After the Balloons – Bandelier National Monument

What better way to spend an October day than to explore Bandelier National Monument.

Sue, a former college roommate, and her husband were visiting from Colorado during the Balloon Fiesta. We had enjoyed a cool crisp morning as we munched on breakfast burritos and watched over 600 hot air balloons, along with thousands of other fiesta-goers, for the October 4 opening day Mass Ascension.


Cartoon-shaped balloon flanked by multi-colored balloons

Sunday’s rain gave away in the late afternoon allowing us to enjoy the magic of the Balloon Glow.

Balloon Glow

Balloon Glow

On Monday morning it was time to sample some of New Mexico’s treasures and we headed to Bandelier National Monument.

Located north of Santa Fe near Los Alamos National Labs, the 33,000 acre federal monument consists of mesas, mountains and canyons. The main part of the park is tucked in Frijoles Canyon. It took us back in time as we explored the remains of the ancestral pueblo dwellings whose descendents now live in Cochiti Pueblo. We also were awed by the geology and natural history of the park.

As we descended from the Pajarito (little bird in Spanish) Plateau, where Mountain Bluebirds and Black-eyed Juncos cavorted under statuesque ponderosas, we were awed by the grandeur of Bandelier’s tuff-consolidated volcanic ash that forms the pock-marked cliffs and canyons.

We ate our lunch at a picnic table off the parking area under a canopy of fall leaves, and then headed out on the 1.5 mile Loop Trail – starting where it ends. While the trail is not one-way, at times when we were going UP a narrow pathway along the cliff dwellings while others were heading DOWN, we felt like we were swimming up stream. It is recommended that park guests start at the Visitor’s Center where they can familiarize themselves with the archaeological sites and view native plants before setting out on the tour. We took in these sites at the end of our walk.

Cliff dwelling ruins

Cliff dwelling ruins

An accessible, paved trail runs along the base of the cliff dwellings. We opted to climb the narrow stone stairways and explore the ruins up close. The eroded adobe bricks at the base of a cliff provided a sense of how the ancestral puebloans constructed their dwellings. When we looked closely, we could see where multi-story ‘condos’ were tucked against the rock face. The rows of viga holes remain, and now often are utilized by bats and cavity-nesting birds for their nests.

Descending from a cavate

Descending from a cavate

As we wound our way on the narrow pathways and stairs between the groups of cliff dwellings, there were ladders that led to cavates, or rooms that were dug out of the tuff cliffs. Even though the tuff is not as hard as sandstone, it was mind-boggling to think about what it took for them to chisel out these cavities with the tools that were available in the thirteenth century.

Canyon Wrens popped in and out and called from the boulders at the base of the cliff dwellings – always too quick to be photographed.

From the cliff dwellings, we could look down and across the valley. The village of Tyuonyi, nestled next to a grove of cottonwood trees, was occupied concurrently with the cliff dwellings and was constructed more in the style of modern-day pueblos. After winding our way back down the cliff, we followed a path allowing us to walk through this village and peer down into the remains of the kivas.

Ruins of Village of Tyuonyi

Ruins of Village of Tyuonyi

After touring the visitor’s center, we headed down the Falls Trail, which followed the path of Frijoles Creek as it descended the canyon.

 We walked through several types of habitat on the mile and a quarter that we hiked to the upper falls. At the upper level we could still smell the damp ash smell of the prescribed burn that had taken place a week earlier. Further down the trail, the trees hung over the path, which were carpeted in fall leaves. I was grateful for Don’s hand as we stepped gingerly on wet stones to cross the creek. A flash flood had come through in August, leaving a bridge that crossed the creek in another location tilted at an angle.

As we rounded a corner, we had a view of the multi-colored canyon opening up to the Rio Grande far below.

Falls Trail view

Falls Trail view

By time we reached the upper falls it was 4 p.m.and we had to head back since the park closed at 5:00.

We had spent the weekend enjoying the man-made wonders of hot air balloons. Today we reveled in the natural and ancient wonders of Bandelier National Monument


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