My first day trip in New Mexico was to Bandelier National Monument, located in the Frijoles (beans) Canyon on the Pajarito (little birdie) Plateau. Archeological finds from this park go back 11,000 years, from when Native Americans were moving in and out of this park, following game animals. Frijoles Creek is a permanent river source within the canyon, making this an attractive place for settlement. Eventually, people settled in the canyon to stay, building more permanent structures for housing and community activity. These people are commonly known as the Anasazi, or now the Ancestral Pueblo people.
The park is a short drive from Los Alamos, NM, and just under an hour to the west of Santa Fe. The current visitor center hours are 9:00 – 4:30, although the park is open from dawn to dusk. Private vehicles pay $20/entrance, or pedestrians/bikes pay $10. During the summer months, this park is so popular that off-site parking is used and a shuttle transports guests to and from the monument. It is recommended to get there early, because even during the spring months the parking lot has been overfilled with guests. Entrance passes are good for 7 days.
I hiked two trails in this park, seven days apart. My impressions were quite favorable, especially because I visited early enough in the year and day that the park was not very crowded. I had visiting guests who enjoyed this park more than the well-known Mesa Verde. It’s a small park though, and I can imagine it filling up quickly. I don’t think the experience would have been nearly as enjoyable if more time was spent waiting for people ahead of you on the narrow trails, rather than exploring the park. My advice for the best visit is to arrive early, especially during the spring and summer.
The first hike (Frijolito Loop Trail) took me up onto the Pajarito Plateau and provided beautiful views down into the canyon and along the rest of the plateau and surrounding landscape. There are essentially no ruins or obvious history along this trail, but the views were wonderful. It is somewhat strenuous, as you climb up and out of the canyon to start with, but the total length is only about 2.5 miles.
The most popular hike at the park stays on the canyon floor and takes you on a one-mile loop tour of all the park ruins. Called the Main Loop Trail, you can buy a nice handheld guide at the Visitor Center for only $1, which will tell you about each of the 21 stops along the walk. You can extend the walk by a mile to visit Alcove House, formerly Ceremonial Cave, which is a 140-foot ladder climb up along the canyon wall.
Favorite aspects about this park? The walk to Alcove House is along the river and through the forest, a nice change from the Main Loop trail. The Main Loop trail is informative and extensive in its history, and it allows you to climb into several old cliff dwellings to see how the Ancestral Pueblo people used to live. The 140-foot ladder climb into the Alcove House is very fun and offers great views, although I can see getting up and down tricky when there are many other visitors. And finally, there is wildlife everywhere! Mule deer couldn’t care less about you and don’t run off the second they hear you, and Abert squirrels are easy to find. Apparently tarantulas are common finds as well during autumn.
Final impressions of the park? The $20 fee seems a bit steep to me, especially because I just paid $30 to enter the Grand Canyon, the most popular park in the country, and only $5 to enter White Sands National Monument, a park I was well-aware of long before ever hearing of Bandelier. However, I suppose all the fees are going to a good cause, and as indicated previously, the park is clearly well-maintained for visitors, so the money seems to be put to good use. I’m also not sure I would like this hike as much in a crowded park, so I have to emphasize the part about getting there early. But overall, a nice thumbs up from me for Bandelier National Monument.