National Park Getaway: Bandelier National Monument

By Chris Judson, Park Ranger, Bandelier National Monument
Aerial view of archaeological Pueblo ruins at the bottom of a canyon
Thousands of years of human history are preserved in the canyons and cliffs of the park.

NPS Photo

In 1880, a self-taught anthropologist named Adolph Bandelier arrived in what was then a very remote and unknown part of the country—the New Mexico Territory. He was a one-man expedition to document the culture of the Pueblo people and their ancestors. While doing an ethnographical study of Cochiti Pueblo near Santa Fe, the people there offered to take him to see their ancestral home. Traveling up the Rio Grande and through sheer-walled canyons, they emerged on the rim of Frijoles Canyon and looked down on the remains of their ancestral dwellings. In his diary Bandelier wrote that it was “the grandest thing I ever saw.” In 1916, two years after Bandelier’s death, President Woodrow Wilson established Bandelier National Monument, preserving that canyon and more than 50 square miles of mesa and canyon country around it for future generations.

Today Bandelier National Monument is known for a distinctive landscape: a wide plateau composed of tuff, volcanic ash hundreds of feet thick deposited by two gargantuan eruptions of the Jemez Volcano. Archeologists have documented more than 3,000 archeological sites across its mesas and canyons. The story of people in the area dates back to small bands of hunter-gatherers who passed through the area thousands of years ago. During the 1100s, Ancestral Puebloans settled in cliffside homes and farmed the land for generations. In the 1500s, they moved to nearby locations where their descendants live today. The human story continues with the Civilian Conservation Corps enrollees who built the handsome stone park headquarters buildings in the 1930s, and now the 200,000 visitors who come to the park each year.
Two hikers standing above a grassy canyon
The park has more than 33,000 acres to explore and hundreds of ranger programs throughout the year.

NPS Photo

Most visitors come to see the homes of the Ancestral Pueblo people. The Main Loop Trail begins at the park visitor center, in the same Frijoles Canyon that delighted Adolph Bandelier all those years ago. It provides an easy 1-mile (1.6 km) round-trip walk to dwellings along the cliffs and the large excavated village, Tyuonyi Pueblo. The trail returns along Frijoles Creek, which runs through the canyon year-round and would have been a treasure for the Ancestral Pueblo people. Today the little creek creates a shady pocket of green in the mostly arid New Mexico landscape.

Bandelier stretches from the Rio Grande at 5,300 feet (1,615 meters) elevation up the slopes of the volcano to its rim at almost 11,000 feet (3,353 meters). This provides a variety of habitats for the park’s wildlife, including dozens of species of mammals and reptiles, more than 200 species of birds, and over 900 species of plants. Two thirds of the park is designated wilderness, with 70 miles of trails for day hikers and backpackers.
Six orange and black butterflies standing on tiny white flowers
In addition to the unique cultural heritage of the area, the diverse landscape and wildlife has attracted scientists to the park for more than a century.

NPS Photo

Bandelier also has two national park neighbors right next door—the Valles Caldera National Preserve, in the heart of the great volcano, and Manhattan Project National Historical Park, in the formerly secret town of Los Alamos, famous for the work of pioneering atomic scientists during World War II.

Whether visitors come here to get acquainted with the Ancestral Pueblo people, birdwatch, backpack, stargaze, or just sit by the creek, most agree with Adolph Bandelier’s sentiment when he said it was the “grandest thing” he ever saw.

Last updated: April 5, 2017