Frijoles Canyon – Bandelier National Monument

Bandelier NM June 2019-18

While we were camping in Abiquiú, we met another camper who comes to New Mexico often. When we asked her about places “not to miss,” she told us that we should go to Bandelier National Monument. Given that it was less than an hour drive from Santa Fe, we took a day trip to see it.


There is a visitor center in the town of White Rock which is the access point for the shuttle bus that takes you to the Bandelier National Monument Visitor Center. The shuttle is required when visiting Bandelier between 9AM – 3PM. The shuttle also stops at the Juniper Campground within the National Monument. The White Rock Visitor Center also has a parking lot type of campground.

Bandelier NM June 2019-2

The adobe style buildings of the Bandelier Visitor Center were built by the Civilian Conservation Corp and also house a gift shop, offices, and a restaurant. We went on a self guided tour through the stream fed valley that was amazingly lush given the high desert surroundings.

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This National Monument reminded us a lot of Mesa Verde National Park in Cortez, CO for good reason. The Ancestral Pueblo people lived in both Mesa Verde and in Frijoles Canyon. In both places, they made their homes in the cliffs of canyons. Both of these locations are linked culturally. They share similar construction styles, agricultural techniques, and religious and ceremonial traditions.


The Ancestral Pueblo people were not the first to inhabit Frijoles Canyon. Human activity here dates back about 10,000 years. Many groups lived in this place over the years due to its reliable source of water and the fact that the walls of the canyon are made of a soft rock that is easily chiseled out to create shelter. This soft rock is called tuff. Furthermore, because of the presence of volcanic ash in the soil, the canyon floor was a good place to grow squash, beans, and corn which is sometimes called the Three Sisters. Timber for roofs and other native plants were also readily available.


The Ancestral Puebloans lived in this area from about 600-1600 A.D. Their population peaked about 1325 A. D. and at its zenith there were more than 500 people living in the canyon.

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It appears that some people chose to live in the canyon while others built houses high in the cliffs. All of the cliff dwellings are constructed facing south to maximize the sun’s warming effect in winter. Their houses were one to two stories high and they would use ladders to gain access. Instead of having a front door, they would enter via an opening in the roof. Usually the lower levels of the house were used for storing food while the family lived in the second story. The exterior of the house was covered with plaster which had to be replastered periodically.

The average life expectancy of the Ancestral Pueblo people was 35 years and they were about 5’ or 5’6” tall. Women cared for the children, cooked, and made pottery while the men hunted, built houses, and did the weaving.

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In the center of the village, there was a large area that was circular and it had three kivas. The villagers would gather there for religious ceremonies as well as for other communal tasks.

One other interesting thing not to miss are the painted designs or pictographs on the walls of the cliff dwellings. Depicted are turkeys, dogs, lightning, birds, and other designs. Often these were painted for special occasions and then plastered over.

The Ancestral Pueblo people traded with other indigenous groups. They traded for shells, stones, parrots, and copper bells. The archaeologists surmise that they traded with groups as far away as Mexico to the south and Colorado to the north.

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We also took a short spur hike to the Alcove House which is set high up a cliff. To reach the house, you must climb up 143 steps by way of four ladders. Reaching this dwelling was a challenge but once there, you could look out over the Frijoles Canyon. It was a fabulous sight.

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Visiting Bandelier National Monument was definitely worth the day trip and there are other things in the area that we ran out of time to do. Nearby is Los Alamos which is famous as the location for the highly secret nuclear research facility during WWII. Maybe we can make our way there the next time we are in the area.

Bandelier NM June 2019-16

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