Just about an hour outside of Santa Fe, Bandelier National Monument is a unique archaeological site consisting of dozens of cave dwellings carved into the walls of the scenic Frijoles Canyon. In the following guide, you can learn exactly what to expect from a visit to the main site, in addition to a hike along the nearby Tsankawi Trail.
You can also learn more about entry fees and reaching the site from Santa Fe below.
What we now call Bandelier National Monument was established by the Ancestral Puebloan peoples, also commonly referred to as the Anasazi, around 1150 AD. They likely settled here for various reasons, such as Frijoles Creek serving as a reliable water source.
In regards to food, they cultivated the region’s staple crops: corns, beans and squash. And they also ate animals like turkey, deer and rabbit.
And as we’ll cover below, the soft rock of the canyon walls made it relatively easy to carve out dozens of cave dwellings. Not far away, the Puebloans also discovered harder volcanic rock like basalt, which they used to create the tools needed for the carving.
Home to at least several hundred people, the canyon’s inhabitants had links with other major Puebloan sites like Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde. Eventually, though, the site would be abandoned by around 1550 – likely due to both overpopulation and drought.
While descendants of the ancient Puebloans have long known about the site, an influential archaeologist named Adolf Bandelier was invited to the area in the 19th century and it’s remained protected ever since.
Who Was Adolf Bandelier?
Adolf Bandelier (1840-1914) was born in Switzerland before emigrating with his family to the United States. He soon took an interest in ancient cultures and archaeology, and was eventually sponsored by the Archaeological Institute of America to visit New Mexico. In total, he’d visit over 160 sites throughout the Southwest.
In 1880, Bandelier was invited by a local Puebloan named Jose Montoya to see the Frijoles Canyon, the former dwelling place of his ancestors. Bandelier was fascinated by the site, and in addition to being the first archaeologist to excavate and study it, he even featured it in a novel he’d later write.
After the American Southwest, Bandelier would go on to study archaeological sites in Mexico (such as Yagul), Peru and Bolivia. After his passing in 1914, what we now call Bandelier National Monument was named after him and designated a protected area in 1916.
While, as we’ll cover below, the main portion of the site is the Frijoles Canyon and its cliff dwellings, the National Monument protects 33,000 acres (13,600 hectares) in total.
Visiting Bandelier National Monument
As we’ll cover below, Bandelier National Monument has a mandatory shuttle system that begins from nine in the morning. But if you visit before nine, you’ll be free to arrive in your own car.
And if you do so, you’ll be able to stop at the stunning Frijoles Canyon Overlook. Geologists believe the Pajarito Plateau, of which Frijoles Canyon is a part, was formed by two eruptions of the Jemez Volcano over a million years ago.
The Main Loop Trail
Arriving at the main site and paying for your ticket or park pass (again, see more below), it’s time to begin your tour of the canyon. The main portion of Bandelier National Monument consists of a 1.2 mile (1.9 km) trail, simply known as the Main Loop.
Beyond that, you also have the option of taking an additional trail to the Alcove House, one of the site’s main attractions. But first, let’s cover what you can expect to see along the Main Loop.
The Main Loop trail begins just behind the Visitor Center. Near the start, you’ll encounter a traditional adobe horno, or oven, that’s long been used by the local Native American Pueblo community.
And before long, you’ll encounter a kiva, one of the most defining features of Puebloan architecture. As the biggest at the site, archaeologists appropriately call this one the Big Kiva.
These circular structures played a very important role in the lives of the ancient Puebloans and are a common feature at Anasazi ruins throughout the Southwest. In fact, kivas remain in use amongst various Puebloan communities to this day.
Partially constructed underground and then topped with buildings comprised of earth and wood, kivas hosted each community’s most important rituals, while they also served as council houses.
At Bandelier National Monument’s Great Kiva, you’ll see the remains of six wooden pillars would’ve supported the roof. And it was through the roof that people entered the structure, descending via a long ladder.
In the distance, you’ll spot the site’s trademark Swiss cheese-like holes in the rock face. But the local inhabitants didn’t only live in the cliff dwellings. They also built standalone adobe structures on the valley floor.
This is evidenced by the next major landmark you’ll encounter, known as Tyuonyi. While only foundations of the huge circular structure remain, it once stood two stories high and would’ve housed around 100 inhabitants.
It’s best taken in from above when exploring the cliff dwellings, an area you can access via an alternate trail to the right which runs parallel to the Main Loop.
The rock walls of the Frijoles Canyons are comprised of a soft volcanic stone called tuff. Its softness made it relatively easy for settlers to carve out homes and lodges. While Tyuonyi on the valley floor was home to about 100 people, the cliff dwellings collectively housed an additional 400 people or so.
If you’re familiar with Cappadocia, Turkey and its many ‘fairy chimneys’ and cave churches, that region is comprised of tuff as well.
While there are dozens of former cave dwellings in total, only those that have ladders are accessible to visitors. Stepping inside the rooms, you’ll observe that many of them had their walls painted.
Centuries ago, the cave dwellings didn’t appear simply as holes in the rock face – or at least not all of them. At the lower level, the Puebloans built regular houses out of stone or brick.
Walking along the trail, you’ll encounter one such house, though it’s only a reconstruction. Built in 1920, some modern archaeologists now doubt its accuracy. In any case, it helps give visitors an idea of how Bandelier National Monument would’ve looked in its prime.
Walking along the path, you’ll have the chance to enter yet more cave rooms, which archaeologists refer to as cavates. Interestingly, some of them may have also served as kivas.
Notice a black zigzag pattern on the walls of one of these rooms. While it may not look like much at first glance, it was possibly a representation of Awanyu, the plumed serpent deity of the ancient Puebloans.
As we know that the Toltecs established trade links with the American Southwest around the time this site was settled, it’s highly likely that the cult of Awanyu was introduced from the south.
Notice how the ceilings of many of these rooms have been blackened. While cooking may have taken place inside, the inhabitants likely blacked the ceilings intentionally, as this helped harden the stone.
After the laborious process of carving out the rooms, inhabitants surely wouldn’t have wanted parts of the ceiling to crumble and fall on them.
The path will eventually lead you to the ‘Cave Kiva,’ considered one of the most sacred areas of Bandelier National Monument. Sadly, however, it was off-limits during my visit, with a sign reading ‘Closed Due to Vandalism.’
You’ll soon have the option to hike up something called the Frey Trail, which does not make a loop and takes you to the Juniper Campground.
If you’re not staying at the campground, there’s probably no reason to take this trail, though it is notable for being the likely route the ancient Puebloans used to enter the Frijoles Canyon.
Keep following the main trail and you’ll pass by yet more cave dwellings on your right. This area is home to the Long House, one of the most fascinating sections of Bandelier National Monument.
As the name suggests, you’ll encounter the foundations of a long, narrow dwelling. Notice the small holes along the rockface where wood beams would’ve been placed. These indicate the full height of the original brick building.
Above the Long House, meanwhile, are a multitude of petroglyphs. Some of them depict animals, while spirals are another common motif. One of them even represents a macaw, which likely came here from the Mayan world via the vast trade network of the Toltec Empire.
Additionally, you’ll even find a portion of well-preserved paint. This pictograph was originally located inside a dwelling and was deliberately covered in plaster for an unknown reason.
(While carved shapes are known as petroglyphs, painted images on the rock face are called pictographs.)
The Alcove House
Next, visitors have two options: either complete the Main Loop trail and return to the Visitor Center, or make a detour to see the Alcove House. The trail to the Alcove House is flat and easy, though it’s about a half mile each way.
After walking along the peaceful forested trail, you’ll eventually see the Alcove House in the distance up above. What follows is a series of four ladders taking you up 140 ft (42 m) to reach it.
As these ladders are only wide enough for one person, expect to do some waiting if other people are trying to get down. Those with a fear of heights may want to sit this detour out altogether.
Entering the Alcove House, you’ll spot more cave openings as well as a partially reconstructed kiva. The kiva featured a fire pit along with numerous holes in the bottom which may have held anchors for weaving looms.
But what function did the Alcove House serve? We’re still not entirely sure. Previously, archaeologists suspected that it was primarily ceremonial. But now archaeologists believe the space may have just served as an additional dwelling area.
As evidenced by other Puebloan sites like Mesa Verde, the ancient Puebloans were certainly fond of cliff dwellings. But as according to the ancient mindset, there was no clear separation between religious and secular life, this space was also surely ceremonial to some extent.
When finished, it’s time to descend the ladders, walk back the way you came, and return to the Main Loop Trail. You won’t find any additional archaeological landmarks on the other half of the Main Loop, so it won’t be long before you arrive back at the Visitor Center.
If you haven’t eaten yet, you’ll find an on-site cafe, while you can also purchase some informative books about Bandelier National Monument at the gift shop.
And if you still have some energy left over, consider stopping at the Tsankawi Trail before returning to Santa Fe.
The Tsankawi Trail
The Tsankwai area is twelve miles (19 km) from the main site but is still technically part of Bandelier National Monument. While you will find a few additional cave houses here, this is mainly a hiking trail. While not terribly difficult, it is indeed a proper hike, unlike the flat terrain of the main site.
You’ll have already passed the entrance to Tsankawi on your way over, but it’s easy to miss if you’re not looking closely. From the Bandelier Visitor’s center, head toward Santa Fe on Highway 4. The gravel parking lot for Tsankawi will be on your right just past the third stoplight.
In total, the 1.6 mile (2.6 km) hike should just take you about 45-60 minutes. It would be wise to download the AllTrails app before your visit, which you can check during the hike in case you have any doubts.
The first part of the hike involves walking uphill toward the mesa in the distance. Along the way, you’ll walk along some manmade drainage canals that were carved out of the natural rock centuries ago.
Eventually, you’ll reach a ladder that will take you to the very top of the mesa, from where you can enjoy some stunning views in all directions.
The ancient inhabitants of this area would’ve lived and farmed atop the mesa. Notably, while they were also Puebloans, Tsankawi residents spoke a language called Tewa, while those down in the Frijoles Canyon spoke Keres.
The trail will take you to the eastern edge of the mesa, after which you’ll slightly descend to a lower section for the walk back. And it’s along the edge of the mesa that you’ll find cave dwellings that closely resemble the ones we’ve gone over above.
As you make your way closer to the entrance, you’ll spot numerous carved petroglyphs as well. It’s believed that the current inhabitants of the modern San Ildefonso pueblo are direct descendants of Tsankawi’s original inhabitants, and they still regard the site and its symbols as sacred.
Eventually, you’ll make your way back to the edge of the mesa, completing the loop. Next, descend via the initial trail you started on before heading back to the parking lot.
If you started your day early enough, you should still have time left over for additional sightseeing in Santa Fe.
If you’re visiting during peak season, which is from mid-May to mid-October, you will only be able to access the main site via shuttle.
The shuttle, however, only runs from 9:00-15:00. So if you depart early enough and get to the site before 9:00, it’s perfectly fine to drive all the way to the Visitor Center in your own car.
Whichever option you choose, from central Santa Fe, first head north along US-84 W. Eventually, you’ll turn left onto Highway 502 and then another left to head south along Highway 4.
If you’re visiting after 9:00, it’s along Highway 4 that you’ll find the White Rock Visitor Center which serves as the shuttle departure point. There will be big signs so you can’t miss it. The shuttles depart every thirty minutes or so and are free of charge.
As mentioned, if you arrive early enough, you can ignore all the signs along the road telling you about the mandatory shuttle. As you’ll observe upon your arrival, the shuttle system is in place to avoid parking limitations outside the Frijoles Canyon Visitor Center.
Unfortunately, there are no public transport options to Bandelier National Monument, as you’ll still have to drive quite a distance to reach the shuttle departure point.
Before visiting any site run by the National Park Service, it’s always a good idea to check the official website for the most recent updates. You can find Bandelier National Monument’s page here.
On its own, Bandelier National Monument costs $25 to enter.
If you’re visiting from abroad, note that in contrast to many other countries, US parks typically charge per vehicle rather than per person. However, if you’re traveling by bicycle instead, they’ll charge you for an individual pass which costs $15, while those on motorcycles will be charged $20.
But considering how many National Parks and National Monuments there are to see in the Southwest alone, the best option for most will be to buy an ‘America the Beautiful’ Annual National Parks Pass.
These cost $80 for the year. In most cases, you’re already saving money by just visiting four National Parks/Monuments anywhere in the country at any point of the year.
What’s more, is that only one person in your vehicle needs to have the pass. Additionally, seniors can buy the pass for just $20. So if you have someone over 62 in your party, just have them get the annual pass and everyone else will be set.
As for where to get the pass, you can purchase it in person at most National Parks or Monuments. But you can also order it in advance online.
Even if you already have an annual pass, you’re usually supposed to ‘check in’ at the park or monument Visitor Center. But if you arrive before the office opens, you should be fine just leaving your pass visible on your dashboard.
The further out from the center you’re willing to stay, the cheaper the hotels will get. With prices soaring throughout the United States, there’s certainly no true ‘budget’ accommodation anymore, but the Motel 6 on the outskirts of town is perhaps the closest thing.
That’s where I chose to stay, with the room costing about $75 per night. There are actually two different Motel 6’s in Santa Fe, and while I stayed at the one farther from the center, it was still a relatively easy drive.