At this point, it’s really no secret how much Tiffany and I enjoyed our time in New Mexico. The scenery, food, people, and culture left a deep impression on us. One of the most interesting stops on our tour through the Land of Enchantment was Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico.
Unfortunately, we only had a day to explore the park. Thanks to its impressive cavates, petroglyphs, and ancient archaeological structures, Bandelier is truly a hidden gem.
With that in mind, we put together the highlights of our day in the park. If you have a limited amount of time to visit, this is the ultimate guide on how to spend a day in Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico.
How to Spend a Day in Bandelier: Visit in the Off-Season
The absolute best advice we can give about Bandelier is this: visit in the off-season. We made our way to the park in late February, which was perfect timing. With clear skies and very mild temperatures, we felt comfortable during the entire hike through Frijoles Canyon. Not too cold, and definitely not too hot. Especially while climbing all those ladders. The only caveat during these months is this: watch out for heavy snows. If it dumps too much, the park may actually close due to the snow accumulation.
The other extreme positive to visiting from October through May is the lack of crowds. While a few cars dotted the parking lots, most of the trails remained clear. This allowed us to take as many pictures as we wanted without feeling rushed or cramped. (Except for some little punk named Micah who kept running in front of us. Thankfully his sister kept screaming at him to leave us alone. Funny how you always remember the names of the kids that keep getting in trouble.)
However, if you end up heading this way in the late spring and summer, be prepared for large crowds. Also, the access to Frijoles Canyon is restricted to shuttle buses only, so you’ll need to park at the White Rock Visitor Center and catch a ride down to all the cool stuff. (You’ll likely encounter many, many versions of little punks named Micah during this time of year. Be forewarned.)
How to Spend a Day in Bandelier: Get a Self-Guided Tour Book
Once you get down into Frijoles Canyon, another visitor center sits at the trailheads. Here, you can get your hands on a self-guided tour book for just a few bucks. These informational pamphlets feature detailed descriptions of all 21 sites around the Main Loop Trail. Numbered plaques denote each site, and the tour book corresponds to all these trail markers, providing excellent info on the history of this amazing place.
The history at Bandelier extends back some 11,000 years, so it’s pretty fascinating to learn about all the hunter-gatherers and Ancestral Pueblos that called this place home over the centuries. Do yourself a favor and learn a few things while you’re crawling in and out of cavates.
Pro Tip: If you appear disheveled and mention you live in a van, the friendly ranger lady may just let you borrow a tour book for free. This happened to us, which was a nice surprise. Honestly, we’re not beyond charity at this point.
A Day in Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico: Hike the Main Loop and Alcove House Trails
From the visitor center in Frijoles Canyon, you’ll find the Main Loop Trail. This is a 1.2-mile loop that goes through many of the archaeological sites in the canyon. You’ll encounter a variety of petroglyphs, carved-out cavate dwellings, and remnants of village life that date back millennia.
It’s a fairly easy walk that passes through the canyon and along the cliff walls. Parts of the hike go through carved-out paths in the cliff rock, so you must be able to walk up and down some stairs and squeeze through a few tight spaces. You’ll also find numerous wooden ladders that allow you climb up into the cavates, which is super cool.
About halfway through the loop trail, a spur breaks off and heads to the Alcove House. A pretty flat half-mile hike will take you to the Alcove House’s location. This is where things get interesting.
The Alcove House is a large cave (once known as Ceremonial Cave), sitting 140 feet above the canyon floor. A set of wooden ladders will take you to the cave, where you can enjoy a great view of the canyon just the way the Ancestral Pueblos saw it so long ago.
Tiffany says this “isn’t for the faint of heart,” thanks to the sheer drop-off on one side. Neither of us could imagine trying to navigate the ladders and narrow, cliff-side trails during peak season.
A Day in Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico: Other Considerations
If you only have an afternoon to spend in this area, be sure to add the above items to your list. They are must-dos. That being said, there are many other things to experience here, which we unfortunately did not have time for.
Be on the lookout for wildlife (we saw a large amount of deer), and remember this is cougar country. You wouldn’t want a mountain lion to grab you by the head and carry you off, that’s for sure. Abert’s squirrels frolic through the trees. Also, watch where you step. Bandelier is home to tarantulas. Fun!
Keep in mind that there are over 70 miles of trails in the park, some of which go fairly deep into the backcountry, so there is plenty to explore, even if you do only have a limited time available.