Bandelier National Monument: Hiking trails, cliff dwellings & ruins

Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos, New Mexico
Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos, New Mexico
Photo: Greg K. Hull © Chasing Light Media

New Mexico has some fabulous hiking spots but one of our favorites is Bandelier National Monument.

Located about an hour from Santa Fe or two hours from Albuquerque, Bandelier’s 33,000 acres contain cliff dwellings where the Pueblo people built homes in the rock cliffs, petroglyphs, and evidence of even earlier life, when nomadic people occupied the land over 10,000 years ago.

Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos, New Mexico
Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos, New Mexico
Photo: Kim Hull © Chasing Light Media

In 1880, Adolph Francis Bandelier came to the area to study the dwelling sites, later publishing both scientific reports and a fictional book based on Pueblo life, “The Delight Makers.” Bandelier, along with other archeologists, emphasized the importance of preserving the site, which in 1916 was accomplished when  President Woodrow Wilson signed legislation to establish the national monument, naming it after Bandelier.

Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos, New Mexico
Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos, New Mexico
Photo: Kim Hull © Chasing Light Media

Hiking Bandelier National Monument

With over 70 miles of trails at Bandelier, there’s something for everyone, with trails ranging from short, easy loops to steep, long switchbacks.

Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos, New Mexico
Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos, New Mexico
Photo: Kim Hull © Chasing Light Media

Main Loop Trail

The Main Loop Trail is a short, partially handicapped accessible, 1.2 mile loop that begins at the visitor center. The trail is well-maintained and takes about an hour to complete, allowing for stops along the way. The upper parts of the trail near the cliff dwellings require some climbing of stairs, which have handrails.

Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos, New Mexico
Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos, New Mexico
Photo: Greg K. Hull © Chasing Light Media

The Main Loop Trail winds along the floor of the Frijoles Canyon past archeological sites such as the Big Kiva, which, according to the park, once had a roof covering it and was a communal meeting place.

Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos, New Mexico
Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos, New Mexico
Photo: Kim Hull © Chasing Light Media
Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos, New Mexico
Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos, New Mexico
Photo: Greg K. Hull © Chasing Light Media

The remains of the Tyuonyi (Qu-weh-nee) village is estimated to have once been two stories with over 400 rooms.

The Puebloan people used volcanic tuff blocks, which is relatively soft and breaks easily, to construct the homes. The blocks of tuffs were held together with a mortar mud mixture. Ponderosa pines from nearby were used to make vigas, rough-hewn beams to support the roofs.

Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos, New Mexico
Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos, New Mexico
Photo: Greg K. Hull © Chasing Light Media

Continuing on, the trail leads to the cliff dwellings called cavates, or small human-carved alcoves. Ladders allow visitors to climb up to view the cavates.

Greg Hull at Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos, New Mexico
Greg Hull at Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos, New Mexico
Photo: Kim Hull © Chasing Light Media

Stops are numbered along the trail and trail guides with coordinating descriptions are available in the visitor’s center.

The views from the elevated section of the trail near the cliff dwellings are quite spectacular.

Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos, New Mexico
Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos, New Mexico
Photo: Kim Hull © Chasing Light Media
Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos, New Mexico
Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos, New Mexico
Photo: Kim Hull © Chasing Light Media

So, why did some of the Puebloan people live in the cliff dwellings and some live in the Tyuonyi village?

It’s believed that both were occupied during the same period and that the village on the canyon floor would have been used during the summer. During the winters, the south-facing cliff dwellings would have been warmer than on the canyon floor.

Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos, New Mexico
Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos, New Mexico
Photo: Greg K. Hull © Chasing Light Media

Dwellings along the canyon wall were often multiple stories, which can be determined by the number of rows of viga holes.

Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos, New Mexico
Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos, New Mexico
Photo: Kim Hull © Chasing Light Media

The Main Loop Trail also passes Talus House, which was reconstructed in 1920.

Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos, New Mexico
Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos, New Mexico
Photo: Greg K. Hull © Chasing Light Media
Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos, New Mexico
Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos, New Mexico
Photo: Greg K. Hull © Chasing Light Media

Other Bandolier National Monument Trails

The Alcove Trail connects to Main Loop at the half way point, adding an additional 1 mile to the hike round trip. The Alcove Trail section leads to Alcove House, which is located 140 feet above the canyon floor.

The 1.5 mile Falls Trail starts near the visitors center, leading to the Upper Falls. The Falls Trail should not be attempted when winter conditions are present. Do not drink the water.

Bandelier National Monument’s Tsankawi section is located 12 miles from the visitor center. 1.5 miles in length, the Tsankawi trail leads to cavates, petroglyphs, a mesa and the ancestral Pueblo village of Tsankawi. The Tsankawi section should not be attempted when winter conditions are present.

Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos, New Mexico
Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos, New Mexico
Photo: Greg K. Hull © Chasing Light Media

Know before you go

Hours & seasons. Bandelier National Monument is open daily, year-round except Christmas and New Years Day, from dawn to dusk except during heavy snow days or other emergencies. Backpacking permits must be obtained at the Frijoles Canyon Visitor Center for any overnight stays in the park’s backcountry.

Shuttle bus. During the summer months between the hours of 9 AM and 3 PM, all Bandelier National Monument visitors, except vehicles displaying disability tags, are required to take a free shuttle bus from the White Rock visitor center to access the main visitor area of Bandelier National Monument, including the visitor center, Main Loop Trail, and Falls Trail. Shuttles run approximately every 30 minutes weekdays, and 20 minutes on weekends. The shuttle is free, however the park entrance fee still applies. Before 9AM, and after 3PM, all vehicles may drive directly to the park.

Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos, New Mexico
Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos, New Mexico
Photo: Greg K. Hull © Chasing Light Media

What to bring. Temperatures are high in the summer at Bandelier, so bring plenty of water and wear sunscreen & a hat. Thunderstorms, which can have hail and lightning, are frequent in the summer afternoons and flash flooding can occur.

Watch for bears and rattlesnakes.

Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos, New Mexico
Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos, New Mexico
Photo: Kim Hull © Chasing Light Media

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Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos, New Mexico
Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos, New Mexico
Photo: Greg K. Hull © Chasing Light Media