During my trip to the southwestern United States in the fall of 2014, one of my destinations was Chaco Culture National Historic Park, or more commonly known as, Chaco Canyon. Turning off the highway that’s overrun these days with oil and gas traffic, I began the winding journey down the back roads to Chaco Canyon, only to find 15 miles in that the campground was full. An amazing thing about Chaco Canyon is that it’s in the middle of nowhere. A downside to Chaco Canyon is that it’s in the middle of nowhere. The nearest lodging, assuming I wanted to go that route, was over two hours away and I wasn’t quite sure just how far back the oil industry was destroying our beautiful BLM lands, so camping anywhere nearby was out of the question. I pulled out my atlas and found two national monuments still in northwestern New Mexico, but neither of them terribly close, either being a good bet for camping though. I went with the closer one, which wound up being Bandelier National Monument.
Driving in from the east, I began climbing into the Jemez Mountains, home to ancient volcanoes buried in vast ponderosa pine forests between desert regions. A fascinating natural landscape along the way that I was interested in exploring was the Valles Caldera National Preserve. This is the heart of the ancient volcanoes that are scattered throughout the mountains. Today, it’s an enormous open valley with large elk herds that frequent the area. My wish for the area is to reintroduce native species, such as gray wolves and bison, to create a healthier landscape that could easily rival Yellowstone National Park’s Lamar Valley, the Serengeti of America. Desperate for a campsite however, I continued onward to Bandelier National Monument.
I arrived at the campground at sunset and had much of it to myself, allowing me to secure a spot conducive to capture some night photography before sleeping off the extra driving time added to my day.
I woke up early the next morning shortly before sunrise and excited to explore my new surroundings. I immediately got up made my way into the main area of the national monument. Along my drive to the Visitor Center, I found a few mule deer browsing on some breakfast before I stopped at a scenic overlook to watch a foggy, though beautiful sunrise above what I was soon to learn was Frijoles Canyon, the primary destination for visitors to the park. I continued my drive into the canyon and parked at the Visitor Center. Still closed. So, I had a quick breakfast in the nearly freezing temperatures and began hiking toward some ruins, which as I found out is apparently what the park is known for.
I discovered that the interesting thing about these ruins is that they were built directly into the eroded holes and crevices of volcanic tuff. All of a sudden the entire park took on a new life for me as I eagerly followed the trail, zig-zagging through complexes and taking spur trails up a ladder into a natural cavity in the rock. Thanks to my early arrival, I was free to take my time composing shots and experiencing the ruins in solitude and peace without the screaming apathetic adults and iPad-withdrawn children running up and down the pathway doing the insulting, stereotypical Indian call. That all came as I was hiking out.
Past the the Big Kiva, Tyuonyi, and the Talus House, I found myself at the Long House as I noticed one or two people appearing on the trail far behind me. Undeterred, I kept my pace as I tried to find a decent composition of the Long House in the limited space I had to work with.
Still feeling the enjoyment of the moment, I descended from the ruins into the autumn cottonwood trees and found a fork in the trail. Left would bring me back to the Visitor Center, right would bring me to the Alcove House. With a few people already heading to the Alcove House after skipping the main ruins, I decided to take advantage while it was still relatively quiet.
The hike became more scenic as the trail quite gradually ascended up the canyon. The gradual incline ended though at the spur to the Alcove House which climbs up a cliff via a series of four ladders. For those with a fear of heights, find a comfortable rock and grab a snack while your friend(s) get a picture for you. For those without a fear of heights, the trail climbs beautifully up the cliffs of volcanic tuff, each ladder happily exposing a new view of the canyon below. The reconstructed Alcove House itself sits tucked away modestly in a large alcove (for lack of a better word) carved away by erosion and time, a nice escape from the clustered ruins downstream.
I had a nice stroll through the fall cottonwoods on my way back to the Visitor Center to get more information about potential hikes and answers to general questions. The rangers gave me a wealth of information, but neglected to mention that if I drove out, I wouldn’t be allowed to drive back in, something I learned the hard way after running a few errands in the nearest town. With no alternative, I parked at my campsite and evaluated my two options for how to enjoy the rest of my day around Frijoles Canyon: take the shuttle back to the Visitor Center, or hike back to the canyon. I found the latter to be a more refreshing choice, probably aided by the fact that I had been reading Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey at the time. In fact I think I felt Abbey’s ghost slap me for taking so long to evaluate the two options. I packed up, and headed down the Frey Trail, passing a very bored looking group waiting for the shuttle. Good call, Ed.
I was pleased to have the trail to myself. After all, why cut yourself off from the outside world with roads and cars when you can immerse yourself in it simply by taking a few steps? The solitude gave me the enjoyment of watching distant storms roll off the mountains as thunder murmured from the large clouds far away. Birds chirped and squirrels raced home in anticipation of my crossing their territory as the trail approached the canyon. The view down was nothing short of spectacular. It continued for the entire descent until I was back where I was this morning. I crossed the canyon floor and this time began up a long trail that rose up the hill on the opposite side of the canyon. It was this trail that caused me to briefly regret not being more prepared to get a backpacking permit earlier that day. My appetite to explore deeper and deeper into the monument was whet with every new opportunity to peer farther up the canyon.
Instead, I reached the top of the hill and wandered about the trails for a mile or so before heading down to the canyon, and ultimately, back to camp. The highlights included an unexcavated ruin site, a large ant hill, and a tarantula.
My hike back to camp was a longer one, not so much in distance, but in time. A few time-lapses, audio recordings of crickets, and just a general natural contentment contributed to my carefree course back to camp. By the time I got back, the sun had long since set and I had only enough time to eat a quick dinner before it was dark enough to shoot some night photography before bed.
The next morning was spent down at the Visitor Center in pursuit of a creature that had intrigued and eluded me the day before: the Abert’s Squirrel. It’s similar in many ways to the standard grey squirrel found across the country, but with a pure white underside and large rabbit-like ears. I spent about 45 minutes stalking and sneaking through the trees trying to catch at least a halfway decent shot of one, only to have them taunt and laugh at me from the tree tops. At least, it seemed that way from my view. I was able to catch a bit of video of a pair chasing each other around, but good still photography shots were lacking. Abert’s squirrels 1, me 0.
Later that morning I drove over to the Tsunkawi section of the park on my way to Santa Fe. It contains another unexcavated ruin site sitting atop a butte made up of more volcanic tuff, though surrounded much more by desert terrain as opposed to the shade and shelter of ponderosa pine trees. For those needing immense drop-offs and enormous mountains to be entertained, skip this section. For those that can find subtle beauty in a landscape while appreciating the culture and history found literally beneath your feet, this is not to be missed. The hike around the butte is quite scenic (in the subtle way) and contains many more ruin sites, and of course, petroglyphs. Get there early in the morning or more toward the evening for the best photographic opportunities.
If you find yourself passing through northwestern New Mexico, this is a place that is easy to immerse yourself in its history. The landscape is beautiful, the camping ideal, and the hiking fascinating. The next time I visit Bandelier National Monument, I hope to have at least a week to spend exploring its backcountry. Though I saw all the main sites, I know I only scratched the surface of the wonder and natural beauty spread throughout its 33,000 acres.