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On Walkabout At: Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico

The one must see attraction in New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains is without a doubt the historic Bandelier National Monument.  As interesting as visiting the nearby Jemez State Monument was it totally failed to compare to what I found at Bandelier.  The monument is located in the scenic Frijoles Canyon that was once home to a large ancestral Pueblo Indian village:

Picture from Bandalier National Monument

As explained by the National Park Service website, this village was abandoned for hundreds of years before the first settlers began to move into Frijoles Canyon in the 1850’s.   One of these settlers Jose Montoya of Cochiti Pueblo in 1880 brought Adolph F. A. Bandelier to Frijoles Canyon who had recently moved to New Mexico to study the social organizations, customs, and movements of the native people.  Upon meeting Bandalier Montoya offered to show him his people’s ancestral homelands.  After seeing the village’s ruins Bandalier is quoted as saying that the village was, “The Grandest Thing I Ever Saw”.  Bandalier would remain in New Mexico for the next 12 years studying the region’s native people before moving to South America to study the native people there.  In his seventies Bandalier moved to Spain to study original Spanish records of the Americas.  Bandalier would pass away in Spain in 1914.

After his death, in 1916 legislation to create Bandelier National Monument was signed by President Woodrow Wilson.  It would be a while before improvements to the park would begin.  Finally between 1934 and 1941 workers from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) worked from a camp constructed in Frijoles Canyon. Among their accomplishments is the road into Frijoles Canyon, the current visitor center, a new lodge, and miles of trails. For several years during World War II the park was closed to the public and the Bandelier lodge was used to house Manhattan Project scientists and military personnel.

When I went to the monument it was a weekend and it was packed.  By the time I finished by trip to Bandelier I understood perfectly why this location is such a popular tourist destination.  The visitor center at Bandelier was pretty much your standard National Park visitor center which offered a short film about the park and a gift shop, nothing really memorable:

Picture from Bandalier National Monument

The rangers working at the park though I found very informative and helpful, which is as always a positive.  From the visitor center I set out on the circuit hike around the ruins to include a detour to the Alcove House that was located further up the valley in an isolated cave. Here is a map of the circuit trail:

As I walked down the trail I notice the sign pictured below, which I felt provided a great graphical representation of how the Jemez Mountains is actually one of the world’s six known supervolcanoes, with Frijoles Canyon being carved out of the side of the volcano by the waters of the Frijoles Creek:

Picture from Bandalier National Monument

I found the bottom of the canyon to be quite flat and heavily wooded with a mixture of pinon and ponderosa pines:

Picture from Bandalier National Monument

As I walked up the canyon I noticed how steep and rugged the sides of the canyon were and when I looked closely I could see small caves in the rock:

Picture from Bandalier National Monument

The first ruin I came upon was a large kiva:

Picture from Bandalier National Monument

The  ancestral Puebloans that migrated to this area from Mesa Verde, Colorado and Chaco Canyon, New Mexico about 900 years ago brought with them their building technology to include the making of kivas.  Why they left their homes to migrate here is still the subject of much debate with drought often being the most often speculated reason.  The kivas the ancestral Puebloans built were used for religious ceremonies and a meeting place for males.  The Indians entered the kiva through the roof where a fire pit inside the kiva kept it warm with the entrance serving as an outlet for the smoke:

Picture from Bandalier National Monument

The reason for the trenches within the kiva have not been determined but they could be for something as simple as storage, but no one knows for sure.  From the kiva the trail next came up to the ruins of the ancestral Pueblo village called Tyuonyi:

Picture from Bandalier National Monument

According to the National Parks Service website, Bandelier’s human history extends back for over 10,000 years when nomadic hunter-gatherers followed migrating wildlife across the mesas and canyons. By 1150 CE Ancestral Pueblo people began to build more permanent settlements. Reminders of these past times are still evident in the park as are the strong ties of the modern Pueblo people. By 1550 the Ancestral Pueblo people had moved from their homes here to pueblos along the Rio Grande (Cochiti, San Felipe, San Ildefonso, Santa Clara, Santo Domingo).  The people who lived in this village had an average height of 5’5″ tall for men while the average woman was 5′. The average size for people in Europe was approximately the same.  The average lifespan was 35 years; however, infant mortality rates were high. A large percentage of children never made it past 2 years of age. There would have been individuals who survived into their 50’s and 60’s but they would not be among the majority.

From the Tyuonyi ruins the trail then heads up to the cliff sides of the canyon:

Picture from Bandalier National Monument

The rock that composes this canyon is of a volcanic nature which means it is easily eroded.  This erosion has caused many caves to naturally appear on the canyon’s walls.  The trail from the ruins leads right into one of the larger naturally made caves:

Picture from Bandalier National Monument

The first Indians to migrate to this area would have used large natural caves like this to live in until they were able to construct their pueblo village:

Picture from Bandalier National Monument

From the cliff side trail I had a great view looking down on to the circular shaped Tyuonyi village:

Picture from Bandalier National Monument

These pueblo buildings would have been 2-3 stories high much like what can be seen in the Pueblo Indian village of Taos today, but built in a circle for defensive protection against any invaders. This village was estimated to have 400 rooms, but archaeologists believe that the village was only home to about 100 people.  Many of the rooms would have then been used to store food and other goods.  The village may have had a small population, but many more natives lived in homes along the side of the canyon’s walls.

The trail I was on ran parallel to the cliff where at various points ladders were put up to look into the caves that the ancestral Pueblo Indians used as homes called “cavates”:

Picture from Bandalier National Monument

As I continued down the trail I had another great view of Tyuonyi village:

Picture from Bandalier National Monument

Besides admiring the village ruins down below the sheer rock walls of Frijoles Canyon were quite a sight to see as well:

Picture from Bandalier National Monument

The further I traveled down the trail the more elaborate the cliff dwellings became:

Picture from Bandalier National Monument

The Pueblo Indians didn’t just live in the caves but they also built adobe buildings in front of many of the caves, which ruins like the ones pictured below can still be seen:

Picture from Bandalier National Monument

The small holes shown in the above picture are where the Indians inserted their wooden poles to support their adobe buildings.  I took a closer look at these holes known by the Pueblos as “vigas” and noticed a very faded piece of Indian art on the rock wall:

Picture from Bandalier National Monument

As I continued down the trail more and more ruins an caves could be seen:

Picture from Bandalier National Monument

Some of the adobe buildings as deduced by the wholes in the rock wall were up to three stories high:

Picture from Bandalier National Monument

Picture from Bandalier National Monument

At one point along the trail a well preserved example of this early Pueblo art could be seen:

Picture from Bandalier National Monument

Here is a closer look at this preserved piece of art:

Picture from Bandalier National Monument

Some less preserved pieces of art was also visible:

Picture from Bandalier National Monument

Honestly the early Pueblo Indians art skill were not very impressive compared to the aboriginal art I saw in Australia, but it was still quite interesting to see.  The village that was built along the side of the canyon along with the Tyuonyi village had to be extremely impressive to see in its heyday.  From here I was going to see another impressive structure as I hiked deeper into Frijoles Canyon to the isolated and difficult to reach Alcove House.

Next Posting: Bandelier’s Alcove House

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