With more than 70 miles of trails within its 33,000 acres of land, Bandelier National Monument provides ample room for hikers to roam. But as visitors wait their turn to climb ladders into the ancient cliff dwellings and file through the narrow corridors along the volcanic tuff walls of Frijoles Canyon, the popular Northern New Mexico park can at times seem small and crowded.
The majority of foot traffic through Bandelier takes place on just 1.7 miles of pathways that make up the Main Loop and Alcove House trails. These trails are indeed worth the time and offer a fascinating showcase of the history of the Ancestral Pueblo people who inhabited Frijoles Canyon for 400 years. The beauty of Bandelier, however, spreads far beyond this well-trafficked loop, and most of it can be experienced in relative solitude.
I’ve visited the park on a handful of occasions in the five months since I moved back to New Mexico, sometimes without even realizing I was within its boundaries. With each trip, I’ve gained a greater appreciation for the diversity and brilliance of its landscapes.
Here are some of the trails that break from the main route and give hikers a different perspective of this magnificent park.
Frijoles Canyon Trail
This is one of my favorite trails to hike in Bandelier, both because of the wonderful scenery and the absence of people.
The trail begins just past Alcove House, one of the park’s most popular destinations, yet only a tiny percentage of visitors continue up the canyon. The two times I’ve taken this trail, I’ve encountered a total of four hikers.
The trail follows Rito de los Frijoles through the canyon that becomes more narrow in comparison to the area around the Main Loop. There aren’t cliff dwellings here, but the colorful canyon walls, caves and unique rock formations (including tent rocks) offer a compelling setting that constantly reveals new surprises.
Frijolito Loop Trail
The best way to get an overview of structures and dwellings of Bandelier is by ascending the south canyon wall and hiking along the rim. From here, hikers can see the circular ruins of Tyuonyi pueblo on the canyon floor, as well as the cavates and other cliff dwellings built into the opposite wall. Alcove house can be seen a little farther down the trail, which is flanked by piñons, cacti and wildflowers.
A short trail that makes a big impression, Tsankawi is situated on a rocky slice of land detached from the main portion of Bandelier, and it feels like a completely different place.
A ladder near the beginning of the trail takes hikers up to the top of a mesa that they will loop around while following ancient footpaths worn more than one to two feet deep into the soft, white tuff rock. The feeling of being immersed in a different time is unavoidable while shuffling through the narrow pathways carved by the Ancestral Puebloans hundreds of years ago.
Three mountain ranges — the Jemez to the west, Sangre de Cristos to the east, and Sandias to the south — are visible beyond the surrounding valleys when roaming on the mesa top. There are also cavates (or caves) carved into the tuff walls that hikers can enter, and large petroglyph panels can be viewed along the trail. A lot is packed into this impressive little loop.
Bandelier’s nextdoor neighbor, Valles Caldera, is a geological marvel in its own right. The expansive volcanic caldera in the Jemez Mountains is always a stunning sight to behold, and one of the best views of this wonder is from the highest point in Bandelier.
Cerro Grande Trail is a 4.6 mile out-and-back that rises about 1,200 feet to an elevation of 10,119 feet at the mountain’s peak. Hikers climb through a mixed conifer forest and wildflowers on the way to the top, where a spectacular 360-degree view awaits.
The scene to the west of Valles Caldera is the highlight, but mountain rangers are visible in every direction and Frijoles Canyon can even be seen when looking to the south.