For this week’s edition of Adventure Saturday, we made an overnight stop at Bandelier National Monument. Bandelier is one of those places that I’m pretty sure I must have heard of at some point, but if asked I could have never told you where it was, or what it was all about. Well, now I could. Now I would tell you that Bandelier is located about 45 minutes northwest of Santa Fe on the edge of the Jemez Mountains. It’s all about is the history of the Ancestral Pueblo People who once populated this area and left behind some amazing ruins in the form of cliff dwellings, cave houses, large villages, ancient footpaths, and petroglyphs.
Bandelier is not a huge park, and you can easily explore the most popular areas in a few days. There’s a good amount of camping nearby, including some boondocking possibilities in the national forest near the local ski area, but since we only planned to stay one night, we decided it would be most convenient to just stay in the campground at the monument. Juniper Campground is situated in a forest of low growing Juniper and tall, towering Ponderosa Pines. We drove around all three loops before picking a spot in the Coyote Loop where the sites were a tad bit bigger, and the road a tad bit wider, than the other loops. The park website says they have a few spots for RVs up to 40-feet, but I think that might be a squeeze. Some of the sites are plenty long enough, but the tight turns in the campground could be an issue for bigger RVs. Our site was actually quite long and we were able to fit in nicely without unhooking the truck (a preferable situation for a one night stay), which means it had to be close to 45-feet long since we’re almost that long when hooked up. However, we have the advantage of being able to hinge when we turn, which means we were able to back into the site despite the giant trees on either side of the skinny road. I don’t think there’s any way a 40-foot motorhome could have backed into that site without hitting at least three trees on the way in. Yet, another reason why we don’t have a 40-foot motorhome.
Bandelier operates a shuttle system to help keep traffic to a minimum, and at certain times of the year, you can only enter the main part of the park on the shuttle. This is one of those times of the year, which meant that to get from the campground to the visitor center we either needed to take the shuttle or hike across the mesa. Our original intent was to take the shuttle. There was a stop only a few minutes walk from our site, but as we approached it we could see the shuttle pulling out of the parking lot. We ran and tried to catch it, but the driver obviously didn’t see us. So we hiked. Sure we could have waited 20 minutes for the shuttle to come back around, but the hike was only 1.5 miles and it took us across a really pretty section of sagebrush filled mesa. After hiking for a little more than a mile we came to the edge of the mesa and were treated to a gorgeous view of the Frijoles Valley below. As we trotted down the switchbacks into the valley we kept remarking how fortunate it was that we missed the shuttle and got to see this view instead.
We were also treated to a birds-eye view of the circular shaped Tyuonyi Pueblo which was once several stories tall and contained 400 rooms.
At the bottom of the canyon, we joined up with the Main Loop trail that travels around the valley floor. Our first stop was the Long House ruins. This impressive 800-foot long stretch of adjoining, multi-storied homes was quite the sight to see. The bricks in front of the cliff made up the main houses, and you can see the holes in the cliff above where the straight, thick trunks of Ponderosa Pines were used as support beams to build multiple stories and roofs. Behind the walls are caves that were carved into the soft volcanic rock of the cliff to make more rooms.
After the Long House, we took a side trail off the main path up to the Alcove House. This large cave, 140-feet above the valley floor, was once home to 25 people! Can you imagine climbing up there every day?
There’s a series of 4 ladders that take you up to the alcove. The ladders are pretty much straight up and down, so anyone with a fear of heights (or ladders) would probably want to skip this part. I’m not afraid of heights, but admit that I had a tiny bit of trepidation about these rickety looking ladders. They turned out to be much more secure than I thought, and in fact, I felt safer on these ladders than I ever did on that crazy extension ladder we used to have at our house.
The Alcove has some small caves with holes over them where you can imagine there were once logs and roofs. It also has a reconstructed kiva (an underground room used for ceremonies) that you used to be able to climb down inside of but was closed in 2013 due to safety concerns.
The view from the alcove was amazing.
After safely making our way back down the ladders, we followed the path along the river to the visitor’s center. Because we came down the cliff instead of starting at the visitor’s center, we missed the first section of the Main Loop trail that goes past the Big Kiva, the Tyuonyi Village, and a bunch of Talus Houses carved into the cliff. We considered going back to see them, but by this time is was 5:00 and the last shuttle of the day was coming by at 5:10. If we missed it that would mean climbing back up the cliff and hiking back across the mesa. Not a terrible idea, but it was in the high 80s and at that point we had both had enough heat and sun. It wasn’t too hard of a decision to chose an air conditioned ride over a hot sweaty climb up a cliff.
Bandelier is definitely another one of those places that we would love to return to someday. Besides missing part of the Main Loop trail, we also would have loved to hike the Falls Trail, or one of the trails on the other side of the canyon that offered up a wide view of the Long House. Next time. Lucky for us our journey through Bandelier was not quiet over though. The next day we packed up, left the campground and drove 12 miles to a separate part of the park called the Twsankawi section. Here we met up with some fellow travelers who live in nearby Los Alamos. Karen & Greg are part-time travelers who are on the track to full-time RVing. Karen’s been commenting here since we got to New Mexico, and when she saw that we were close by offered to take us for a guided hike. Yay! We never pass up the opportunity to gain a little local knowledge.
The hike through Tsankawi took us up, down, and across the mesa following along ancient footpaths carved in the stone. We passed many caves – some with multiple rooms – saw pot shards, and mud brick walls.
We ducked inside a cave with a glorious front door view, got our picture taken in the cave, and saw a cave condo of sorts carved into the cliff.
We also got to see lots of petroglyphs. Many were in the shadows, but I was able to get photos of a few. The guy waving his hand is my favorite.
Throughout the hike Karen and Greg filled us in on the history of the area including interesting facts about geography, recent natural disasters (fires and floods), and the current culture of Los Alamos and the surrounding towns. It was obvious that even though they’re anxious to get on the road, they love the town where they live. This is the second time in the last few weeks that we’ve heard from local folks how much they enjoy this area of New Mexico. We can understand why. The beautiful landscape combined with an abundance of outdoor activities, tons of history and culture, and an almost perfect year round climate including warm summers, mild winters, nearby mountains for skiing, and nearby lakes for boating. sounds pretty great to us. Tim even used the words (gasp) “settle down” last night when we were talking about Santa Fe! Anything like that is still a looooong ways away, but I think this is the first time either of us have ever used that word in conjunction with a particular area since we started traveling. Hmmm…something to keep in mind for the future.
At the end of the hike we walked out to a viewpoint where we sat and chatted about traveling and life for awhile. I tried to take a group shot, but the angle was a little funny and we all have shaded faces. Oops. Hopefully we run into Karen and Steve again this summer when we’re both in Colorado and I’ll give it another try.
That concludes our wonderful weekend of fun. We got to spend the night in the forest, walk among some amazing ancient architecture, and meet some fun and interesting people.
Tim & Amanda – It was great hiking and hanging with you on Sunday. You got some great photos. We love the Alcove House at Bandelier. Thank you for answering our bazillion questions about the full time ‘on the road’ lifestyle. It was a really fun day. Enjoy Taos
Thanks for taking us along on the hike. We had a wonderful time! Hope to see you down the road :)
What a wonderful tour of Bandelier! I’ve been a bit afraid to go back there after the terrible wildfires of 2011, but after seeing your photos, we’ll definitely return. And we’ve never been to Twsankawi, but it’s now on our must-do list.
There is still evidence of the wildfires in the area, but it’s still such a gorgeous area. If you make it to Twsankawi you should look up Karen and Greg. They’re excellent tour guides :)
Laurel – there is definitely still evidence of the Las Conchas fire, especially at Bandelier in the back country. We also had bad flooding last September which took out much of the vegetation on either side of the creek in Bandelier. That said – Bandelier, Jemez, the Valles Caldera and Los Alamos have sent recovery, regrowth of plants and some small trees and beautiful wildflowers. There is also a beauty to the starkness. Still well worth visiting. Our vistas, skies, ancient cave homes and trails won’t disappoint. We were in town during the evacuation because I work for the county and was part of the emergency team for public communication. It is hard to see the devastation to the forests but it is still an amazingly beautiful area.
We have seen so little of this beautiful state. We love Santa Fe and exploring ruins so this must be added to the list. How great to have local tour guides. We, like probably most everyone else who is full-timing, are developing a short list of places we might like to settle down in someday. It is always interesting to hear the thoughts of fellow RVers.
New Mexico is definitely a state that’s worth exploring. I am so glad we decided to spend an extended amount of time here. So far our list of potential places to settle is very, very short, so its always a surprise when we come across a place that feels like it might make the cut!
[…] I headed to Juniper Campground and the Coyote Loop under the recommendation of Amanda and Tim of Watsons Wander. I settled into site 43 and then hopped on my bike and headed to the self-pay kiosk which told me […]