Your palms sweat as you scoot across a narrow ledge carved into the side of a sheer cliff. Clenching a wooden railing, you look up and see there’s yet another ladder made of timber to climb. Normally you wouldn’t be so inclined to scale such steep cliffsides, trusting only the wooden logs of a primitive ladder to keep you from disaster. But the intrigue of exploring the dark corridors of these stony dwellings and tracing the same paths that Native Americans once roamed is just too tempting to refuse. Designated by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 to preserve the ancient homes and territory of this ancestral Pueblo civilization, Bandelier National Monument is rich in Native American history and inviting to adventure.
More than 11,000 years ago Paleo Indians first wandered through these desert canyons in search of the large game they hunted. As the climate shifted, and animals like the wooly mammoths and giant bison died out, the native Paleo Indians migrated to other areas. Over a period of several centuries, Native Americans of the Archaic period gradually moved into the region and adapted to the climate changes by being less nomadic than their Paleo Indian predecessors, and by embracing a more diverse and sustainable diet consisting of smaller animals, like deer and rabbits, along with fruits, nuts, and other edible plants. These archaic peoples were present in the Bandelier region between 6000 BC and 1150 AD.
Eventually the first permanent civilizations of Bandelier came into existence from 1150 AD to 1550 AD as the ancestral Pueblo people built a thriving culture that possessed great farming and architectural skills. These ancestral Pueblo people constructed their homes from blocks of volcanic tuff, which is a softer type of rock that’s easy to break into the forms that were needed to build the dwellings. They used a special mud mixture to hold together these tuff blocks, but, because this mud mixture was more prone to erosion, most of the mortar eroded away before these ruins were excavated, leaving many only partially intact. Proving their advanced architectural skills and use of tools, the Pueblo people also dug out dwellings in the canyons. These carved dwellings, known as “cavates,” were common with the Pueblo people who utilized an innovative technique of “smoking” the ceilings of the cavates to make them more water resistant and less prone to crumbling.
These ancestral Pueblo people also skillfully farmed and domesticated animals. They largely depended on three major crops—corn, beans, and squash—which were essential to survival due to their high protein content. To preserve water in this dry climate for their crops, they utilized pumice rocks for mulch, which act like a sponge, absorbing water and slowly releasing it into the soil over time. As for animals, the ancestral Pueblo people domesticated dogs and turkeys, using the turkeys for food and plucking their feathers to weave blankets.
So what brought an end to the seemingly flourishing ancestral Pueblo society? After four hundred years of severe droughts, the land simply couldn’t support the population any longer, and, by 1550, they had gradually migrated to the pueblos along the Rio Grande. Today many different Pueblo groups still exist in New Mexico. Of all these groups, however, the Cochiti Pueblo people, located along the vast Rio Grande near Tent Rocks National Monument, are the most direct descendants of the ancient Pueblo people.
The best part about this national monument is that it offers a rich and engaging experience, coupling adventure with culture. You wander over exposed cliffsides, climb up and down wooden ladders, and crawl into the shadowy alcoves carved into the cliffsides. The most popular trail for doing this is the Main Loop Trail, a 1.2-mile loop trail that should only take forty-five minutes to an hour to complete. While short, it takes you through a diverse range of impressive sights, including a stream (which was heavily relied on by these ancient civilizations), kivas (ceremonial sites), large Pueblo ruins, petroglyphs and pictographs, and immense volcanic tuff cliffs with cavates carved into them. This is the only trail that is maintained during snow periods, so, if you’re visiting during winter, this may be your most practical option.
Another popular trail is the Falls Trail. It’s a little under three miles round-trip and takes visitors through two beautiful waterfalls, known as the “upper” and “lower” falls. The entire Falls Trail area used to be covered with vegetation, and, in some parts, the trail used to lead all the way to the Rio Grande River. Unfortunately in 2011, a strong flash flood battered the area, ripping up trees, washing away large boulders, and scouring parts of the trail as well. While the portion leading to the Rio Grande River is closed off today, the remaining portions of the Falls Trail still offer great scenery that you don’t want to miss.
If you have additional time and are interested in a more remote hiking experience, you might consider heading to the Tsankawi section of the Bandelier National Monument. This area of the park offers a 1.5-mile walk that takes you along numerous cavates and petroglyph sites, as well as the ancestral Pueblo village of Tsankawi. You must be able to navigate over several ladders on this trail, however, and, because it’s not maintained in the winter season, it could pose some risky situations for hikers during that time of the year. Tsankawi is a bit difficult to find, so take special note of the directions provided below by the NPS.
If visiting from Memorial Day to late October, it’s important that you arrive before 9 a.m. (or after 3 p.m.) if you’d like to park at the Main Visitor’s Center. Otherwise you’ll have to drive to the Visitor’s Center in White Rock, New Mexico, and wait for a shuttle bus to take you to the park. The shuttle bus is free, but waiting times can be somewhat of a nuisance.
Cover photo © Jordan Marsh – jmarshphoto.com