Tsankawi Trail Hiking Trail
Tackle one of Bandelier’s most popular trails
- Destination: Bandelier National Monument
- Season: January-December
- Difficulty: Medium
- Distance: 2.7 kilometers (loop)
- Elevation Gain: 110 meters
- Duration: 1.5-2.5 hours
About Tsankawi Trail
The Tsankawi [sank-ah-WEE] Trail offers visitors the chance to climb to the ruins of an ancient village the way Ancestral Tewa Pueblo people did hundreds of years ago. As you climb onto the top of the mesa to hike toward the village of Tsankawi, the sounds of the highway below quickly begin to fade and it becomes easier to imagine what life may have been like here when the village was at its height. Modern-day descendants of the Ancestral Tewa Pueblo people live in San Ildefonso Pueblo, just a few minutes’ drive to the east.
From the mesa top, you can see mountains in every direction: the volcanic Jemez Mountains, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains (Spanish for “Blood of Christ”), which extend north into Colorado, and the Sandia Mountains near Albuquerque. The Rio Grande Valley is below you.
Unlike the homes and structures you see on the Main Loop Trail in Frijoles Canyon at Bandelier, Tsankawi has not had much excavation. You will see the village as time and nature have altered it over the past 600 years, and it takes some imagination to recreate the town in your mind. But this is part of the magic of this trail. As you hike into what was once the center of the village, you can see the ruins of 275 ground-floor rooms in buildings once up to two stories high. At first, you may not notice much. But look closer and you can see the cornerstones of these buildings poking out through the bushes and grasses that have grown over them. If you crouch down on the ground and look closely by your feet, you’re bound to see sherds of pottery and maybe even bits of obsidian once used as arrowheads that have survived the elements for hundreds of years.
As you hike down from Tsankawi, you will walk through extremely narrow areas that have been carved over time by footsteps. The same volcanic tuff that lent itself so well to forming cliff dwellings in Frijoles Canyon was carved into homes here, too. Hundreds, if not thousands, of years of people walking between homes and climbing up and down from the mesa top have worn deep paths in this soft rock that’s knee-deep (and deeper) in some places. It’s important to continue to hike through these areas even though they are narrow. Shoes of today are harsher on the rock than the footwear of generations past, and walking off-trail can cause new impressions that lead to damage and erosion. In the 1990s, some parts of this trail were so badly broken in that they were waist-deep. The park filled in these areas in an attempt to repair them.
As you walk along the mesa top, you can see the effects of centuries of footprints if you look closely. It’s pock-marked with narrow foot paths.
The park suggests two hours for this trail, but when it’s not crowded you can complete it much faster unless you take lots of time to linger, crawl up and into the cavates, and contemplate history. If you’re looking for a different kind of hike, through carved rock pathways and ancient homes, this is a great trail.
The Tsankawi Trail is located a few miles outside the main entrance to Bandelier National Monument, along Highway 4 just east of the city of White Rock and the pickup location for the shuttle during summer months.
While Tsankawi is a well-trafficked trail, it’s not as popular or crowded as those within Frijoles Canyon and you are not likely to have trouble finding a parking space at the trailhead. During summer months when visitors are required to take a shuttle into Frijoles Canyon, you can still drive right to Tsankawi.
See our Ultimage Guide to Exploring Bandelier National Moment for more information on getting to Bandelier.
The Tsankawi Trail is a lollipop loop: you must hike a short distance to get to the loop, then retrace some of your steps before returning to the trailhead. Although it’s a fairly easy trail suitable for beginners and children who willing to climb ladders and aren’t scared of heights, it can be easy at times to lose track of the traill. Centuries of erosion caused by walking along the soft tuff mesa top has worn many paths into the rock, and it’s not always easy to keep your eye on the right one. The trail guide you can get at the picnic area by the parking lot and in the park’s Visitor Center for $1 is helpful to staying on track. It reminds you to look for the numbered markers denoting points of interest along the trail, and it also provides clear instructions for which way to turn when you seem to be at a fork in the trail (there are no trails that stem from this one).
The First Ladder
A couple of hundred meters or so into the hike, you’ll have to climb up a short wooden ladder to continue forward. It’s not optional; there’s no other way to reach the trail. From here, you’ll hike along the mesa until you reach the edge of the loop.
Stay to the Left of the Fork
Where the loop begins, the trail forks. Stay to the left. You would still be on the trail if you turned to the right, but you would likely have difficulty moving forward if there are other hikers on the trail. That portion of the loop winds through extremely narrow trenches worn into the tuff, and you won’t be able to pass other hikers coming from the opposite direction.
A little further on, at marker No. 6 if you’re following the guide, you can choose between climbing a ladder or a short, steep, narrow set of stone steps carved into the rock. Both take you to the same place; you can choose whichever feels more comfortable. Take a close look at the rock to your left before continuing upward. Petroglyphs, or carved drawings, adorn the rock.
When you reach the top of the mesa, continue straight (east). You’ll find panoramic views of mountains in every direction as you hike toward Tsankawi. Stick to the trail to protect the mesa top from erosion. If in doubt, look for the most worn path heading east and follow it until you see the next numbered marker.
The Village of Tsankawi
Soon, you’ll come to a sign marking the entrance to the Pueblo of Tsankawi. Walk slowly and look all around you to see if you can spot the remains of the village. Four-wing saltbush, snakeweed, and other plants grow up through the former floors of the rooms. The area has not been excavated, as the people of San Ildefonso Pueblo prefer their ancestors’ village to stay the way it is. Respect their wishes and protect the area by sticking to the trail and not attempting to get closer to the ruins. The trail goes right through what would have once been the center of the town, which was built in a circular shape. You’re likely to come across small piles of broken pottery and other artifacts; leave them be. While it may seem helpful to pick up things you find and bring them to a ranger or put them in a place where they can be seen more easily, it destroys the integrity of the site and the finding to move these items.
The Descent and Return Trip from Tsankawi
Past Tsankawi, you’ll veer to the left to descend a narrow wooden ladder to hike back toward the trailhead along tuff outcroppings on the mesa. Once you climb down from the ladder, face away from it and turn to your right to keep hiking. The left leads to a dead-end.
As you hike, you’ll notice cavates along the trail to your right, which you’re allowed to enter. Several are quite large, and have windows in the rock that let in a lot of light so you can see the cavates well. Don’t veer from the trail to attempt to explore other cavates; you’re only permitted to enter the ones immediately next to the trail.
Past the cavates, you’ll find countless petroglyphs carved into the rock walls. You may also notice steep, narrow rock steps once used by residents to reach and descend from the mesa top.
Beyond the largest groupings of petroglyphs, the trail grows narrower and deeper. Watch your footing and use the sides of the trail to steady yourself as needed. There are steep dropoffs to the left where the trail is exposed.
You’ll know you’re almost back to the trailhead when you hike past the second ladder (or staircase) you climbed early on. From there, retrace your steps to get back to the car.
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.
You must climb a narrow wooden ladder very early on in the hike in order to reach the trail, and you must later descend the same ladder to get back to the trailhead. There are a total of three ladders you must climb or descend along this trail. It’s not accessible to wheelchairs or strollers.
Wear hiking shoes, hiking sandals that are secured to your heel, or boots.
Water is available at the trailhead, where there are bathrooms, a picnic area and a pay station for entrance fees, which are $25 per car, $20 per motorcycle carrying up to two people, and $15 per bicycle. The machine takes credit cards only.
You can buy a trail guide explaining the dwellings and ruins at the Visitor Center or at the trailhead (cash only) for $1. 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.
You will see many artifacts while hiking this trail. Taking 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.
Rattlesnakes live in this area. To avoid them, take a peek into cavates before climbing into them and don’t leave the trail. If you do happen to startle one and it bites you, get away from it as quickly as possible to avoid being struck again, then keep the bite area below your heart. Call for help immediately (there is decent cell service along most of the Tsankawi Trail) and remain as still as possible to prevent the venom from spreading. Find more tips here.
Don’t hike this trail in thunderstorms or icy conditions. Because the mesa top is flat and open, it leaves you susceptible to lightning strikes. The rock can become slippery in rain, snow, and ice, which is especially dangerous given the steep dropoffs from the edges of the mesa top.
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