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Bandelier National Monument’s trails, ladders let hikers imagine ancestral villages

With every step at Bandelier National Monument, you are surrounded by layers of history unfolding before you.

Shimmy up a ladder and step into a cave where soot from the fires of the Ancestral Pueblo people still blackens the walls. Walk along the trail in Frijoles Canyon to see remnants of homes nestled against hole-ridden rock walls. Look up to see drawings of turkeys and dogs carved into the rock.

For visitors from Santa Fe, combining a visit to Bandelier National Monument and nearby Los Alamos, site of the Manhattan Project, is an easy day trip that offers new insight into a fascinating and broad range of New Mexican history.

Starting from Santa Fe, take U.S. 84/285 to N.M. 502 then N.M. 4, following signs to Bandelier National Monument. When you pull into the main entrance to Bandelier, check out the stone cottages built by the Civilian Conservation Corps between 1933 and 1941, the largest structure built by the CCC for the national park system.

Spend some time checking out guidebooks and talking to helpful park rangers in the visitor center, open daily from 8 a.m.-6 p.m. in the summer (parking fee). Make sure to buy a trail guide before heading out the back door on the 1.2-mile round-trip Main Loop trail.

Step back in time

The Main Loop trail takes you through fragrant pine forest and along Frijoles Canyon, with views of the Jemez Mountains in the distance. The trail is wide and flat but eventually narrows as you walk through crevices in the sandstone-like volcanic ash called tuff, created by eruptions of the Jemez volcano 1.2 million and 1.6 million years ago.

Ancestral Pueblo people made their homes in Bandelier from about A.D. 1150 to 1550, moving throughout the area and leaving behind at least 3,000 archaeological sites that are in the park, according to park ranger Chris Judson.

The Ancestral Pueblo people lived in small scattered villages until they gathered into larger settlements. By A.D. 1200, some pueblo villages included as many as 40 rooms.

On the Main Loop trail you pass Tyuonyi (Qu-weh-nee) village, in a flat area between the forest and looming cliffs on the other side. Archaeologists believe this is one of the later villages in the park — by the mid-1500s, residents had moved to other areas along the Rio Grande, including Cochiti Pueblo.

Here you see layers of rooms arranged around a central plaza, which contains three kivas, or circular underground spaces used for community and ceremonial purposes. From the village, crumbling outcroppings loom like massive ant colonies. As you walk closer, you can see many holes enlarged into what are called cavates.

As the trail passes through the tuff, climb up a series of short ladders and peek into the rooms.

One of the most fascinating parts of the walk is an 800-foot stretch of dwellings called Long House. Following the sheer rock wall, you walk by the remnants of one home after another, each of which is backed by cavates, which were likely used for storage or sleeping. You can see holes fashioned into the rock for roof beams that anchored homes.

See if you can spot the petroglyphs high above, presumably carved into the rock from the roofs of the two- and three-story structures.

If you have time, take the mile round-trip walk to Alcove House, but beware, this isn’t a trip for the faint of heart (or small children). A series of ladders climbs up to the 140-foot outcropping, where you can climb down into a reconstructed kiva or spend time looking out over the canyon below.

Visitors who have trouble with heights still can take a leisurely walk along Frijoles creek, skipping the ladders, and stop for lunch at the picnic tables near the trail head.

While the Main Loop trail offers an incredible introduction to pueblo life and architecture, there are more than 70 miles of trails at Bandelier, including a narrow trail through largely unexcavated ruins of Tsankawi village. There are also longer hikes, as well as campgrounds and special programs like guided night walks and craft demonstrations, says Judson. Still, the Main Loop is the main attraction for many new visitors.

“It’s the heart of the park,” says Judson.

Head to Los Alamos

Leaving Bandelier, turn toward Los Alamos on N.M. 501. You will drive by the enormous complex of Los Alamos National Laboratory — don’t be alarmed at the guard station at the edge of town.

In Los Alamos, you can stop for lunch at one of several restaurants downtown, then begin a walking tour of historic sights (available at the Los Alamos Historical Museum or at

While Los Alamos doesn’t have a particularly charming downtown, it makes up for it with fascinating history.

Don’t miss the free Historical Museum at 1921 Juniper St., open from 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays and 1-4 p.m. Sundays. It offers an overview of the geographic and social history of the area. Moving from pueblo pottery to modern-day Los Alamos, the small museum is chock-full of historical tidbits.

Check out the fascinating exhibit on the Los Alamos Ranch School, a boys school that opened in 1928. The school offered intense athletics and academics — students were organized in Boy Scout patrols and spent time caring for horses and hiking and took demanding courses and went to top colleges.

But as World War II escalated, the school’s days were numbered. In December 1942, school president A.J. Connell received a letter from Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson announcing that the school would be taken over in “the interests of the United States in the prosecution of the War” by February 1943.

It was about to become a dining hall and meeting space for the team of scientists, led by physicist Robert Oppenheimer, that would built the first atomic bomb in the secret city of Los Alamos.

Another exhibit explores the early days of the Manhattan Project through letters, identification cards, photos of local dances and personal accounts of rickety homes, mess hall dining and a war-time baby boom.

A nearby room shows the impact of the project, with panoramic photos of the devastated Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where the atomic bombs were dropped on Aug. 6 and 9, 1945.

“Everyone stays in that room a long time,” says museum curator Christine Brown. “That is the showstopper. Every viewer has a different take on those photographs.”

After the exhibits, check out the museum store before visiting Fuller Lodge next door, which once housed the Los Alamos Ranch School’s dining hall and guest rooms, and is now used for community events.

The building now houses the Art Center at Fuller Lodge, which includes rotating exhibits and a gift shop with arts and crafts by regional artisans. The free Art Center, open Mondays through Saturdays from 10 a.m.-4 p.m., also offers summer camps and art workshops.

After checking out the art, walk through the Los Alamos Memorial Rose Garden and stop at the Romero Cabin, built in 1913 as a homestead on the Pajarito Plateau and moved to the site in 1984.

Continue toward Central Avenue and 15th Street, where the Bradbury Science Museum is a must for science fans and history buffs. The free museum, open Tuesdays-Saturdays from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sundays-Mondays from 1-5 p.m., features interactive exhibits and videos about the current work of Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The museum is divided into history, research and defense exhibits. Visitors can see replicas of the Little Boy and Fat Man atomic bombs and learn about nuclear history.

At the end of the day, stop at the Coffee House Cafe, 723 Central Ave., which sometimes has live music, before driving back to Santa Fe. If you time it right, you might watch the sun set over the canyons.

Before you go

Be sure to check out the podcasts on the Los Alamos Historical Museum’s Web site (, with oral histories from more than 50 Los Alamos residents, including glassblower Arno Roensch, chemical and nuclear engineer Ken Ewing, and Peggy Pond Church, whose father started the Los Alamos Ranch School.

Other helpful sites:


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