4/25/2012: please see my warning and danger tip about temporary shuttle-only access to the main park starting 6/1/2012!
Go figure: I didn't get a shot of the Visitor Center! Oh well. This is where you should begin your visit - and I suggest you get here early because parking fills quickly in the summer. Here is where you gather trail guides, talk to the rangers, get backcountry camping permits and generally find what you need to start exploring the park. Take a few minutes to check out a short orientation slide show and cruise the exhibits that explain a bit about Ancestral and Puebloan culture. This is also where the most popular trail - Main Loop - begins.
There is also a bookstore, restrooms, gift shop and a snack bar either in the building or close by. Take your lunch out to one of the picnic tables in the courtyard by the gift shop, or find a shady spot at Cottonwood Picnic Area, just across the Frijoles Creek from the center.
A couple of things to know:
• Leave Spot at home: dogs aren't allowed on the trails or inside the buildings
• There's no lodging in the park but hotels can be found in Los Alamos, White Rock, Espanola or Santa Fe
• There are also no shuttles to the archeological sites: all must be reached on foot
• Only part of one trail - Main Loop - is fully accessible for strollers and wheelchairs
• Elevation is 6000 feet: take it slow if you have difficulty breathing
• Trailers are not allowed in the Frijoles Canyon parking lots. They can be dropped at Juniper Campground near the park entrance
• The Visitor Center is a 3- mile drive involving switchbacks into the canyon from the park entrance (Again, see my warnings and dangers tip for current, post-fire access procedures)
See the NPS website for directions, hours, entry fees, campground info, trail descriptions and more.
The Ancestral people carved images of animals, anthropomorphic figures, spirals and other shapes into the rock at various places on the mesa. This isn't just decoration: they're believed to have had deep significance to the people of that time and may have been a form of communication, ceremony or worship. The meaning of some of these images are understood by tribal descendants but others remain a mystery.
Here and there you might notice carved arrows: these weren't made by the Ancestors but by Spanish sheepherders who penned stock here in the late 1800's - early 1900's. One of these arrows is visible near the bottom center of the second photo.
On top of the mesa is the unexcavated village of Tsankawi. It resembled the pueblo at Frijoles Canyon (Tyuonyi) in having had several stories with a central plaza but the layout provided in the guide indicates more than one entrance. It also may have had a reservoir for collecting rainwater: a feature common to villages located far from streams or springs. The panoramas from this place are amazing and the ability to see great distances from the village would have been a defensive reason for the location.
As with other sites in the mesa, please stay on the path to help preserve these fragile remains and leave in place any pottery shards or other artifacts you might run across.
A junction partway through Main Loop Trail takes you 1/2 mile through the forest to Alcove House: a large shelf in the canyon wall 140 feet above the ground. Here you'll see storage niches and holes in the cave walls left from wooden beams (vigas) that supported long-gone roofs. There is also a reconstructed kiva that you can climb down into via a ladder. This offers a rare chance to experience these ceremonial structures as those still in use today are off-limits to non-Native Americans, and the wooden roofs on those found at ancient archeological sites collapsed long ago. Be respectful inside the kiva as it's still considered a sacred place.
If heights make your knees weak or you have young children in tow, there are places on the trail where you can glimpse Alcove House from the ground. Otherwise, the cave is accessed by a series of long, vertical wooden ladders and stone steps. It's closed during the winter months when ice and snow makes the climb too treacherous.
I was fortunate to have arrived just as the few visitors before me were leaving so had the alcove to myself for a good 1/2 hour or so. It's a peaceful place with scenic views of the canyon: take a few moments to sit and reflect how it may have been for the Ancients who called Bandelier home.
All sorts of wildflowers bloom in the canyon from spring until fall. When we were there in September, most of them were yellow but they also come in blues, lavenders, reds, oranges and pastels. As at any U.S. national or state park, take the daisies home in your camera: picking them is a no-no.
Just as at the Frijoles Canyon section, you'll see cavates at Tsankawi but those you're allowed to explore are all at ground level: no ladders. By all means crawl in and take a look but be gentle and do check for snakes first. Not all sections with cavates visible from the trail are accessible: stay on the marked paths to avoid potentially unstable areas.
The Ancestors who lived here carved or simply wore stairways and toe-trails into the rock to reach different levels of the mesa. You'll see many of these along the way but you're asked not to climb them unless they're clearly marked as part of the trail. Today's footwear is damaging to soft rock originally traveled barefoot or in soft sandals, plus many centuries of exposure has made some of the stairways dangerously unstable.
Ancient inhabitants carved out small living, storage and ceremonial alcoves, called cavates, from pockets left in the soft rock layer of volcanic ash (tuff) deposited during a massive eruption a million years ago. Ceilings were smoke-cured to reduce crumbling of the tuff, and the lower sections of walls were plastered and painted.
These alcoves usually had other multi-storied stone structures built in front of them: the rows of small holes above and below them were where wooden supports (vigas) were inserted, and you'll notice traces of some of the walls. They've provided ladders to a few of these so you can crawl in and marvel at how small these living quarters were! Cavates and their accompanying stone living/storage buildings were only constructed on the south side of the canyon where solar exposure helped to heat them during the winter.
One note: Please enter only those cavates provided with ladders and try not to touch the inner walls.
Don't miss this one! Tsankawi (sank-ah-WEE) is a fascinating part of Bandelier that's 12 miles from the main Frijoles Canyon section. Like Frijoles Canyon, you'll find cavates, petroglyphs and the ruin (unexcavated) of a pueblo. Unlike the main park, you're up on a mesa - with fantastic views - instead of down in a canyon. You're also going to have a smaller crowd to deal with as this section is often overlooked: a plus for solitude-seekers!
But the really outstanding feature about Tsankawi is the trails. Remember the soft, volcanic rock I mentioned in the Main Loop Trail cavate tip? It's here too but the people didn't just carve caves out it: their feet wore paths and stairways into the chalky white tuff so you're often walking ankle to waist deep in narrow grooves. The rock, in fact, is so soft that it's important to stay on the ancient paths so that new ones aren't created.
This remote section has virtually no facilities except a couple of portapotties and a self-serve fee station near the entrance. You can also purchase a guide (50 cents or so) for the 20 numbered sites here. If you've already visited the main park and have a pass, you don't need to buy another one. If you don't have a pass yet, buy one from the station. In both cases, leave the pass on your dashboard - the NPS will ticket your vehicle if a pass isn't visible. The 1.5 mile loop trail isn't difficult but does involve a few short ladders and has some unprotected drop-offs so hang onto the kiddies.
Tsankawi is the ancestral home of today's San Ildefonso Pueblo and means "Village between two canyons at the clump of sharp, round cacti" in their Tewa language - a lot to pack into one word!
You can take a virtual tour of the of Tsankai here and download a map to the site here.
This is the most popular walk in the park as it's short (1.2 miles RT), very scenic, paved, and includes a lot of archeological sites. Starting at the Visitor Center, a self-guided tour takes you past a large kiva, the ruin of an ancient pueblo, cliff and cave dwellings, petroglyphs and pictographs. A guide for 21 numbered sites can be purchased at the Visitor Center for $1 or downloaded for free from the park's website. This is a great one to do with kids!
Constructed in the middle of the canyon floor near Frijoles Creek instead of the southern wall, Tyuonyi (chew-OHN-yee) was a predecessor of today's pueblos and one of several found at Bandelier. This is the only one they've excavated as the elements are hard on fragile ruins and descendants of the Ancients prefer to leave ancestral homes alone: they're still generally considered sacred ground.
This was a roughly circular, 2-story building built from tuff bricks and mud with 400 small rooms for living and storage. The central expanse, or plaza, was communal space for working, trading and socializing, and contained three underground kivas. Rooms on the ground floor (probably storage) had no doors or windows and were accessed from the second story though holes in the roof. Rooms on the second story were probably living quarters for an estimated 100 people and had openings facing the interior plaza. As the pueblo had only one way in or out, with access to the 2nd story only by ladders which could be removed, it was an optimal design when needing to be defended from an enemy.
The park brochure states that Tyuonyi was occupied at the same time as the cavates and that choice of accommodations may have been based on clan, custom or preference. As it's virtually a fort, it's possible that tribal members in vulnerable cavates may have come into the more defensible pueblo during periods of unrest.
Download the free Main Loop Trail guide on the attached website for more information on the pueblo and customs of the people who lived there.
This very scenic trail follows much of Frijoles Creek as it drops 700 vertical feet into the Rio Grande. Beginning at Backpacker's Parking Lot - near the Visitor Center - the 2.5 mile (one way) trail descends Frijoles Canyon into White Rock Canyon past two waterfalls, interesting rock formations and panoramic views up-canyon and down: highly recommended.
You'll be fording the creek over rocks or rough bridges in several places, and you may need to be prepared to get your feet wet if flash floods have washed any of them out. There are also steep drop-offs and the possibility of running into feral cattle - both alive and deceased - and snakes so keep your eyes and ears open. There's no water on the route so bring plenty as this can be a hot one in summer.
From the mesa top you have an almost 360 degree view of the surrounding landscape, including several mountain ranges. To the west (your left) lie the Jemez Mountains, with Los Alamos at their foot. To the east (ahead of you) are the Sangre de Cristo Mountains (named for the Blood of Christ) and the Rio Grande Valley. About 70 miles south are the Sandia Mountains, which dominate the skyline above Albuquerque (behind you).
Here the ancient Pueblo Indians (sometimes known as the Anasazi) built their village or pueblo: Tsankawi. They lived on the mesa top from some time in the 15th century until towards the end of the 16th. It is thought that the village may have been abandoned due to a severe drought in the region. The pueblo at San Ildefonso, eight miles away, have the tradition that their ancestors lived at Tsankawi, while other pueblos also claim ancestral links.
The village was built out of tuff stone plastered inside and out with mud. It was roughly rectangular in shape with about 350 rooms and an enclosed central courtyard or plaza. Today almost nothing visible remains, and there has been no archaeological excavation. Consultation with San Ildefonso Pueblo has revealed that the people prefer that the homes and belongings of their ancestors remain untouched. Using new archeological technology a variety of information can be gathered from an archeological site without ever uncovering it. That means however that to the uninitiated there seems to be little here, although the imaginative can discern the shape of the plaza as a clearing in the scrubby bushes that grow here. To imagine it properly though, it helps to have visited one of the still-inhabited pueblos in the area, such as Acoma or Taos. The village would have been a hive of activity: women cooking or grinding corn, or maybe making pottery, men carving tools from flint or skinning animals, children playing, dogs darting underfoot and so on.
The people who lived in these houses would have descended each day to the valley floor below to farm their crops, following the same well-worn trails that brought you up here. On the way they would have passed the cavates where some of their fellow villagers lived, and that is where the trail now takes us.
You will be able to see the cavates dotted along the face of the mesa quite early in your walk, but the trail at first leads away from these to climb up to the village above. It is only when you descend from there that you get a close look at the other places the ancients called home. The inhabitants dug these caves out of the soft rock, extending the walls where needed with stones and mortar, and adding timber roofs. These have of course long since disappeared, and the caves that remain look almost natural rather than man-made. But if you peer inside (there are no restrictions on access other than your own capacity to reach them, and as several are right by the trail it is easy to enter them) you will see the ceilings and walls of some blackened by the smoke of long-extinguished fires, evidence of the human impact on this apparently natural environment.
Take care when exploring the caves not to touch any walls, as even light contact can cause damage. And of course you must never remove anything from a site as historic as this, nor from any national park or monument.
A few of the caves apparently have traces of painting or petroglyphs inside, but we didn’t find any here, although we did spot some at several points along the trail, as my next tip describes.
In several places along the trail you can see petroglyphs, although many have been damaged by exposure to the elements over the centuries – and no doubt by exposure to people too. Petroglyphs are designs carved into the stone, like the man (I think it’s a man!) in my second photo and the shapes in the first and third.
The trail leaflet explains more about them:
” However, today through consultation with San Ildefonso Pueblo descendents, we know that these marks upon the rocks have deeper meanings than mere art. They may someday even be classified as a written language. The meanings of some petroglyphs are known to many present- day Pueblo people. The exact significance of others may have been lost through time.”
But not every petroglyph that you see will necessarily have been carved by the ancestral Pueblo people who once inhabited Tsankawi – some are later additions created by Spanish settlers. Their shepherds kept their herds in small pens built under the rock outcroppings here and are thought to have carved some of the shapes and symbols, such as arrows, during Colonial times (between the late 1800s to early 1900s). But just because the Spanish shepherds did so, there is absolutely no excuse for any of us to try to add to these carvings. As always on National Park land (or indeed anywhere else of historic or natural significance) the rule must be, “look but don’t touch”!
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