Find a quiet corner in New Mexico and contemplate the mysteries of Bandelier National Monument

Matthew Jaffe

Travel planner:where to go in the canyon and beyond

From the cliffs above Frijoles Canyon in Bandelier NationalMonument, you can look down on the curving walls and into thehoneycomb-patterned remains of the village of Tyuonyi.

Dating back 800 years, it's the largest of the ancientstructures within this canyon 50 miles northwest of Santa Fe.Bandelier is justly celebrated as one of the Southwest's mostsignificant archaeological sites. But it's also a living place thatfeels especially vibrant as summer wildflowers bloom and themonsoon season arrives.

Local Pueblo peoples still regard it as part of their ancestrallands. And the monument's 33,750 acres preserve both the buildingsand the natural world of their forebears, who lived here beforeabandoning the area nearly 400 years ago.

"Visitors come to Bandelier with the idea that the people wholived here mysteriously vanished," says Cecilia Shields, aninterpretive park ranger from Picuris Pueblo. "But our traditionscontinue very strongly, and there's a direct tie to modern Puebloculture. When school and youth groups come here, we're able toteach them by showing them the places where their ancestorslived."

Not only can you enter some of the dwellings these ancestorscarved into the canyon's walls, you can explore pristine landscapesand enjoy the same sensations they experienced: the rush of abreeze through cottonwoods, the sound of Frijoles Creek tumblingover rocks, and the chatter of jays in the forest.

Frijoles Canyon is an extraordinarily dramatic spot. Its cliffsare richly textured with weird turrets and towers that can appeargoblin-like thanks to their many holes and crevices. It's easy tofeel as if you're being watched.

In summer, it can be difficult to find the solitude that allowsfor full immersion in the Bandelier experience. Most visitors arerespectful but there are those who treat Bandelier as if it were atheme park. Take a recent summer day on the trail to Alcove House,reached by climbing 140 feet up a set of four ladders: One climberdecided to video his entire ― and very slow ― progress,complete with droning narration.

The best strategy is to visit in early morning or wait out thecrowds by going at the end of the day. And there's certainly noshortage of midday alternatives. Monument superintendent DarleneKoontz describes Bandelier as having a "huge amount of quietness"and encourages visitors to get beyond the main canyon, to hike downto the Rio Grande or see the summer wildflowers on the Burnt MesaTrail. Because the best way to experience the heart of Bandelier iswhen 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 tellthem that this is the best of what we have learned. But sometimesyour guess is as good as ours."

EXPLORE BANDELIER

Temperatures at Bandelier National Monument canreach 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 or800/444-0707.

WHERE TO GO

Alcove House Trail Walk along Frijoles Creek, then climb awooden ladder to a kiva (a ceremonial Pueblo meeting place).Moderate to difficult.

Bandelier Civilian Conservation Corps Historic DistrictGuided walking tour to a 1930s Pueblo revival-style compound, aclassic of national park architecture.

Falls Trail Moderate 5-mile round-trip hike descends alongFrijoles Creek and passes two waterfalls on the way to the RioGrande. Can be hot in summer.

Main Loop Trail Easy introduction to archaelogicalsites.

BEYOND THE CANYON

Apache Spring Trail Diverse 5-mile round-trip throughforests above 8,500 feet, then 750 feet down into upper FrijolesCanyon.

Burnt Mesa Trail Easy 5-mile round-trip begins at State 4and explores the mesa (nice wildflowers) above Frijoles Canyon.

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