After a few days enjoying the hustle, bustle and crowds at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, we were seeking some peace and quiet and headed a couple hours north to Bandelier National Monument in Los Alamos, New Mexico.
There are faster ways to get to Bandelier, but we were in no hurry and took scenic NM-4 through Jemez Pueblo and Jemez Springs, climbing steadily into the Jemez Mountains and Santa Fe National Forest. Sunflowers, rabbitbrush and purple aster still provided color along the roadside even though we’re well into autumn now.
We caught glimpses of grasslands as we passed the Valles Caldera National Preserve. Rusty red sandstone mesas and cliffs were so bright and vivid, they nearly overwhelmed our senses. We maneuvered our way up and around several steep, hairpin turns. offering knock-your-socks-off views of the Frijoles Canyon below before finally reaching the entrance to Bandelier.
Our National Parks Pass waived the $25/vehicle admission fee and we found a great spot in the Juniper Campground at a reduced rate of $6/night. We left Blue to guard the campsite and headed immediately to the Frey Trail, a 1.5 mile trek to the Visitor’s Center. During the May-October season, access to the Visitor’s Center and the park is provided by shuttle buses between 9am-5pm from nearby Los Alamos and the campgrounds. Before 9am and after 3pm, visitors are allowed to drive to the Visitor’s Center. It was a beautiful, warm day and walking the well-marked trail seemed the natural option for us.
The trail was easy until the last quarter mile or so and then it descended steeply via switchbacks to the canyon floor with great views of the ruins of the Tyuonyi (QU-weh-nee) village once inhabited by the Pueblo people dating from the 13th century, for which Bandelier is known. Evidence of hunter-gatherer groups and farmers who lived in still-accessible sandstone caves date back to 10,000+ years ago.
Named after Adolph Bandelier, a Swiss immigrant who pioneered anthropological work in the Southwest in the late 1800s, the 33,750 acre park was established in 1916 as a national monument to preserve these ancestral Pueblo sites. We watched the park video, wandered through the small, but informative museum, picked up trail maps, then negotiated the steep climb back up the canyon wall to the campground. Enough for one day.
The next morning, we chose the seldom-traveled Frijoles Rim Trail which led us up the canyon walls via sharp, steep switchbacks to the rim of the canyon and followed it for miles of hilly, rugged terrain before descending precipitously to the canyon floor. Once in the canyon, we followed the meandering Frijoles Creek for about 6 miles which necessitated 44 (yup, 44!) stepping-stone crossings back and forth across the 3-6’ wide creek.
About a mile from the Visitor’s Center, we passed Alcove House, an expansive ceremonial cave high up on the canyon wall with vertical access via wooden ladders. Tourists were queued up waiting to ascend or descend and we gave it a pass, instead returning to the Visitor’s Center where Blue was waiting for us.
The weather had been gorgeous throughout the day, but a quick thunder/lightning squall caught us about a ½ mile from the end of the trail, pommeling us with hail and dousing us with heavy rain. It was all over in about 15 minutes and the sun peeked out, but we were cold and wet by the time we climbed into Blue. It was a long, tiring 16-mile day and we gratefully returned to camp, sank into our camp chairs and enjoyed a quiet evening by the camp fire.
One of the main attractions of Bandelier is, of course, the ceremonial cave which we’d previously passed up. We returned very early the next morning in hopes of beating most of the tourists to the site.
We lucked out, walking the 1.1 miles to the Alcove House and climbing up the 140’ of ladders and steps without meeting one single person. We had the whole place to our ourselves and it was magical... a fine finale to our Bandelier National Monument visit.
We did a short video showing the climb up - and back down… watch it here
Bandelier was great, but there’s so much more to see and do here. Don’t miss more Balloon Fiesta and the unique, crowd-pleasing, special-shaped balloons in our next blog post.