Millions of people head to the southwest each year to take in our fabulous National Parks – whether it is at the Grand Canyon in Arizona, Arches or Canyonlands in Utah, or maybe even the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado. But there is a little known National Monument in the OTHER four corners state, New Mexico, that is totally worth the stop, but barely garners any attention compared to the other big parks in the region.
Bandelier National Monument is located about 45 miles west of Santa Fe near the sleepy government town of Los Alamos (home of the Manhattan project and still one of the world’s leading nuclear research labs). But what the small town atmosphere lacks in excitement, Bandelier certainly makes up for in gorgeous landscapes, stunning archeological ruins, and an amazing river habitat literally within steps of the Park’s visitor’s center. After catching a ride to the park on the free shuttle from the village of White Rock, travelers step into a stunning landscape as well as traveling back thousands of years to the age of the pueblo peoples.
The first stop on the shuttle into the park is at Frey Canyon, where intrepid hikers can meander on the mostly downhill 2-mile hike to the Visitors Center (and if that is not your speed, staying on the shuttle gets you there in a few minutes). The trail starts out on a high plateau overlooking thousands of acres of juniper, distant mountains, and big skies. As you descend into Frey Canyon, the landscape changes radically, as you are actually dropping through the volcanic tuff that originates above you in the Valles Caldera – a nearby dormant volcano.
Nearing the end of the trail, you enter Frijoles Canyon, the site of dozens of archeological ruins of the puebloan people from around 1150 A.D. Unlike ruins at most parks, many of the remains in this area of Bandelier have been reinforced by the National Park Service and are able to be visited up close and personally by the interested tourist. Even some of those high on the cliffs above you are accessible by a series of ladders and handrails that was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s for safe and easy access. Dozens of ruins are within 2 miles of the Visitors Center and are open for exploration.
Another captivating experience in the park occurs in the creek bottom of Frijoles Canyon. In August, 2011, a flash flood ripped through the canyon, slashing enormous cottonwoods like toothpicks and depositing them in the base of the streambed above and around the park headquarters. These enormous piles of logs (some 5-7 feet in diameter!) and debris can still be seen today, piling 15 – 20 feet high in some places. The power that this flood must have had to uproot and move these trees downriver is impressive, to say the least!
If you go:
- From Santa Fe – head north on US 285 to Pojoaque, then west on NM 502 to the White Rock visitor’s center. From there, catch the free 20-minute shuttle into the park, which runs about every half hour. Entry into the park is $12.00 for a family – a great bargain!
- Remember that you are in the high desert – a long sleeve shirt (like the MK Equatorial Long-sleeve with its UPF 45 protection) and floppy hat (Like the MK Tula Sun Hat!!) is ideal for sun-protected hiking and keeping cool at over 7,000ft.) And as always, lots of water!
- Further plan your visit on the NPS website
Give yourself plenty of time to take in the sites, from the archeology, to the abundant wildlife and the grand landscapes. You won’t regret it!
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Part 3 of the San Juan Mountain Guides AIARE Level 1 Avy Pro class