From the cliffs above Frijoles Canyon in Bandelier National Monument, you can look down on the curving walls and into the honeycomb-patterned remains of the village of Tyuonyi.
Dating back 800 years, it's the largest of the ancient structures within this canyon 50 miles northwest of Santa Fe. Bandelier is justly celebrated as one of the Southwest's most significant archaeological sites. But it's also a living place that feels especially vibrant as summer wildflowers bloom and the monsoon season arrives.
Local Pueblo peoples still regard it as part of their ancestral lands. And the monument's 33,750 acres preserve both the buildings and the natural world of their forebears, who lived here before abandoning the area nearly 400 years ago.
"Visitors come to Bandelier with the idea that the people who lived here mysteriously vanished," says Cecilia Shields, an interpretive park ranger from Picuris Pueblo. "But our traditions continue very strongly, and there's a direct tie to modern Pueblo culture. When school and youth groups come here, we're able to teach them by showing them the places where their ancestors lived."
Not only can you enter some of the dwellings these ancestors carved into the canyon's walls, you can explore pristine landscapes and enjoy the same sensations they experienced: the rush of a breeze through cottonwoods, the sound of Frijoles Creek tumbling over rocks, and the chatter of jays in the forest.
Frijoles Canyon is an extraordinarily dramatic spot. Its cliffs are richly textured with weird turrets and towers that can appear goblin-like thanks to their many holes and crevices. It's easy to feel as if you're being watched.
In summer, it can be difficult to find the solitude that allows for full immersion in the Bandelier experience. Most visitors are respectful but there are those who treat Bandelier as if it were a theme park. Take a recent summer day on the trail to Alcove House, reached by climbing 140 feet up a set of four ladders: One climber decided to video his entire ― and very slow ― progress, complete with droning narration.
The best strategy is to visit in early morning or wait out the crowds by going at the end of the day. And there's certainly no shortage of midday alternatives. Monument superintendent Darlene Koontz describes Bandelier as having a "huge amount of quietness" and encourages visitors to get beyond the main canyon, to hike down to the Rio Grande or see the summer wildflowers on the Burnt Mesa Trail. Because the best way to experience the heart of Bandelier is when your mind is free to ponder its mysteries.
"Visitors often ask us questions about why this and why that," says Koontz. "But there were no written records. So I'll just tell them that this is the best of what we have learned. But sometimes your guess is as good as ours."
Temperatures at Bandelier National Monument can reach 90°, but afternoon thunderstorms can cool things off. INFO: $12 per vehicle; 505/672-0343. Los Alamos, the nearest town, is about 5 miles north. Lodging and restaurant info: http://visit.losalamos.com or 800/444-0707.
WHERE TO GO
Alcove House Trail Walk along Frijoles Creek, then climb a wooden ladder to a kiva (a ceremonial Pueblo meeting place). Moderate to difficult.
Falls Trail Moderate 5-mile round-trip hike descends along Frijoles Creek and passes two waterfalls on the way to the Rio Grande. Can be hot in summer.
Main Loop Trail Easy introduction to archaelogical sites.
BEYOND THE CANYON
Apache Spring Trail Diverse 5-mile round-trip through forests above 8,500 feet, then 750 feet down into upper Frijoles Canyon.
Burnt Mesa Trail Easy 5-mile round-trip begins at State 4 and explores the mesa (nice wildflowers) above Frijoles Canyon.