings up close without having to work too hard.  A guidebook is available.  However, we like to get up close and personal, so we climb up the many ladders into the holes.  From here you are afforded a view of the circular village of Tyuonyi below.  The dwellings are small, and if you are tall, you will be crawling on hands and knees within.

We spend hours crawling around in the dwellings, taking photos.  It is cold and crisp, and as we gaze upward, Rambo notices several petroglyphs above the dwellings.  We make guesses about what they represent.  One looks like a dog another like a buck.  At one point, there is a portion of the canyon wall covered in plexiglass behind which is a fine example of painted petroglyphs.

Alcove House

Climbing down from the loop, we cross a somewhat frozen Frijoles Creek.  A junction is ahead indicating the turn off for the Alcove House.  We hike along the wide, flat trail through the coniferous woods along the creek.  Nearly a mile from the junction is a series of ladders affixed to the cliffside, leading straight up to a ledge 140 feet above.  This is definitely not a hike for the acrophobic.

At the top, we are rewarded with a close look at a ceremonial house.  It is round with a door centered on top, which is locked.  Please do not climb or touch the house.  It is to be enjoyed with the eyes only.  Bandelier National Monument has over 33,000 acres to explore and over 70 miles of hiking trails.  If you enjoy backcountry hiking, there are many options for you as most of this park is a wilderness area.  You will be rewarded with less-trafficked archeological sites and perhaps wildlife sightings.  The terrain is rugged and steep.  It will be important to plan your water with care.  Permits issued at the visitor center.

Continue to our next adventure.

For great road trip ideas, click here.

Road Trip Tips:

  • Take road 550 north from Albuquerque and then head east on 4 for a scenic drive into Bandelier National Monument.
  • You cannot get to Tent Rocks National Monument via 266.  Take 25 North toward Santa Fe and then make a left and head north on 16.  Follow the signs.  See our Tent Rocks National Monument post here.
  • Take your time exploring the museum and learning about this area.  It makes the archeological sites and wilderness far more interesting.
  • There is no lodging, supply stores, or restaurants in the park.  There are campgrounds available with bathrooms (no showers).
  • Buy an Annual Pass if you plan to visit numerous qualifying agency sites.
  • Despite having prepared with appropriate clothing and bedding, it was really cold camping in January at Bandelier National Monument.

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