Friday, May 17, 2013

Learning about the Pueblo people at Bandelier National Monument

May 14, 2013
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Trailer Ranch RV Resort

Gorgeous skies on our hike at Bandelier National Monument

One of the things we really wanted to see in this area was the cliff dwellings of the Pueblo people.  There are a few different areas one can visit but we heard that the ancestral sites at Bandelier National Monument were some of the most interesting because of the geological formations. The park was only about an hour away and absolutely a fascinating place to explore.

Our knowledge of the Pueblo people was pretty limited, so this adventure gave us a chance to learn more about their history and lifestyle. Archeologists believe they are descended from hunter and gatherers who lived in the Southwest over 10,000 years ago. They settled this area known as Frijoles Canyon around 1200 AD with their peak population around 1325 AD. The Pueblo people were distinct from earlier descendants as they were farmers (vs. nomadic tribes) who grew maize, beans, and squash on the surrounding mesas. They chose this canyon for their villages because of its year-round stream for a reliable source of water, Ponderosa pines for ceiling beams in their home, and volcanic cliffs for natural dwellings protected from the elements.

A three-mile hike of the park takes you to see the stone wall remains of an ancient plaza, several kivas—underground structures where important ceremonies took place, and the remnants of several cave dwellings. There are several Pueblo villages in the area but today’s descendants of the Pueblo people, out of respect for the ancient homes of their ancestors, do not want all these sites excavated .

Vic reads the brochure that explains the purpose of the Kiva

The round structure above shows the largest Kiva on the trail. Kivas were a special place where the tribe would make important decisions and share knowledge. When in use, this kiva would have been covered by a rood made of wood and earth. The inhabitants of the village would enter the sacred area of the kiva using a ladder through an opening in the roof.

This large circle is the site of the village plaza that was once two stories high with over 400 rooms. IN addition to being a central place for village work including tool and pottery making, the village housed approximately 100 people. These village rooms on the canyon bottom were occupied at the same time as cave dwellings. Archeologists are not sure of the distinction that existed between living in the village vs. the caves. Theories suggest that the choice may have been based on family, work roles, custom, or simply preference.

The cave dwellings were, for us, the most interesting part of the park. Many had ladders, based on the original design but bolted to the rock wall, leading into the caves which you could climb to explore the inside. These cave rooms, called cavates, were dug out of the relatively soft volcanic rock with stone tools.The Pueblo people mud-plastered and painted the walls and the ceilings were smoke-blackened to harden the volcanic tuff and make it less crumbly. You can still see evidence of the soot-blackened ceilings and petroglyphs when you climb inside. Pretty haunting—in a sacred way—to sit inside and imagine life here 700 years ago.

Most cavates had stone rooms built in front of them, but many of these are no longer standing. You can see some evidence of the original stones added to the caves on this cliff wall.

The photo above shows a reconstructed stone room, called a Talus house, added to the cliff dwelling. We were impressed with how well the park is laid out with special attention to protect and preserve this sacred place. I did read, however, that some of the caves have to be replastered and smoked to remove graffiti—so sad. 

After walking the self-guided trail, you can continue on another 1/2 mile through the pinon-juniper woodlands to see the Alcove House, a cave dwelling that housed several families and included its own kiva for ceremonial purposes.

alcove house warning sign

To actually enter the Alcove House, you have to climb four ladders 140 ft. above the canyon floor. Vic doesn’t like heights and I wasn’t so sure about the ladders, but once we arrived we were inspired to go for it. Other than being strenuous to climb, separating the distance with four  separate ladders made the height seem less intimidating.

Once we entered the ceremonial cave, which is quite large, we were alone there and had a chance to rest in the refreshingly cool space. (The day we had was perfect for hiking with temps in the mid 70s.)This cavate included a fairly large kiva inside which was under construction as evidenced by the orange barrier. We tried to imagine these tribal people holding ceremonies in the cave away from the hustle and bustle of village life.

I couldn’t resist the temptation to take a photo in the style of bloggers Pam and John of Oh the Places They Go—who often memorialize their hikes--to more challenging places than this-- with a photo of their legs and boots dangling from a scenic overlook.  We really enjoyed sitting in our private cavate and philosophizing about life.

Then it was time for the descent down the ladders. It was easier than going up and not dizzying at all if you didn’t look down. Like the true gentleman Vic is, he went ahead of me in case I lost my footing.

On the walk back, you could take a different trail through the woods, away from the cave dwelling, giving you a better look at the forest ecosystem. We were disappointed not to see much wildlife here at all, but I did hear a rustle in the leaves and managed to photograph this whiptail lizard, the official state reptile of New Mexico.

I had envisioned many more cacti in New Mexico than we have seen so far, but we were delighted to see this blooming cholla or buckhorn cactus along the path.

I wondered about birds in the area and was happy to see this sign showing that most species one might encounter were fairly common ones. (I hate thinking I am missing a rare sighting.) We saw several turkey vultures, of course, and I think I heard a flicker and an owl, but no sign of them.

The path took us across Frijoles Creek where two park rangers were building a new walking bridge.  I asked about the current drought conditions and flash floods that occur in the canyon later in the summer. They explained that they do controlled burnings to help prevent major fires but you might recall there was a devastating fire near here in 2000 at Los Alamos (about twenty miles away). The fire destroyed over 400 homes and threatened further disaster by coming close to the nuclear material stored there. That fire started as a controlled burn but high winds and drought conditions caused the fire to spread. The other potential threat is the flash floods. The park workers said they have not any deaths in the canyon, but they now have an early warning system that gives them about an hour and a half to let hikers in the near vicinity know they need to evacuate. The forest fires increase the danger of the floods because there is little growth to slow them down. They have markers on several of the trees to show how high the water reached during the last major flood. Nature trumps all.

Sometimes when I am walking in the woods, I can be rather oblivious to the diversity of my surroundings. I appreciate going places that help teach me to appreciate the subtler distinctions of the ecosystem. I never heard the term “ecotone” before and it made me wonder how many places might actually qualify for this distinction.  Identifying trees and shrubs, other than ones that I once planted in my yard, is not something I am able to do very well.  It would be great if parks had brochures that help with plant identification. On another note, this sign refers to the tribes here as Anasazi, a term they were identified with in the past, but is no longer used as it means “ancient enemies.” The people who settled here in the Frijoles Canyon are now known as the Ancestral Pueblo people.

Thus ended our day in the canyon and mesa country that is part of the Pajarito Plateau, a place where volcanic eruptions 600 times more powerful than Mount St. Helens shaped the landscape more than one million years ago and where native peoples 600 years ago carved pictures of their dogs in the compressed volcanic ash.

P.S. We had the great pleasure of meeting fellow bloggers Lisa and Hans of Metamorphosis Road in our park the second day after we arrived. As I was walking up to their picnic table outside, Lisa casually said, “Hi, Pam” as though she knew me. How welcoming. We had happy hour together twice and have not only enjoyed getting to know them and hearing about their adventures, but look forward to more fun  together over the weekend as we are staying an extra day—yay!


  1. Great tour! We have to a couple of these sites, but missed this one.

  2. Great write up...we went to Bandelier today!

    Sent you an email re: dinner tomorrow...

    Metamorphosis Lisa

  3. This is such a an awesome place. I will have to check out how far it is from us when we get to Durango. This is my kind of place. I would love to explore those caves and climb those ladders. Thanks for so much information. That Village Plaza is huge. It really gives you a sense of how big the community was. Love that boot photo!!!

    So glad you are getting to spend time with Hans and Lisa!! Enjoy!!

  4. Wonderful photos. I live visiting these places. Helps me understand history. I don't think I would have survived.

  5. We visited Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon and Canyon de Chelly but ran out of time to make it to Bandelier so I really appreciate your tour and great pictures. I love to go up the ladders and into the rooms and just sit and absorb (especially if I'm lucky enough to be alone). There is an amazing spirituality about them.

  6. Thanks for the tour. We've been to some pueblo sites, but none that had rooms we could climb into. Will make sure we get to Bandelier next year.

  7. We visited that same site, but it was closed for road repairs... we could not visit. Nice to see your pics of it, and it looks like quite the climb to get up there...

  8. WOW...that was so our kind of day! I learned so much from reading your post. Might have to be a stop for us next year!

    Thanks for taking us along!


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