Headed to New Mexico and planning to do some hiking in Bandelier National Monument?! I’ve got a full travel guide to the area, complete with when to visit, history on the Ancestral Pueblo people, and of course all the fun Bandelier National Monument trails!
Imagine well-preserved ancestral cliff dwellings, stunning scenery (full of canyons, mesas, and the Frijoles Creek), and even ancient petroglyphs. Plus ladders to climb, cavates to explore, and tarantulas to watch out for – yes, we saw one!
As I was planning my week-long New Mexico road trip (as part of my 50 states challenge!), I knew I needed to include a visit to Bandelier National Monument. I had been intrigued with the park as soon as I saw those photos of the ladders (guilty!), so it was the perfect excuse to go! Plus, I included an extra day on our Santa Fe itinerary for a day trip, so we had the time.
If you’re even a teensiest bit interested in the lives of those living here thousands of years ago, I highly recommend you visit. We had a great morning and I honestly kinda wanna go back and do another hike!
About Bandelier National Monument
Bandelier National Monument is a mix of ancient historic vibes and jaw-dropping scenery spread across roughly 33,000 acres on the Pajarito Plateau. Nestled within this rugged and beautiful terrain, you’ll find Frijoles Canyon, carved over millions of years by Frijoles Creek. Which is the main hiking area in the park!
The canyon’s steep walls, composed of soft volcanic tuff, serve as a natural canvas for the intricate dwellings, petroglyphs, and kivas crafted by the Ancestral Pueblo people. It’s kind of wild to think that people used to call this place home over 10,000 years ago!
One of the best parts of exploring Bandelier is coming across the well-preserved ancient Puebloan dwellings – they really give you a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the region’s indigenous peoples.
Bandelier is a must-visit if you’re interested in soaking up the stories and rich heritage of the American Southwest, plus lots of natural beauty. And getting some cool pictures too!
If you really wanna get a sense of Bandelier National Monument before visiting (or just wanna get excited), you can even watch the 13-minute movie that’s sometimes shown in the park theater!
History of Bandelier and the Native Peoples
It’s important to note and acknowledge the land and people that once called Bandelier National Monument home. By visiting the park, you’re visiting the ancestral Pueblo people’s land who once inhabited the region. Respect the land and treat it as sacred — these remnants are hundreds if not thousands of years old!
Bandelier in the Past: The history of Bandelier National Monument is deeply intertwined with the ancient cultures that once thrived in the region. The history is truly captivating, dating back over 10,000 years, whoa! Early on (around the end of the last Ice Age, yes, that long ago!), nomadic hunter-gatherer groups roamed the Pajarito Plateau, utilizing its rich resources.
Then around 1150 CE, the Ancestral Pueblo people (also known as Anasazi) settled in the region, constructing an extensive network of villages and cliff dwellings in the soft volcanic cliffs of Frijoles Canyon. The population flourished during the Pueblo Period (1300-1550 CE), and this is when they constructed large, multi-story dwellings and community structures. Bandelier was home to two groups of Pueblo people – the Tewa and the Keres.
However, by the late 1500s, the Ancestral Pueblo people mysteriously abandoned their settlements in the Bandelier region, possibly due to the environment, social pressures, and/or resource depletion. We’ll never know for sure though!
Bandelier Today: Recognizing its historical significance, Bandelier became a National Monument in 1916.
Over the years, efforts have been made to preserve and interpret the site. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) played a key role in restoring structures, and today, the monument stands as a testament to the rich cultural history of the Ancestral Pueblo people and their ancient dwellings.
Interesting Info about the Cliff Dwellings at Bandelier
The main attraction at Bandelier National Monument is the many cliff dwellings seen on the trails.
And sure, hiking at Bandelier and seeing all the cliff dwellings is great and all, but it doesn’t mean much if you have no actual understanding of their lives. Here’s a few fun facts I learned about the cliff dwellings and ancient Puebloan people at Bandelier:
- First off, what’s a cliff dwelling?! They’re homes carved right into the cliffs by the ancient Puebloan people. Yes, people lived right here at Bandelier. They used a type of rock called volcanic tuff because it was soft and easy to carve. Some of these are even multi-story dwellings – picture homes stacked on top of each other like a high-rise building but built right into the cliffs! Kinda wild! And no, they didn’t have jackhammers back then, haha.
- Most of these pueblo structures date between 1150 and 1600 AD. Some over 750 years old!
- Look out for petroglyphs on the cliffs surrounding the dwellings!!! These rock carvings depict symbols and stories, and it’s so fun to imagine what they are. Some are quite obvious (animals), while some are much more difficult to decipher. We saw a whole bunch, and it’s kinda crazy to think they’ve been there hundreds and hundreds of years. Wild! If you look (really) closely at the photo below (try squinting, haha), you’ll see a ram’s head, a bird/chicken, a fish with legs, and a duck — I think!
- Also keep an eye out for cavates, which are human-carved alcoves. These were used for various purposes, some simply for storage, while others had people living in them!
- The Tyuonyi Pueblo, a circular neighborhood seen on the Pueblo Loop Trail, consisted of over 400 rooms and was home to over 100 Ancestral Pueblo people! Here the women ground corn, men chopped wood, and children herded turkeys with the help of the family dog.
- The ancient Puebloan people were super strategic about where they built their cliff dwellings in Frijoles Canyon. In order to stay warm in winter, most were built along the Southwest facing wall of the canyon (the sun heated them up) – they most definitely didn’t have HVAC units like we do now!
Visiting Bandelier National Monument
Where is Bandelier National Monument and How to Get There
Bandelier National Monument is located just outside the Jemez Mountains of north-central New Mexico, in the southwestern United States. The monument is situated on the scenic Pajarito Plateau, near the town of Los Alamos and about 45 miles from Santa Fe, the state’s capital.
Most people visit Bandelier as a day trip from Santa Fe, and that’s exactly what we did! It’s a great option as Santa Fe is just about an hour away, and the drive is really easy. If you’re flying in, you’ll most likely arrive at Albuquerque International Sunport, about 2 hours away from Bandelier.
Here’s how far Bandelier is from other popular spots in New Mexico:
- From White Rock: 20 minutes, 12 miles
- From Los Alamos: 25 minutes, 15 miles
- From Santa Fe: 1 hour, 45 miles
- From Taos: 1 hour, 45 minutes, 75 miles
- From Albuquerque: 2 hours, 100 miles
- From White Sands National Park: 5 hours, 300 miles
- From Truth or Consequences: 4 hours, 250 miles
Note that apparently some GPS directions take visitors to the wrong spot – if something doesn’t feel/look right, stop driving and turn around! Take a look at these driving directions to get a sense for how you’ll go.
Before you actually reach the park, you’ll come upon the entrance, where you’ll pay your NPS fee. A paved road then leads you to the visitor center, restaurant, picnic area, and trailheads. It’s super easy and impossible to get lost! Plan to walk to the archeological sites and cliff dwellings on the Bandelier National Monument trails.
IMPORTANT NOTE: During high season months between 9am-3pm (typically mid-June to mid-October) you’ll need to take a mandatory shuttle bus from nearby Los Alamos to access Bandelier National Monument. Meaning you can’t drive directly to Bandelier yourself.
WHY? Because it’s typically hella crowded in summer after 9am, and parking at the visitor center is usually totally full by then! Frijoles Canyon Visitor Center, the main parking area, only has a few dozen spots.
You’ll take the shuttle from the White Rock Visitor Center (115 State Road 4, Los Alamos, NM 87547), where you’ll park, and then make your way into Bandelier. It’s about a 20 minute ride or so to the park entrance.
The only way to avoid the shuttle is by arriving at the park before 9am or after 3pm. Which I highly recommend anyways so you can visit Bandelier before it gets too packed. Thankfully the shuttle runs quite frequently, every 20-30 minutes or so. And it’s free (!!!), but note that regular National Park Service entry fees still apply.
Psst: Don’t rely on ride shares like Uber or Lyft. Bandelier is in a pretty remote location (without much cell service), so while they might be able to get you there, you’ll probably end up stranded without a way back. Always plan your pickup before being dropped off!
Weather and When to Visit Bandelier National Monument
Bandelier experiences a climate typical of the high desert region – meaning the weather changes drastically from season to season, and even from year to year. Always check current conditions before hiking in Bandelier National Monument!
The park is open daily, year round, from dawn to dusk – except for Christmas Day and when there’s just too much snow/winter weather for safe hiking. Note that the park restaurant, Sirphey, is typically open on a seasonal basis, from April to October/November. Although, we visited Bandelier in late November and the restaurant was open, so I’m not positive on that!
Spring: Surprisingly, spring is super unpredictable here at Bandelier! You never really know what you’re gonna get. It can be clear and sunny with temps in the 70s one day, and then a massive snow storm rolls in the next. But spring is super beautiful, as it’s the start of wildflower season, and migratory birds start returning!
Lookout for bluebells along the Bandelier National Monument trails, especially the Main Pueblo Loop trail.
Summer: This is the busy tourist season in Bandelier, with warm temps typically in the 80s and sometimes 90s and lots of daylight hours. Bring a lot of water and stay hydrated!
Do note that afternoon thunderstorms are pretty common in July, August, and September, so be prepared for sudden weather changes.
Fall: Autumn is one of the best times to visit Bandelier, as there’s typically sunny skies and hiking temps are pretty pleasant.
We hiked the Bandelier National Monument trails in late November, and found the weather to be super pleasant! I was really worried we’d be too cold to really enjoy the park, but quite the opposite – we found ourselves slowly removing our layers, haha.
That being said, an early snowfall is always possible, sometimes even as early as late September. You never really know what you’re gonna get in fall, so come prepared!
Winter: Yes, it snows here at Bandelier in winter! And sometimes a lot – with averages of around 25”! This snow and ice can close the Bandelier National Monument trails, including the ladders to Alcove House. It sure is pretty though, and definitely adds to the scenery!
In winter, you’ll wanna bring snacks and drinks as the park restaurant is closed.
And sometimes the park is closed entirely due to hazardous winter weather conditions – always check the website and/or call the visitors center for the most up to date info!
Where to Stay Near Bandelier National Monument
Like many national parks and monuments, there’s no lodging within Bandelier itself. There was once a lodge at the park but it closed in the late 1980’s. You can, however, camp at Bandelier if that’s your thing. There’s 2 campgrounds, Juniper Family Campground (52 sites), and Ponderosa (only 2).
Thankfully, there’s plenty of hotel options nearby for those of us allergic to camping (like me!).
- Santa Fe: If you’ve got Santa Fe on your New Mexico itinerary, I think it makes the most sense to day trip over to Bandelier from here. It’s less than an hour away, and you won’t have to switch hotels for no reason whatsoever. Plus, there’s tons of restaurants and hotel choices. My top picks: Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi, El Rey Court, and Pueblo Bonito Santa Fe.
- Los Alamos: It’s only a short drive southeast of Bandelier National Monument, at around 25 minutes away. The town is known for its association with the Manhattan Project during World War II – yes, the development of the atomic bomb! Mostly basic hotels here, including Holiday Inn Express and Suites Los Alamos and Pueblo Canyon Inn.
- White Rock: White Rock’s a small, charming community only a few miles from Bandelier. There’s not much choice in terms of hotels (there is a Hampton Inn & Suites here!), but there’s stunning views of the surrounding mesas and a bunch of local trails to explore.
What to Bring and Wear
- Shoes with a good grip, especially if you’re planning to climb the ladders (do NOT wear sandals or flip flops). I wore regular sneakers on the Pueblo Loop Trail and was totally fine.
- Wear layers as the weather can change quite quickly — I actually had a hat and scarf in the car but it was way too warm to even bring them on the hike.
- Slather on that sunscreen, the sun is strong over here. And on that note, I always like to take along some SPF lip balm to protect my lips as well.
- Keep your eyes protected from the sun with a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses
- A picnic lunch with some salty snacks (helps your body replace electrolytes that you lose from sweating) if you’re not planning to eat at Sirphey, the restaurant at Bandelier (remember, it’s closed November through March)
- Lots of water per person, preferably in a reusable water bottle so you can fill up at the visitor center when needed
- A daypack or small zipped tote bag to carry everything in, especially your water!
- A camera to take lots of pretty photos!
- Your National Parks Pass if you’ve got one, of course!
Other Important FAQs about Bandelier National Monument
- Can I take a day trip to Bandelier from Santa Fe? 100%, and I actually recommend it! Considering the park’s only an hour or so from Santa Fe, it makes for a great half or full day trip.
- Leave no trace! Do your part to protect the park and all its culturally significant remains and the natural flora and fauna found here! This means staying away from wildlife (obviously no petting, feeding, or disturbing animals in any way), mutilating or defacing any natural/cultural objects, and packing out whatever you bring in (including garbage when there is no trash bin).
- How long to spend at the park? That’s all up to you! You can totally get a feel for Bandelier in just a few hours (what we did), or stay all day and go on a few trails. I personally feel more than one full day will be overkill, and we felt satisfied with about 3 hours in the park or so.
- Eat at the restaurant after your hike! Sirphey, the restaurant at Bandelier, is said to be one of the best restaurants in all of the NPS system! We got a huge Indian fry bread dusted with powdered sugar (which I’m still dreaming about…) and a too-sweet lemonade, but there’s also green chili cheeseburgers (I heard they’re beyond amazing) and breakfast burritos. Honestly, don’t skip a meal here.
- What kinda wildlife is there at Bandelier? During our first few minutes on the trail, we saw a giant tarantula – safe to say that totally surprised us and we were definitely not expecting to see one! Apparently they’re pretty common on warm days in fall. My first tarantula sighting in the wild, haha! You may also see coyotes, mule deer, squirrels, rattlesnakes, lizards, and big-horned sheep. All we saw was that one tarantula…
- Is there cell service in the park? Not much, and I don’t remember having much service at all with T-Mobile 5G. As of late 2023, only Verizon 4G is reported to work at Bandelier. But I wouldn’t even count on that – ya never know! Enjoy your time being disconnected and just enjoy all the nature!
- Bring water! Especially in summer! There are fill stations in the park, but it’s always best to be prepared. In winter, there’s a possibility the fill stations may be frozen.
- Where to Park: This kinda depends when exactly you’re visiting. In the prime summer months (typically mid-June to mid-October), you’ll need to park at the White Rock Visitor Center in Los Alamos and take the mandatory shuttle between 9am-3pm. The rest of the year you can park right at the Bandelier National Monument Visitor Center anytime of day.
- Entrance fees: Bandelier National Monument is part of the National Parks Service (NPS), meaning all visitors MUST have an entrance pass. These are valid for seven days and include access to all areas of the park, including Tsankawi. Private vehicles are $25, while it’s $20 per motorcycle, and $15 per person (by foot or bicycle). If you’ve got an America the Beautiful Pass, make sure to bring it – that’ll work here as well!
- Are pets allowed? Technically yes, but only in certain areas of the park, and not on any park trails or on the summer shuttle bus from White Rock. They’re allowed in Juniper campground, the parking lot in front of the visitor center, and in the Cottonwood Picnic Area. If you have the option, I’d opt to leave your furry friend at home. It’s just not super safe for them here (remember, there’s coyotes and rattlesnakes out and about – ack!).
Bandelier National Monument Trails
And now, the fun part! All the hikes in Bandelier!
Before starting any trail at Bandelier, I highly encourage you to swing by the visitor center and talk to the park rangers. Some Bandelier National Monument trails close from time to time, due to potential rock fall hazards and/or inclement weather. You can also pick up a trail map and purchase a brochure explaining all the numbered spots on the map for a few bucks.
I hate that I have to say this, but PLEASE respect the park, and do your part to stay quiet. These are ancestral lands that remain significantly and culturally important, and it’s a privilege to be able to explore them. Make sure to stay on trails, and only enter caves with ladders.
When we visited, tons of families were treating the park and ladders like a jungle gym in their own backyard, which I honestly did not appreciate. Kids were running all around (not cool), and it honestly made it difficult to really appreciate what we were looking at and experiencing. Remember – this is not a playground by any means. Please have your fun of course, but remember others are trying to enjoy the park as well.
Main Pueblo Loop Trail
By far the most popular of all the Bandelier National Monument trails, and what many people come here to see! Including us – we absolutely loved it (despite all the crowds). The Main Pueblo Loop Trail is 1.4 miles round trip, and provides access to plenty of archeological sites within the canyon. And yes, this is the hike with all the ladders!
The beginning of the trail is relatively flat, and is accessible by wheelchair and stroller. The second portion of the hike is where you’ll find the steep, winding steps; some spots were pretty tight with only enough room for one-way access.
You’ll be walking alongside the cliff dwellings, and you can even climb the wooden ladders into a few of them. Highly recommend climbing at least one to get a sense for what it must’ve felt like living in a cliff dwelling/cavate (small human-carved alcove).
We actually did part of the Main Pueblo Loop Trail twice, and it’s where we spent most of our time at Bandelier! I don’t wanna spoil it all, but here’s the main sites along the Main Loop trail:
- Big Kiva: Not far into the hike you’ll reach the Big Kiva, a round ceremonial structure that would’ve been a town hall/cathedral of sorts. Smaller kivas were used for personal religious purposes. There used to be a roof here! A kiva is equivalent to today’s church, court, and school combined.
- Village of Tyuonyi: This a huge pueblo with 245 ground level rooms, and plenty more above those. It housed about 100 people plus dogs and turkeys! Nowadays, you can’t enter the rooms, but simply admire the remnants from afar. This is to protect the volcanic tuff that’s easily eroded or damaged by human traffic.
- Cliff Dwellings: While some people lived down in the village, others lived in cliff dwellings – yes, right in the cliffs! Here you’ll find a few ladders that lead up to cavates. Plus the Talus houses (first set of cliff dwellings you’ll come across), and then the Long House. Don’t miss the petroglyphs along the way! We saw quite a few at the Long House.
- Alcove House: Walk another mile (round-trip), climb up 4 ladders and a number of stone stairs, and you’ll end up at the Alcove House, a ceremonial site with gorgeous panoramic views! It’s only accessible by these series of ladders, so is definitely not for the faint of heart since you’ll be climbing 140 feet up above the canyon floor. And yes, the ladders are much steeper than they look from afar. Be patient – you’ll undoubtedly need to wait (there’s only a single ladder for people going up and others coming down). We unfortunately decided not to climb (we were getting hungry!), but it’s on my list for next time!
Other Hikes in Bandelier
Frey Trail: An add-on to the popular Loop Trail which gives you a spectacular bird’s eye view of Tyuonyi Pueblo! It’s an extra 2 miles (roundtrip) and about 550 feet of elevation gain with switchbacks out of Frijoles Canyon to Juniper Campground, so come prepared. Carry lots of water in summer as there’s little shade along the trail, and it gets hot hot hot!
Falls Trail: Just like it sounds, the Falls Trail leads to the Upper Falls, a beautiful waterfall in the canyon (when it’s not dried up that is!). The trail is 3 miles roundtrip, descending 400 feet, and starts at the end of the Backpacker’s Parking Lot near the visitor center.
Not for the faint of heart, as there’s steep drop offs and some plank bridges along the creek to cross.
Tyuonyi Overlook Trail: At a little over 2 miles, this round-trip trail is relatively flat, but gets super dusty and even muddy depending on the season. You start at Juniper Campground and cross the mesa for an amazing overlook of Frijoles Canyon and Tyuonyi Pueblo, hence the name!
It’s also a great place to see some common Pinyon-Juniper woodlands, and even a rare Alligator Juniper. Psst – those are plants, haha.
Things to do near Bandelier National Monument
Not ready to head back to Santa Fe yet or decided to stay in the area? There’s a bunch of other activities nearby! As noted above, we only spent about 3 hours or so at Bandelier, so you’ll probably have more time in the day like we did.
- Bradbury Science Museum: I found this little museum on the map, noticed it was free, so decided we were visiting, haha. And I’m so glad we did — I knew barely nothing about the Manhattan Project beforehand, and learned tons about the development of the atomic bomb. They’ve got replicas of both the Little Man and Fat Boy, which are kinda wild to see! It’s completely free and takes less than an hour to get through (if you’re not reading every single placard), so there’s no reason not to visit, especially if you’re interested in learning about the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the atomic age.
- Jemez Springs: Looking for some hot springs after your hike at Bandelier? About an hour west, there’s Jemez Springs – a charming little village known for its natural hot springs (with multiple pools with different temps) and the Jemez Historic Site (which preserves the remnants of a 17th-century Spanish mission). Plus lots of scenic, mountainous landscapes!
- Valles Caldera National Preserve: It’s on the way to Jemez Springs, so worth a short stop! Valles Caldera is a vast volcanic crater (with tons of geothermal activity), known for lots of stunning landscapes, diverse wildlife (think royal bull elk, coyotes, so many prairie dogs, etc), and lots of hiking!
- Puye Cliff Dwellings: More cliff dwellings to explore! Plus a stunning panorama of the valley and an original Harvey House. A bit different than Bandelier since there’s guided tours to choose from, and honestly looks even more impressive than Bandelier! Wish I had heard about these remains before our trip!
So there ya have it – basically everything you need to know to spend a day hiking at Bandelier National Monument! Are you headed to New Mexico soon?!