Upper Falls Trail Hiking Trail
Tackle one of Bandelier’s most popular trails
- Destination: Bandelier National Monument
- Season: January-December
- Difficulty: Medium
- Distance: 3.9 kilometers (out‑and‑back)
- Elevation Gain: 80 meters
- Duration: 2-3 hours
About Upper Falls Trail
Though many of Bandelier National Monument’s most popular hikes are focused on ruins and history, the Falls Trail is much more about the geology and scenery. This short but steep trail descends from the Visitor Center parking lot to the Upper Falls of El Rito de Los Frijoles (“Little River of Beans”), also called Frijoles [free-HOH-lace] Creek.
The highlight of the trail is the 90-foot waterfall, which cuts through a dramatic and rugged portion of the canyon. Along the way, you’ll find tent rocks formed by volcanic eruptions 1.2 to 1.5 million years ago, evidence of human activity dating back centuries, ponderosa pine trees, many different kinds of rocks and plants, and more.
The trailhead for the Falls Trail is at the end of the backpacker’s parking lot near the main Visitor Center in Frijoles Canyon.
See our Ultimage Guide to Exploring Bandelier National Moment for more information on getting to Bandelier.
The Falls Trail has long been one of Bandelier’s most popular trails, but it has changed significantly in recent years because of wildfire and flash floods. You may not recognize parts of the trail if you last hiked it before the Las Conchas Fire in 2011 burned 75 percent of Frijoles Canyon. The trail previously visited both the Upper and Lower Falls and wound down to the Rio Grande on the canyon floor. Flash floods devastated the canyon after the fire because the earth was so scorched it couldn’t hold water. A ledge connecting the Falls Trail to Lower Falls and the Rio Grande collapsed and cannot be repaired. The trail is permanently closed beyond this point because there’s no longer a safe way to hike down to the river.
The trail begins from the backpacker parking lot near the main visitor center in Frijoles Canyon. As you hike down into the canyon along Frijoles Creek, you’ll see numbered markers. They correspond to a trail guide you can purchase in the Visitor Center for $2, which explains the geology and history of the area.
Early on the trail, you’ll notice the pinkish, porous tuff, soft rock formed by volcanic tuff that erodes easily. Frijoles Creek cuts into it fast, which is why the canyon walls are so steep. The creek is one of few permanent, year-round water sources in the area. In the spring, as snow from the mountains above runs into the creek, it and its falls grow faster and more powerful.
When you reach marker 5 on the trail, look around you to see tent rocks. These tent-shaped rock formations are caused when softer rock erodes away and leaves tougher, more resistant rock behind.
Throughout the trail, you should be able to spot the differences between various layers of rock. The trail guide provides basic information about the geology of the canyon walls, but if you have additional questions you can ask for help at the Visitor Center. The bookstore there also sells books about the geology of the area, which are helpful in identifying additional places to visit after your trip to Bandelier if you’re really interested in geology.
The deeper you get into the canyon, the better you’ll be able to hear Frijoles Creek. The environment changes as you get closer to it. Up top, it looks and feels like a desert canyon. Once you get down to the creek, it feels more like a shady oasis of greenery along the creek, which covers the trail in a canopy. You’ll have to cross the creek twice on short bridges to reach the Upper Falls. There’s a 700-foot (213-meter) change in elevation between the canyon floor and the Visitor Center, which is significant enough that the seasons change about two weeks apart. The park says fall colors start to turn two weeks later on the canyon floor than they do above, and spring comes two weeks earlier.
Watch out for poison ivy and stinging nettle here, which will give you itchy rashes if you allow their leaves to touch your skin. The trail guide has illustrations of these plants to help you identify which to steer clear of.
Wildlife in the park visit the creek often to drink and graze, so keep your eyes open to try to spot them. You’re most likely to see mule deer and Abert’s squirrels, with tall, tufted ears. They feed on pinecones from Ponderosa trees (the bark of Ponderosa pines smells like butterscotch, which is a fun fact to point out to kids and fellow adult hikers alike). Bears, coyotes, mountain lions and elk also live in the canyon, but hikers rarely see them. If you do spot them, let a ranger know; they like to hear and keep track of what’s been spotted where.
When you get to Upper Falls, the trail curves around so you can view it straight-on. This curve in the trail is the mouth of an ancient maar volcano. Maar volcanoes spew lava through water, and you can see the effects of previous eruptions in the shapes of the rock formations.
The trail dead-ends at the viewpoint for Upper Falls and you must turn around here and retrace your steps to get back to the parking lot. On sunny summer days, the steep return trip can be uncomfortably hot, so allow more time to hike up than it takes you to hike down.
With the exception of service dogs protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act, 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 and Los Alamos have a number of kennels with good reviews.
Be careful not to kick rocks over the edge of the canyon. This is dangerous for people who may be hiking below.
Wear hiking shoes, hiking sandals that are secured to your heel, or boots.
Water is available at the visitor center, where there are bathrooms, a picnic area and a cafe.
You can buy a trail guide explaining the trail and its plant life the Visitor Center for $2.
You may see artifacts or evidence of humans from long ago while hiking this trail. Taking or moving anything, even what might seem to you to be just a small piece of broken pottery, is stealing and against the law. Everything within the monument is protected, including the animals and plants.
You may find poison ivy or stinging nettle along the creek. Avoid it and wear long pants and sleeves to protect your skin against accidentally brushing up against it. It’s not a bad idea to have poison ivy wash on hand or in your car just in case you do touch it by mistake. These washes can remove the itchy oils from your skin before they cause a painful rash.
Don’t hike this trail in thunderstorms or icy conditions. There are steep drop-offs along the trail that become dangerous in bad weather.
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