Main Loop Trail Hiking Trail
Tackle Bandelier National Monument’s most popular trail
- Destination: Bandelier National Monument
- Season: January-December
- Difficulty: Medium
- Distance: 2.2 kilometers (loop)
- Elevation Gain: 120 meters
- Duration: 1-2 hours
About Main Loop Trail
The Main Loop Trail is one of Bandelier National Monument’s most popular hikes. In a relatively short distance—just over a mile—you can see the ruins and recreations of five different types of homes and buildings that once made this area a thriving village.
The hike winds through Frijoles [free-HOH-lace] Canyon, which was formed by volcanic ash—tuff—from a Valles Caldera eruption over a million years ago. Tuff is easy to carve, and the Ancestral Pueblo people who lived here used tools to enlarge small bubbles in the rock, carving out homes called cavates over time. Little is known about their predecessors except that evidence of human activity in the canyon dates back at least 10,000 years.
In every direction you look, there’s history as well as beauty. The trail passes by the ruins of a kiva, a ceremonial gathering place built underground, an old village that was once 400 stone rooms built in a circle at least two stories tall, and several cavates. You can climb wooden ladders to explore some of the cavates in the canyon, if you wish.
The views of Frijoles Canyon from inside the cavates is unmatched. The canyon walls are steep, flat rock faces in many places, and you can get a sense for what life may have once been like here as you climb wooden ladders to crawl inside them. You can imagine climbing down to the canyon floor for water from Frijoles Creek or to hunt or gather food. You can imagine climbing back up with precious resources and making a home out of these hand-carved caves. From inside the cavates, especially those higher up on the canyon walls, you can stare straight across the canyon, into the woods, where you can spy on wildlife. If you look to the left and to the right, you can see jagged, rust-colored rock formations jutting out from the walls.
About halfway around the loop, you can turn onto the Alcove House Trail. In half a mile (.8 km), you’ll climb quite a few stone steps and four wooden ladders, and it’s well worth the effort. Much of the path is worn into the tuff knee- and thigh-high in places, and these parts of the path are so narrow it’s nearly impossible to pass oncoming hikers. From Alcove House, 140 feet (43 meters) up from the trail, you can see a reconstructed kiva and stare out beyond the curves of Frijoles Canyon.
There are many places in the American Southwest where you can find ancient ruins from Native American societies. Few, however, are as developed, protected, accessible, and uncrowded as Bandelier National Monument. Mesa Verde National Park, in southwestern Colorado, had more than half a million visitors in 2018. Bandelier had fewer than 200,000. Many of the most popular hikes at Mesa Verde are accessible only if you go with a guided ranger tour, for which you need to reserve tickets ahead of time in the Visitor Center. Bandelier has fewer restrictions and feels like a more genuine exploratory experience rather than a tourist hot spot. The visitor center has a small museum where you can learn more about the Ancestral Pueblo people who lived in Frijoles Canyon and beyond and rangers there are eager to answer questions.
The Main Loop Trail is a great way to start your introduction to Bandelier even if you also plan to hike other parts of the monument. The 21 numbered spots along the trail correspond to descriptions in a trail guide you can purchase in the Visitor Center for $2. Each one explains a bit about ruins, petroglyphs, geology and wildlife in the park, or what the Ancestral Pueblo people’s culture was like.
If you’re looking for a trail that will pique your curiosity, offer stunning views for relatively little effort, and show you quite a few ancient ruins, the Main Loop is exactly what you’re looking for.
The Main Loop Trail is easily accessed from behind the park Visitor Center.
See our Ultimage Guide to Exploring Bandelier National Moment for more information on getting to Bandelier.
The Main Loop Trail starts from the back of the Visitor Center. Stop there before your hike to pick up a free park map and a $2 guide booklet that explains the sites along the trail and the people who built them. Stop by again afterward to visit the museum and ask rangers any questions you may have thought of during your walk.
The first few stops along the self-guided tour share details about the history of the Ancestral Pueblo people, who settled in the canyon and built homes here. You’ll see the ruins of the underground kiva, built with rocks reinforcing the dirt walls, at the fourth stop. Once, it had a hard plaster roof strong enough to hold people. The entrance would have been through the roof.
At the sixth stop, you will see Tyuoni [QU-weh-nee] village. Only the base of the ground floor walls exists now, but this was once a village of 100 people and 400 rooms serving as homes and food storage. Three kivas were at the center of the village.
Look up at the steep canyon walls to see the cliff dwellings. Several of them have wooden ladders fixed to the rock so you can climb inside them, but you don’t have to enter any if you’d prefer to keep both feet on the ground. You can hike the whole trail without climbing any ladders.
At stop 9, the trail forks. Going to the right will take you up stairs and to a narrow pathway that winds along the canyon walls past several cavates you can climb inside. Staying to the left will bypass this part of the trail—the most difficult part of the trail—and take you on a shortcut to Long House, further up the trail, where Ancestral Puebloans built multi-story homes along the walls of the cliff. Between stops 9 and 17 (to Long House) on the shortcut, you can find an additional shortcut back to the trailhead. Turning left here will bring you to a short nature trail that loops back to the Visitor Center.
If you do crawl inside the cavates, look up at the ceiling and you’ll notice that it’s blackened by smoke. It has an architectural purpose—smoke strengthened the tuff to keep it from crumbling, so the Ancestral Pueblo people burnt fires in their homes for this purpose. They also used to plaster the walls. Take care not to leave any marks in the cavates. Even scratching your initials into the rock is graffiti, and it’s against park rules.
The best viewpoint of the trail is just past a stone house that was reconstructed in 1920. From this vantage point, you can see much of the canyon, including Frijoles Creek and the two waterfalls it drops down. Past the viewpoint, you’ll be able to climb a short ladder to see into Cave Kiva. The park believes this cave once served as a place where men did ceremonial weaving. Vandalism has been an issue here, so please do your part to refrain from damaging the walls. Park employees frequently have to remove graffiti from Cave Kiva.
Just past Cave Kiva, you’ll come across a stone staircase leading to the Frey Trail, which is a steep 1.5-mile (2.4 km) hike leading from Juniper Campground to the Visitor Center. Before the road into the park was paved, the Frey Trail was the main way into the canyon.
The final marked stops on the trail are petroglyphs (designs carved into the rock) and a pictograph found underneath a plaster layer on a wall. Continue walking to find the Alcove House Trail and circle back to the Visitor Center by a trail through the woods. You’ll have to cross two log bridges over Frijoles Creek to get back without retracing your steps.
Alcove House Detour
About halfway through the Main Loop Trail, you’ll reach a fork. One way continues back toward the Visitor Center; the other is the Alcove House Trail. It’s a 1-mile (1.6 km) out-and-back trail leading to the Alcove House, an overhang that once housed about 25 people. You’ll find a reconstructed kiva, a ceremonial gathering place, here, along with the ruins of former homes.
To get to the Alcove House, you must hike about half a mile (.8 km) and then climb four wooden ladders and some stone steps, totaling about 140 feet (43 meters). The park advises against hiking this trail if you are afraid of heights. The trail is extremely narrow once you climb the first ladder, and it’s set deep into the tuff. It’s so narrow in places that you can’t put both feet on the ground next to each other because there isn’t enough room in the trail depression, which is knee- or thigh-deep. But once you reach the top, you can see the curve of Frijoles Canyon and much of the park and what lies beyond it.
Even though Alcove House is a short trail, allow an additional hour to hike it if you choose to take the detour. Because the trail is so narrow, you will often have to wait for others to climb down the ladders and pass you before you can climb up, and vice-versa. When the park is busy, this can take quite some time.
To avoid the crowds, try to get to the park before the Visitor Center officially opens. The Main Loop Trail and the rest of the portion of the park in Frijoles Canyon is open from dawn to dusk; the Visitor Center opens at 9 a.m. Before the park is “open,” you can find trail maps in a box outside the Visitor Center.
Dogs are not allowed on this trail, or on any trails in Bandelier National Monument. Dogs are only allowed in your car and at Juniper Campground. If you’re traveling with a dog and want to hike, Santa Fe has a number of kennels with good reviews.
You must climb narrow wooden ladders in order to reach the cavates along the trail. Entering the cavates is optional; you may complete the trail without climbing any ladders. This trail is not fully accessible to wheelchairs and strollers, however, as there are some stone steps along the way.
Wear hiking shoes, hiking sandals that are secured to your heel, or boots. You don’t want to lose your shoes while climbing a ladder or crossing a log bridge.
Water is scarce along the trails at Bandelier. Bring more than you think you need, and a water filter or treatment tablets if you’re going more than a couple of miles.
You can buy a trail guide explaining the dwellings and ruins at the Visitor Center for $2. It explains each of the 21 numbered stops along the trail.
Although many national parks and monuments in the U.S. are open 24/7, most of the trails and sites within Bandelier of archaeological interest are closed during dark.
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