New Mexico’s Bandelier National Monument

Bandelier National Monument - Val in Real Life

When it comes to our National Park system, national monuments tend to be sorely overlooked compared to the marquis parks that visitors flock to in their travels. Bandelier is not one of those overlooked monuments.

Except by me. I’ve passed by it countless times as I’ve traveled through northern New Mexico. This time, though, I was determined to take Fred and George there.

What is Bandelier National Monument about?

Bandelier National Monument is named for Adolph Bandelier, the passionate, self-taught anthropologist whose hobby turned into some very important work in understanding the ancestral pueblo peoples of the southwest. Human occupation here dates back 11,000 years, but the height of pueblo culture in the area was from about the mid-1200s to the mid-1500s, until drought conditions forced the Puebloans elsewhere.

In the 1880s, Bandelier explored the ruins left behind with the help of men from the Cochiti pueblo, the most direct descendants of the former residents of Frijoles Canyon. Bandelier’s work later became the foundation of modern southwestern archaeology.

Today the monument preserves at least 3,000 archeological sites within its 33,750 acres. It is unique in its vastness, sporting 70 miles of hiking trails but only three miles of public roads. Casual visitors spend most of the time in the main area surrounding the visitor center. Given the popularity of this monument, the park service uses busses to shuttle visitors from parking areas to the visitor center much of the year. The infrastructure simply can’t accommodate the demands of the public without use of the shuttles. Travelers looking for a more off-the-beaten-path experience can venture into the backcountry trails, with a permit.

Visitor Center…

The vast majority of visitors spend about two hours in the Frijoles Canyon area at the visitor center. This is where you’ll find the Main Loop Trail through the ruins. The visitor center itself houses some fantastic exhibits that incorporate all the facets of what makes Bandelier special. Displays address human and natural history and the connection between them, as well as the language, art, and culture of the pueblo people.

And like most wonderful visitor centers, there is a short movie to watch that will give visitors a better idea of what the monument is about. It’s well worth the time to give yourself an introduction to Bandelier before setting out on the trail.

Bandelier National Monument - Val in Real Life
The Bandelier Visitor Center blends in with the cliffs of the Jemez Mountains.
Bandelier National Monument - Val in Real Life
The courtyard at the visitor center is an inviting place to take a break and soak in the surroundings of Bandelier.
Bandelier National Monument - Val in Real Life
Bandelier encompasses a surprising variety of ecosystems.
Bandelier National Monument - Val in Real Life
I’m a fan of giving visitors a way to interact. Hands-on exhibits allow connection without jeopardizing preservation.
Bandelier National Monument - Val in Real Life
A diorama recreating pueblo structures and life gives dimension to ruins that would otherwise be difficult to understand.
Bandelier National Monument - Val in Real Life
Keeping language alive is another aspect of preserving ancient culture.
Bandelier National Monument - Val in Real Life
The exhibits at Bandelier National Monument do a fantastic job of helping visitors understand that pueblo culture is alive and well.
Bandelier National Monument - Val in Real Life
This is Fred disapproving of our impact as visitors. Visit with respect and care.

In addition to the educational features of the visitor center, there is a small gift shop and snack bar for visitors to enjoy.

Main Loop Trail…

Walking the Main Loop Trail will give you a comprehensive look at ancient pueblo life. The 1.2-mile trail is marked by interest points you can read more about in the printed trail guide available at the visitor center for a dollar.

Much of the trail consists of a wide, paved path but there is a steeper section that allows visitors an intimate view of the cave rooms. You can even enter some of them. This section is easily bypassed by those not up to the challenge.

Having said that, it isn’t terribly strenuous or dangerous, but it is moderately difficult. It is probably not advisable for really small explorers unless minders are prepared to go slowly and keep a very close eye on them. There are handrails in the narrower and steeper sections. I will say that I found it fairly challenging with my physical limitations and the substantial weight of my camera gear. Taking it slow and steady made it manageable.

You can extend your explorations by walking an additional half-mile to the Alcove House, which we didn’t do during our visit. Park rangers reported that it’s a true highlight, however Frankenleg was having none of it after having done the Main Loop Trail so I had to be content with what I was able to see. Fred and George were pleased with what they were able to experience, especially getting to climb into the caves.

Bandelier National Monument - Val in Real Life
Another nice feature that helps visitors engage is the opportunity to climb into some of the cliff dwellings. Most are off-limits but getting to climb into a few was a big hit with Fred, George, and a few of the other visitors we shared the trail with.
Bandelier National Monument - Val in Real Life
Use the Main Trail Loop Guide available at the visitor center to follow the markers and better understand the life of the ancient pueblo people.
Bandelier National Monument - Val in Real Life
From the upper levels of the trail, visitors get a birds-eye view of the ruins below.
Bandelier National Monument - Val in Real Life
Much of the Main Loop Trail is a wide, paved path.
Bandelier National Monument - Val in Real Life
There are narrow, steep steps to navigate along the Main Loop Trail but with care, they are not difficult. Even with the challenges of Frankenleg and about a ton of camera gear, I managed without too much fuss.
Bandelier National Monument - Val in Real Life
Fred crossing the creek area on the plank boardwalk. It’s not fancy but we saw visitors of all abilities navigate it without trouble.


Bandelier’s campground offers a few more amenities than many national public lands facilities. It carries a higher per night price tag as a result but when I’m camping with the boys, more amenities simply make the trip easier to manage. I really enjoyed camping at Bandelier, one of my favorite features during our visit in June being the constant buzz of hummingbirds.

Here’s what you’ll find when camping at Bandelier National Monument:

  • The sites are spacious and equipped with picnic tables and fire rings of varying styles depending on your choice of campsite.
  • The ground is hard-packed as is often the case at campgrounds like this so be prepared to pound stakes if you’ll be pitching a tent.
  • Pinon pines and junipers create visual privacy between sites.
  • Those short trees that don’t provide much shade. That’s great if you need to recharge electronics via solar power like I do. There’s no electrical service in the campground.
  • Ravens will try to grab your food if you turn your back for a moment. You’ll need to stay vigilant and keep food stored properly, even for short periods. They are bold and smart.
  • The campground is supplied with water at several locations, flush toilets, and sinks.
  • There’s also access to a dedicated dishwater disposal sink.
  • Firewood available for purchase from the campground host.
  • Waste disposal is also supplied and you can sort by trash and recycling.
  • A credit card pay station is available.
  • Easy access to shuttle bus stop to go to the visitor center. Or use the 1.5-mile trail from the campground.
Bandelier National Monument - Val in Real Life
Spacious sites accommodate large camping setups.
Bandelier National Monument - Val in Real Life
Sites are equipped with picnic tables and fire rings.

For more images visit my Bandelier National Monument Flickr album.

And now for you moment of green…

Bandelier National Monument - Val in Real Life
Bandelier National Monument is a national gem that captures the trifecta of geology, natural history, and human history.


  1. NaturePlay film was just there! We missed you by a few weeks. We will be back in the area in January though for another film 😉 Next time follow the trail downstream towards the river. At about one mile in you will be rewarded with a tall waterfall!! Nature and History 😉

    Such a nice write up of the place where I once lived and worked. Being down in that canyon was so everyday for me it was easy to forget to see it through the visors lens. Thank-you for making it special and fresh.

    1. That sounds amazing. I’ll have to check that out. Hopefully by the time I return, I’ll have regained some of my hiking stamina so I can get there.

      Thank you for the kind words. So glad you enjoyed the post. 🙂

  2. Very cool park… I’d never heard of it! Despite living in NM for a short time, I only got over to the Los Alamos area once.

    Great info on the campsites there too, well done.

    1. Thanks, Dave. I really enjoyed it. I’d like to see the backcountry there if I can get myself back one day.

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