Last spring, Bandelier National Monument made headlines with the Cerro Grande wildfire, which began here then raged out of control over nearby Los Alamos and some 43,000 acres of forest. But the heart of Bandelier itself was spared. Take a winter stroll through the monument, just northwest of Santa Fe, and you'll find its sun-warmed canyons provide a glimpse of nature's rejuvenation, as well as a peek into the ancient past.
Pick a mild afternoon and hit Bandelier's highlights: First peruse at the visitor center, then hike a popular trail up Frijoles Canyon (neither were harmed by the fire). The visitor center offers displays of pottery, flora, and fauna, and a short film on the area's history (the monument was set aside in 1916, primarily to preserve the remnants of an ancestral Pueblo settlement).
On the paved 1.2-mile Main Loop Trail up Frijoles Canyon, you'll soon see low stone walls, the excavated ruins of an ancestral Pueblo village that stood in the narrow valley bottom more than 800 years ago.
Continue on to a series of dwellings built into the steep but soft volcanic tuff cliffs. Steps lead to these caves; you can climb a short ladder to enter one. The trail then returns to the valley floor and crosses Frijoles Creek. Here you can take a side trail to continue about 1/2 mile along the creek to Ceremonial Cave, accessed by tall ladders; those who don't want to navigate the ladders will still enjoy walking along the stream, which gurgles even when covered with a crust of ice.
You'll see the effects of the recent fire as you drive west on State 4 and east on State 501 into Los Alamos. To see how a forest can recover, visit the site of the 1977 La Mesa fire (ask rangers for hiking directions). It's proof that wildlands can heal.
HERE: Bandelier is 46 miles from Santa Fe. Go north on U.S. 84/285 to Pojoaque, west on State 502, and west on State 4.
DISTANCE: 2 miles round trip to Ceremonial Cave.
DIFFICULTY: Easy (use caution on ladders).
COST: $10 per car.
CONTACT: Bandelier National Monument Visitor Center; (505) 672-3861, ext. 517.