UPDATE AS OF JAN 10, 2013
The 2011 Las Conchas forest fire damaged 60% of the park area in Frijoles Canyon and left other parts vulnerable to flash flooding due to lack of vegetation.
IMPORTANT - FROM THE NPS WEBSITE:
"Currently (through November 17, 2012) all access to Frijoles Canyon (the main visited area of the park including the visitor center and major archeological sites) will be via a mandatory shuttle bus from the nearby community of White Rock. The shuttle pickup and drop-off is at the newly opened White Rock visitor center right on Hwy 4. Pets are not permitted on the shuttle. Service animals may accompany their owners and the shuttles are fully accessible. After 4 PM private vehicles are allowed to drive into Frijoles Canyon but, remember, all visitors (and their cars) must leave the canyon by sunset."
At time of this update, it's uncertain if shuttle-only access during peak hours will be temporary or permanent so please reference the website before your visit:
The GREAT news is that practically all sections of the park have now been reopened for visitors although navigation of the backcountry has its challenges. Again, please see the NPS website and check with a ranger before attempting any long hikes into more primitive areas of the park; places most visitors do not venture into.
I'll post another update as soon as more details on the shuttles are available but don't let the fire damage discourage a visit, and do NOT miss the excellent, detached Tsankawi section (see my tips - no shuttle needed) which was totally untouched by the fire: see my reviews on that!!
Seeing wildlife is a highlight for many visitors to Bandelier but it's better to connect with them with your camera than with your bumper or some tender part of your person! Keep an eye out for deer on your drive in, and snakes above/under/around anywhere you place a foot/hand. The hikers some yards ahead of us on Falls Trail came around a switchback and startled a 5-foot rattler sunning in the middle of the trail. He wasn't happy - and neither were they - but he quickly slithered off in a huff. They are as afraid of you as you are of them so if you see one, just stay well out of striking range and they'll go away. At least that's what the rangers say.
The bottom of Falls Trail, nearer to the Rio Grande, also has some interesting issues with feral cattle. If you see them, keep a serious distance and for heaven's sake don't rile them up: they're ornery.
Different seasons at Bandelier can bring weather-related challenges. Summers are sunny, hot and dry and some trails, such as Main Loop, have little shade so bringing lots of water, hats and sunscreen is a must. Sudden afternoon thunderstorms with heavy downpours and dangerous lighting are also common. If you see one coming, it's good to get off of high, exposed places such as the mesa at Tsankawi, Cerro Grande Peak or any of the rim trails. Heavy rains can produce flash flooding along the creeks or river bottoms, washing out large rocks and footbridges: we came across some of those on Falls Trail. Ice and snow in winter can make trails treacherously slick and cause some to be closed if considered too dangerous for safe hiking.
That said, check the forecast and/or with the rangers at the Visitor Center before your hike to make sure your chosen route is open and chances are good for an uneventful weather day.
The trail is advertised as being 1.5 miles in length, although it seemed a little longer than this to us. It is also advertised as easy, but that is a relative term! Certainly you would not say that it is strenuous, but I think anyone who has a fear of heights would find some stretches a little unnerving. There are three short but steep ladders to negotiate, and in a couple of places the path becomes very narrow and runs along the edge of the mesa. I also found it a little harder to walk in those parts where the path is worn very deep (as much as 30 or more centimetres) and is only one foot wide – I mean the width of your foot, not the measurement! You have to put one foot directly in front of the other, and lift each one high so as to clear the side “wall” of the path. At a few points it becomes more like an uneven rocky staircase, but these parts don’t last long and most people of reasonable fitness should cope fine. I would not however recommend that you do the walk with young children (unless they are so young that you can carry them in a sling).
Towards the end of our walk, as we were on the final stretch back towards the parking lot (but with still maybe half a mile or so to go), clouds started to gather to the east of us, behind our backs, and they were clearly moving faster than we were – especially as we kept stopping to take photos. We remembered then the warnings about the dangers of being caught out in this exposed rocky landscape during a storm, so we quickened our pace to make sure we were safely back at the car before the clouds came directly overhead. In the event, no storm ensued, but it’s better to be safe than sorry in this unforgiving environment.
But if this trail demands any sort of effort from you, it is a worthwhile one, as the views and the sense of history amply repay you for taking the trouble to walk where the ancients once walked. And remember that they would have done so in sandals, or even with bare feet, and I am certain would have been far more sure-footed than any of us, even the best of walkers, on this rocky trail. So let us follow them to the mesa’s top.
Some of what makes the canyon beautiful can also be a little dangerous. Certain of the trails border very long dropoffs and as constant erosion works away at them, the edges can become crumbly and unstable. It's nothing to worry about as long as you keep to the path and don't go wandering off. Keep an eye on those naturally curious youngsters, too.
The ladders to Alcove House can be creepy if you're afraid of heights. I wouldn't recommend them for small children but they're very firmly attached to the cliffside so there's no wobble and the rungs are nice and wide.
The Park Service maintains excellent paths and facilities for tourists; however, you should be reminded to wear good walking shoes, and have drinking water, especially during the hot days of summer. And - if heights and tight spaces bother you, there may be a few places you'll just want to "take a pass on."
Though the national park system has tried to make remote areas, like Bandelier, more accessible, they still have a lot of work to do!
The pathway we were directed to as wheelchair useable was rough, too narrow in sections and quite steep. Though my Dad's chair made it with some difficulty, I was tuckered out quite quickly! Since my father is unable to propell himself on rough terrain, I was the engine ... and not a very good one either :)
I do have to commend the local rangers for their knowledge of the park. Several let us know that one of the usually accessible paths was undergoing repair and not a good choice for this visit. They directed us onto another route that was rough, but acceptable... okay, more than accetable as the views were beautiful .....