Thursday, June 2, 2016

Bandelier National Monument

Climbing on the playground's jungle gym was a favorite activity of mine when I was an elementary student.

So it was a joy this past Sunday at Bandelier National Monument to watch a new generation of young children scamper up and down ladders to peer into the cliff dwellings that were home to the Ancestral Pueblo Indians centuries ago. 

Although our ascent was at a more sedate speed, Tim and I, too, wanted a glimpse of what it must have been like to live in a cave carved high in the limestone cliffs of the Jimez Mountains.

Located 40 miles northwest of Santa Fe, Bandelier's more than 33,000 acres preserve the cliff dwellings and territory of Ancestral Puebloans going back over 11,000 years.  I'd visited the park in 2007 when my family held a reunion in Santa Fe, but Tim was unable to join us that weekend.  I wanted him to see this intriguing national park which, like the National Park Service itself, is celebrating its 100th birthday this year.

Parking at the monument is limited so the National Park Service has started a shuttle service from nearby White Rock, NM.  The shuttle leaves the Visitors Center there every 30 minutes during the week and every 20 minutes on the weekends.  We were happy to leave driving over the winding mountain road to the shuttle driver.

I have a National Park Service access pass that I received for free due to my hearing disability.  This allowed us to bypass the tourists in line to pay the park's entrance fee.  That was good because we had only 3 hours to spend in the park before catching the last shuttle back to White Rock.

At any park we visit, we like to watch the NPS video at the Visitors Center.  The movie at Bandelier gave us a brief introduction to the history of the Puebloans whose descendants still live nearby, not in cliff dwellings, but in the Pueblo communities of Cochiti, Santo Domingo, San Felipe, San Ildefonso, Santa Clara and Zuni.

Leaving the visitors' center, we joined the crowd of tourists to climb the path to the dwellings; then, waited and waited for our turn to ascend the ladders up to the caves.

Everyone--and we were no exception--wanted to take photos as friends and family climbed the ladders.  

Undoubtedly, many of these digital images were posted on their Facebook pages later as evidence of their visit here.

But the Ancestral Puebloans documented their presence in a much more permanent way; they left petroglyphs engraved upon the rocks.

We were reminded of the cliff dwellings we've seen at Mesa Verde National Park in southwest Colorado.  The ruins at Mesa Verde are more extensive, but those at Bandelier were more mysterious to me.  

Why did the people here build both cliff dwellings and homes on the canyon floor below?  The ranger we spoke to gave us a plausible answer.  She said the foundations left on the canyon floor were likely summer homes.  There, the people had closer access to the water of the Frijoles Creek and could grow crops on the canyon floor.   The caves on the cliff, on the other hand, had the southern exposure warming the canyon wall in the winter.

Most of the crowd drifted back to the visitors center or perhaps they set out to hike the Frey Trail  along the top of the mesa, named for George and Evelyn Frey who managed the lodge built here by the Civil Conservation Corp in the 1930s.  Seventy percent of the park is wilderness with over 70 miles of hiking trails. 

Regardless, we were glad that fewer people continued on to Alcove House, a large cliff dwelling that can only be reached by climbing a 140-foot series of ladders.  

Just ahead of us on the ladders was a father and his son who couldn't have been more than five years old.  That boy scrambled up and down the ladder without a hint of fear.  

Several adults were more leery, taking the ladders with much greater caution.  I'm used to climbing up grain bins on my family farm in Kansas so this was easy for me and, of course given his days as a SWAT team member, Tim knows no fear.

Coming down from Alcove House, we'd hoped to have time to hike one of the trails, but the park ranger warned us that the last shuttle would leave the park at 5:00 p.m.  So we spent some time talking to the ranger and learned that she and her husband were seasonal rangers who left their home in Florida to spend six months, at first, Sequoia National Park and now at Bandolier.  They are trained to answer questions from tourists and are paid a nominal salary.  They live in the lodge behind the visitors center in very tight quarters with no television or wifi.  When they worked at Sequoia, the nearest grocery store was an hour and a half away.  Wilderness, indeed!

If you go to Bandelier, take plenty of water with you.  We drained our water bottles and wished we had more.  Once back at the visitors center, we were able to refill our bottles before we caught the shuttle back to White Rock.

This is one of my favorite NPS parks.  If we ever come back, I'd like to take one of the park's Nightwalks.  I think the view of the stars here would be amazing.


  1. What a great account of your time at Bandelier! Love the pictures - I don't think we got any of those way-up-on-the-ladder ones when we were there.

  2. What a great account of your time at Bandelier! Love the pictures - I don't think we got any of those way-up-on-the-ladder ones when we were there.