Bandelier National Monument, located not far from Los Alamos, NM, encompasses almost 34,000 acres of canyons, cliffs and desert landscape. There are only three miles of road and the primary attraction is in a relatively small area so much of the place is backpacking and hiking country.
There are around 3,000 known archaeological sites in the park dating back several thousand years. The place was the ancestral home of several local pueblo communities dating back 1,000 years or more. Around 1200 the local people were living in large structures of as many as 40 rooms. These communities grew to over 600 rooms in the next 250 years and then were mostly abandoned by 1500. The descendants of the early residents moved to pueblos closer to the Rio Grande River. In 1880, Adolph Bandelier — a self-taught anthropologist, was led to the site by local people and spent the next twelve years exploring and documenting the sites in Frijoles Canyon. In 1916 the area was designated as a National Monument but access was limited until the 1930s when the Civilian Conservation Corps constructed a road and a park lodge for visitors. In 1959 a kid in my neighborhood visited Bandelier with his family and showed my some pictures….I decided I would go for a visit. In 2015 I finally made it….only 56 years later. Time marches on.
The most accessible sites are in Frijoles Canyon and there is a easy loop trail from the park headquarters. Some of it is wheelchair accessible. Some of the trails going up to the cliff dwellings are narrow and steep. This is a canyon in desert country and is prone to flash floods in recent years due to some major forest fires. There is ample evidence of flooding in the canyon…be aware of weather conditions.
Heading into the canyon, the first thing you will encounter is a large circular kiva (Big Kiva) which is impressive as a ruin and must have been quite a place when it was in use. I don’t know the dimensions but it must be close to thirty feet in diameter…one of the largest building projects in the canyon.
A short distance along the trail is the major ruin of Tyuonyi Pueblo. Tyuonyi has been tree-ring dated to about 1380 and consisted of about 400 rooms when it was fully built. The structure was three stories tall and surrounded a central plaza about 40 yards in diameter. There were three other kivas built in the central plaza. Probably around 100 people lived at the site at any one time. Tyuonyi, meaning “place of the council”, was one of the first ancestral pueblo sites excavated in the Rio Grande valley. Much of what we know about the early Pueblo settlement and culture in the Rio Grande valley comes from Tyuonyi and similar sites in the area which were excavated in the early years — Tyuonyi from 1908 to 1914.
Implements and pottery recovered from the site indicates that it was occupied over a long period and some activity may have lasted until around 1550. Some of the residential rooms have as many as four distinct floor levels – one on top of the other. Some rooms have paved stone floors, which is quite rare. Beyond the circular main settlement there are some satellite house blocks that remain unexcavated. The abandonment of the site in the 1500s might be connected to a smallpox pandemic that spread to the area from Spanish infiltration into Mexico between 1519 and 1526.
Another major occupation site is a short distance up the canyon trail. These structures abut the walls of the canyon and include many rooms carved-out of the solid canyon walls. The stone is volcanic tuff, a consolidated ash, and is easily tunneled into for expanded living quarters. Like in Tyuonyi, these house blocks were several stories high.
Some of the cavate spaces hollowed out from the cliff face are enterable by ladder and are surprisingly large inside. Since the spaces were protected from the elements there are still some traces of plaster and paint on the chamber walls.
It seems unusual among significant NPS administered archaeological sites that visitors can actually get close to and even enter some of the old structures.
My daughter happily accompanied me on this trip. I already know I need to go back to see the rest of the place and maybe do a day hike on the Falls Trail (under 2 miles). There is another section of the monument with a second cluster of ruins and cave dwellings called Tsankawi. I didn’t get to visit that area so there will probably be a part three sometime in the future.
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