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Bandelier National Monument is where natural and human history meet in a beautiful way. As you stare up at the tall canyon walls with rock formations caused by an ancient volcanic eruption, you’ll see countless former homes and petroglyphs hand-carved into the soft tuff rock by the Ancestral Pueblo people.
Frijoles [free-HOH-lace] Canyon, where you enter Bandelier, changes as you hike deeper into it. Closer to the main visitor center, you’ll see lots of evidence of human inhabitants. Further on, the landscape grows more rugged and the rock formations more dramatic. Flash floods a few years ago changed the canyon floor so much that the monument’s rangers say people who’ve hiked it previously may feel now like they’ve never been there before.
Most of the main attractions of the park are in Frijoles Canyon. The canyon walls feature cliff dwellings; the canyon floor is filled with other ancient structures and evidence of farming. Outside the canyon, you’ll find evidence of separate communities.
On the Tsankawi [sank-ah-WEE] Village Trail, for example, you can hike to the ruins of the Ancestral Pueblo village of Tsankawi. It’s a few miles from the main entrance of the park and is a much less-trafficked area than the Main Loop Trail, the park’s most popular. To this day, it’s nearly impossible to walk without stepping on pottery sherds along parts of the Tsankawi Trail.
The Pajarito [pa-ha-REE-toe] Plateau, where Bandelier and Frijoles Canyon are located, is rich in cultural and human history. The National Park Service says there are likely more than 9,000 archaeological sites within the Plateau’s 250 million acres. Much of the wilderness in the southwestern United States is full of ancient Native American ruins, but there are few places as accessible as Bandelier.
You can climb into cliff dwellings without a guide, see reconstructed homes, ask questions, and not have to battle crowds. At Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado, visiting the dwellings means you’re waiting in line behind a dozen other people and passing others on guided tours to climb ladders, peek into windows, and stare from the best viewpoints.
Bandelier is in a dry, high-altitude area, spanning from about 5,000 of elevation at the Rio Grande to 10,200 feet at the summit of Cerro Grande, the park’s highest point. It’s easy to get dehydrated in these conditions, so you need to bring more water with you than you think you’d need, especially on warm days.
If you live at or near sea level, it’s important to drink more water than you usually do even when you’re not hiking to avoid getting altitude sickness. It takes time for your body to get used to the level of oxygen here, and it’s very common to get headaches or feel lightheaded or very tired. Severe altitude sickness can involve vomiting and dizziness.
Especially if you’re flying to New Mexico from a low-altitude area, don’t do any strenuous hikes or runs on your first day or two at altitude. Chances are you won’t notice the difference right away, as changes in altitude usually affect your body in more subtle ways. If you were to jog up a flight of stairs, however, you’d likely notice yourself getting winded far faster than you normally would at home.
Weather can be unpredictable at Bandelier year-round. During the rainy season of July through September, it’s important to keep one eye on the forecast and the other at the sky.
In 2011, a wildfire burned much of Frijoles Canyon. The scarred earth no longer holds water the way it used to, so flash flooding has become a serious danger. Thunderstorms are common in the afternoons, so it’s best to hike in the morning. If it rains, even if the rains aren’t heavy, flash floods could rip through the park’s canyons.
If you’re hiking in a canyon and think it may rain, get out as soon as you can. Don’t attempt to run from flash floods, though—the best thing you can do in the event of a flood is get to higher ground. The park distributes information with guidelines on what to do if you’re trapped because of flooding.
In spite of the flood risks, water is scarce at Bandelier. Beyond the main Visitor Center in Frijoles Canyon and campgrounds, there are only a few reliable water sources along trails. Bring a water filter with you if you’re hiking the backcountry and never drink any water you collect without first filtering or boiling it. The park advises against using the Rio Grande as a water source because it contains pesticides, and most backcountry filters can’t remove them.
Black bears, mountain lions, rattlesnakes, and bobcats are the most dangerous animals at Bandelier. They’re rare to see and you likely won’t come across any, but it’s important to be aware of the risk. Black bears are often much more afraid of you than you are of them and it’s rare for them to attack people. Having a can of bear spray with you may give you peace of mind if you’re not used to seeing bears out on the trail, but it’s not required.
Talking with your hiking partners, wearing a bell, or singing while you hike alerts wildlife that you’re coming and is usually sufficient for scaring them away before you even see them. If a bear does cross your path, don’t run—shout at it (Backpacker Magazine has a funny list of things you can say other than “Hey bear!”) and back away slowly, then wait for it to pass before continuing on the trail. Never get between a bear and its cubs, and never approach wildlife of any kind.
If you’re camping in the campground, keep all of your food and anything else that smells (soap, shampoo, etc.) in the bear lockers provided on site. Don’t leave your cooler outside unattended; it’s better off in your car or in the locker. If you’re backpacking, bring a sack and some rope or paracord to hang your food from a tree branch to keep it away from racoons, mice, squirrels and ringtails, small mammals with long, black- and white-ringed tails. Be sure to hang away from your tent. Bear canisters are not required in Bandelier, but they’re secure ways to ensure your food is impossible for bears to eat.
Los Alamos is the closest city to Bandelier with ample restaurant and lodging options. But Santa Fe, with lively arts and culinary scenes, is the best town to use as a home base for Bandelier. It’s roughly an hour’s drive from the park.
Albuquerque, New Mexico’s biggest city and, usually, cheaper airport, is about a two-hour drive to the south. The most efficient route drives straight through Santa Fe. From late spring to early fall, all visitors—with a few exceptions—must take a shuttle bus to the park.
If you’re driving through the city of Los Alamos, be sure to have a photo ID ready—you may have to go through a security checkpoint to get into the town via roads that pass through the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The parking lot in the main visitor area for Bandelier is too small to accommodate the number of people who come here in the summertime. From May 16 to October 16, you must take a shuttle into the monument from the visitor center in the town of White Rock unless you plan to arrive at the park before 9 a.m. or after 3 p.m.
The shuttle is free and departs every 30 minutes, but you still have to pay for entrance to the park. You can pay either before you get on the shuttle bus, at a kiosk in the White Rock Visitors Center parking lot, or after you get off the bus, though rangers say it’s quicker to purchase passes ahead of time.
The bus, part of Atomic City Transit (Los Alamos was home to the Manhattan Project during World War II, which developed the nuclear bomb), makes a few stops to different areas of the park.
There are a few exceptions to the summertime shuttle rule: You may park at the Frijoles Canyon lot if you’re traveling with someone with a disability and have a vehicle tag showing so; backpacking overnight; cycling into the park; camping at Juniper Campground; or traveling with a dog.
From Santa Fe
Take US-84 West, then NM-502 West, toward Los Alamos. Follow signs for Bandelier National Monument and take the NM-4 exit ramp. The White Rock Visitor Center will be on your right.
If you’re driving all the way to the park, follow the same directions as above but continue to follow signs for Bandelier past the White Rock Visitor Center. The park’s main entrance is about 8 miles beyond it.
It costs $25 for a private car to enter the park (or, during shuttle months, to park at the White Rock Visitor Center). This fee covers everyone in the car, up to 15 people, for 7 days. Keep your receipt so you can go in and out of the park without having to pay for another pass.
If you’re visiting the park alone or riding a bicycle, the fee is $15. It costs $20 for up to two people arriving via the same motorcycle.
Entrance to Bandelier is free on the following days in 2019: Jan. 21, April 20, Aug. 25, Sept. 28 and Nov. 11.
If you plan to visit other national parks or federally-operated public recreation areas within a year, buy an annual America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands pass for $80. This pass covers entrance fees at all areas managed by the National Park Service, National Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish & Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Reclamation.
Free and discounted passes are available for U.S. residents who have disabilities or are over the age of 62. Additionally, if you live in the United States and have a child in the fourth grade, you may get a free National Parks pass online.
In a way, Bandelier is a living museum. Some ruins in the park have been restored to show visitors what they might have looked like when they were first built, but most of the sites have not been excavated. This is intentional: It’s important to living descendants of the Ancestral Puebloans to leave their ancestors’ former homes undisturbed. Thanks to developments in archaeological technology, it’s also easier today to examine ruins from aboveground, without ever needing to disturb the soil.
The most important thing to do at Bandelier is to resist the urge to disturb or remove artifacts. In some places, you may notice that others have found small artifacts along the trail, such as pieces of pottery, bits of arrowheads, or other small items, and left them in piles.
While it can be tempting to pick up such things and take them, or to bring them back to the Visitor’s Center to show a ranger, you must leave them alone. Even moving a pottery sherd a few feet can destroy its archaeological relevance. Seeing exactly where and how artifacts were found can be just as important as the artifact itself. Taking anything from these sites, no matter how small, is a crime.
It’s important to stay on established trails while you visit Bandelier. Hiking erodes the ground, especially in areas where you’re hiking on the volcanic tuff, and veering off trail will contribute to forging new paths that should not be created. There are also artifacts and ruins all over Bandelier, and staying on the trail helps protect them.
Pets are prohibited from visiting the vast majority of the park, including all of its trails (exceptions are made for service animals protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act). Pets on leashes no longer than six feet are allowed at Juniper Campground, in the parking lot in front of the main Visitor Center in Frijoles Canyon (which has a shady picnic area), and at Cottonwood Picnic Area.
On warm days, cars can become hot enough to kill pets inside. If you want to hike and need to leave your pet behind, you can book a stay for them at the Los Alamos DogHouse PhD. Doggy daycare rates start at $20 for 5 hours.
The climate in northern New Mexico is fairly moderate and sunny most of the year. However, the area receives an average of 25 inches (61 centimeters) of snow each winter, which can cause hiking hazards in the park. After it snows, the park closes the Main Loop Trail until rangers can clear the trail, as walking on the snow turns it into slick ice. If you visit in the winter and it snows, you can check the park website or call (1-505-672-3861 extension 517) to ask about the status of the trail before driving into the park.
The rest of the year, the park can get crowded quickly. It’s best to arrive early in the morning, late in the afternoon, or on a weekday if you want to avoid crowds. There are several places on the Main Loop Trail and Alcove House Trail where hikers can bottleneck because it’s nearly impossible to pass others, so on crowded days it can take quite a bit of extra time to finish the trail.
While you’re in the area, there are a large number of other parks and monuments worth visiting. Here are a few of the top attractions within a two-hour drive of Bandelier:
Valles Caldera National Preserve is just a few minutes away from Bandelier. It’s a 14-mile-wide caldera from an ancient volcano that erupted more than 1.25 million years ago. The preserve offers fishing, hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, and scenic drives on dirt roads, from which you can see wildlife like coyotes and prairie dogs. There’s evidence of human activity here dating back thousands of years, and to this day the caldera is significant to many modern-day Native American tribes.
At Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, you’ll find a short but exhilarating hike through a narrow slot canyon up to the top of a mesa with stunning views of the mountains surrounding the area and the unique “tent rocks” in the park. It gets quite busy in the summer months, so hike early or go on a week day to avoid having to wait at the entrance for a space in the parking lot.
Spence Hot Springs is about 45 minutes west of Bandelier. It’s a set of small, natural warm springs in a beautiful, forested canyon. It’s a short, easy hike of about .6 miles (just under 1 kilometer) just off of Highway 4. The parking lot is small and crowds quickly, but the view from the hot springs of the rocky, pine-covered canyon below is worth the trek even if you don’t stay long to soak. A few minutes further down the highway is the town of Jemez Springs, which has several developed hot springs spas.
The closest cities are Los Alamos, Santa Fe, and Albuquerque, all of which offer many hotels, inns, and homes on Airbnb. Los Alamos is a small town of 12,000 and home to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the atomic bomb was created during WWII. Hotels there are mainly part of large chains.
Santa Fe is a bit further away but worth a visit even if you don’t stay there. It’s the oldest state capital in the U.S. and has been inhabited for thousands of years. Today, it has a thriving (and quirky) arts scene, amazing restaurants, and a large number of boutique hotels and inns in traditional pueblo-style buildings.
The Lodge at Santa Fe is stylish, affordable, and pet-friendly. If you choose to visit or stay in Santa Fe, spend some time at Meow Wolf, an eclectic and immersive art exhibition that explodes out of what appears, at first, to be a normal house. Each room looks completely different, from a passageway through the fridge that leads to a space ship-like portal to an area filled with treehouses, lit by black and neon lights.
Stop by Kakawa Chocolate House, too, for the thickest, richest, and spiciest hot chocolate you’ve ever tasted. Kakawa’s drinking chocolate is much like it may have been hundreds and even thousands of years ago throughout ancient cities in the Americas.
Albuquerque, the state’s largest city, also has quite a few lodging options and a wide array of great restaurants and bars. Los Poblanos, a working lavender farm with an excellent restaurant, is a scenic and comfortable place to stay. For a drink, head to Braise—if you can find it. It’s a small, intimate speakeasy-style bar hidden somewhere downtown (hint: look for a place near the historic El Rey Theater that sells local beer).
The closest place to stay to Bandelier is to camp within the monument, at the park’s Juniper Campground. It costs $12 per night for a campsite with a picnic table and fire ring. Reservations are only taken for the two large group campsites, which cost $35 per night and fit up to 20 people. Bathrooms with running water are in each loop of the campground. The park website states that the campground rarely fills up, but spaces can sell out quickly on holidays and summer weekends. Plan to arrive at the park early enough to seek guidance at the visitor center for finding additional camping options nearby in the event the campground is full.
Bears like to visit the campground in search of food, so don’t sleep with food or any perfumed items (like lotion, soap, deodorant, etc.) in your tent or leave them unattended at any time. Use the bear lockers in the campground to keep these things out of reach. It’s dangerous for both people and the bears if they get into human food. Bears that come to rely on campers’ food will continue to come into the campground and may eventually need to be killed if they ever endanger people.
If you’d like to have a campfire, check first to make sure there are no fire restrictions. The climate here is dry and the area is prone to wildfires, so it’s important to follow any warnings or restrictions. Buy firewood in the campground instead of bringing it in, which could spread unwanted pests, or collecting it at your campsite, which is prohibited.
If you prefer a more rugged campground in the woods with more space and better views of the mountains, camp in the Santa Fe National Forest just outside the park. Campsites here have no facilities and are not marked–you need to drive along the road until you find one. “Dispersed camping” like this, as it’s called, is free. If you’re unsure if a spot is a campsite, look for a fire ring. A good rule of thumb to protect the land is to camp where it’s clear there have already been campers in the past.
If you want to camp overnight in the backcountry of the park, you must obtain a free permit from the main Visitor Center before departing on your hike. They’re available from 48 hours before your departure until 20 minutes before the center closes for the day (5 p.m. in winter, 6 p.m. in summer).
Camping in stream bottoms, Frijoles Canyon, Alamo Canyon, and Capulin Canyon is prohibited between July 1 and Sept. 15 because of the danger of flash flooding during monsoon season. Camp on mesa tops and in areas designated for camping. Avoid camping near dead trees or trees that appear to have serious burn damage but are still standing. Strong winds can knock down these trees and it’s dangerous to camp near them.
Bring more water than you think you’ll need and a backcountry water filter to purify water you find along the trails. The park advises against drinking even filtered water from the Rio Grande, as it contains pesticides that most backcountry filters can’t remove.