April 29, 2013 by Deborah W. Trotter
As a kid in 1968, again with our own kids in 2000, and again with just my husband last fall, I have hiked back into ancient times at Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico. Although the Monument is vast, with 70 miles of hiking trails, the main point of interest for me is Frijoles Canyon. There you enter the home of the Ancestral Pueblo people, whose descendants live today in the nearby Pueblos of Cochiti, San Felipe, Santa Domingo, San Ildefonso, Santa Clara and Zuni.
The 1.2 mile main loop trail from the Visitor Center takes you through the village of Tyuonyi (QU-weh-nee) on the Canyon floor
and up to its cliff and cave dwellings along the walls above.
The caves were carved out of the talus cliffs and some are accessible by ladders. Last fall when we were there, a storm was coming, and we got a little bit wet, but it meant there were hardly any other visitors in the Canyon. It was easy to erase ourselves from the scene and imagine the vibrant community that dwelt here from the mid-1200’s to the mid-1500’s.In the caves, we could almost sense the spirits of the ancient inhabitants. Today’s Pueblo people believe that spiritually, their ancestors still live at Bandelier, and park staff work with Pueblo representatives when making decisions that will have an impact on their ancestral homelands.
Another half mile up Frijoles Canyon along a wooded trail that criss-crosses Frijoles Creek is Alcove House (formerly called Ceremonial Cave), a large, high opening where about 25 people once lived. Today it shelters a reconstructed ceremonial Kiva,and viga holes where roof beams once joined cave walls are still visible. The cave sits 140 feet above the Canyon and requires a climb up a series of wooden ladders to get there. When we visited with our children, climbing the ladders spooked me a bit, but most recently, I had no problem going up or down. (Hmm, does aging cure fear of heights?!)
As we were preparing to descend the ladders last fall, a Park Ranger appeared and told us that he and his partner would be removing the wooden footbridges across the creek to prevent them from being washed away by the high water that would be inundating the Canyon in about an hour.Heavy rain was falling at higher elevations, and the Rangers had been concerned about it at the Visitor Center before we left on our hike. In the past 15 years several wildfires in and around Bandelier have destroyed enough vegetation that flash flooding in the Canyon and even at the Visitor Center has become a destructive reality.
Ahead of the coming high water, we hiked back down the Canyon and followed the Nature Trail on the opposite side of the creek from the cliff dwellings, more sheltered under trees from the intermittent raindrops. We learned from trailside information displays that the Canyon hosts quite a variety of plants, animals, trees and insects in its ecosystems.
Although you can drive your car to the Visitor Center in the off season, and early and late in the day from May to October, between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. during those usually crowded months you must ride one of the free shuttles from the Visitor Center in White Rock about twenty minutes away to enter the Monument. For updates on trails, access to archaeological sites and shuttle information, click here. (Alcove House is currently closed due to safety concerns and lack of funding for stabilization work.)