Like many National Park sites in the American Southwest, Bandelier National Monument preserves a rugged landscape that also holds ruins of human habitation dating back thousands of years. With one day at Bandelier, you can learn about the people who lived here and enjoy this breaking scenery on a few different hiking trails.
We visited Bandelier National Monument as part of a longer road trip to several of the New Mexico national park sites. But, if you only have a weekend, you can easily enjoy one day at Bandelier and another at its neighbor, Valles Caldera National Preserve. Both are located just outside Los Alamos, NM, which is about 1.5 hours north of Albuquerque and about 40 minutes northwest of Santa Fe.
While Bandelier National Monument is not a difficult park to explore, its popularity does mean that you need to do a little advance planning. So, let’s take a look at just what you can expect to see and do while visiting Bandelier National Monument.
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What to See and Do at Bandelier
As always, you should start your visit to Bandelier National Monument at the visitor center. If the entrance gate is not staffed, you’ll need to pay the fee ($25 for a 7-day pass for everyone in your vehicle) or show your national parks pass to the ranger here. Also, be sure to ask about current conditions and specific information about any hiking trails you are interested in.
After that, be sure to watch the short film that provides an excellent overview of the park. There are also a few exhibits highlighting the Ancestral Puebloans who lived here between 1150-1550 CE. The exhibits are a bit dated but still do a great job of telling the story of the people who called this area home.
The main activity at Bandelier is viewing the archeological sites along the Pueblo Loop Trail (previously called the Main Loop Trail). This 1.4-mile loop trail starts right behind the visitor center. Part of this trail is paved and level, but there are some side loops that take you to the remains of the cliff dwellings that require walking uphill along an unpaved and uneven trail or climbing a few stairs.
Finally, there are a few hiking trails that will take you to additional ruins and through the beautiful Frijoles Canyon if you have more time to explore.
Hiking the Pueblo Loop Trail at Bandelier
There are a few exhibit signs at the various ruins along the Pueblo Loop Trail, but we suggest that you purchase the trail guide at the Bookstore for just $2. If you haven’t been to other Ancestral Puebloan sites, this is a great way to learn more about the native Americans who lived in this area and their culture.
Within the first 1/4 mile of the trail, you’ll reach two of the most impressive ruins – that of a Big Kiva and the village of Tyuonyi (pronounced QU-weh-nee). Be sure to take time to consider that this village contains about 400 rooms and likely housed about 100 people (many rooms were used for food storage).
From here, take the side trail up to the cliff dwellings, which are actually a bit different from those found at some other sites such as Mesa Verde National Park. Here at Bandelier National Monument, some of the cliff dwellings are just small cave rooms built in small open areas of the cliff wall. Others are built with three sides, using the cliff as the fourth wall. In other parks, you’ll find large pueblos with multiple rooms built into large caves or overhangs.
There are a few ladders that allow you to get a closer look at the small cave rooms. Please remember, you should only climb to caves that have a ladder. And, of course, treat all ruins with respect and take care to not damage anything.
As you follow the trail along the edge of the cliff wall, you’ll also have great views down over the valley of the canyon and can take in Tyuonyi from above. Continue following the path along the cliff walls, taking in the various types of cliff dwellings along the way. Just be careful as you make your way along the path as it is quite narrow in a few areas.
Other Hiking Trails at Bandelier National Monument
From there, we recommend that you continue toward the back of the canyon until you cross Frijoles Creek. You can then follow the wide amd flat nature trail back to the visitor center.
If you want to extend your hike another mile (roundtrip), follow the signs to continue farther into the canyon and visit Alcove House before returning to the visitor center. This is a more traditional style of cliff dwelling, which is located 140 feet above the canyon floor. You’ll need to climb 4 wooden ladders and some stone stairs to reach this site. We had planned to do this hike but, unfortunately, the trail was closed due to icy conditions.
The park’s website lists a number of additional trails at Bandelier National Monument, covering a total of 70 miles! Some of these are fairly short and easy while others would take all day.
Due to weather conditions and our itinerary, we only had time for one additional hike and we chose Falls Trail.
Hiking Falls Trail at Bandelier National Monument
According to the ranger, the Falls Trail is one of the most popular hiking trails at Bandelier National Monument and we completely understand why! First of all, the trail is easy to access right from the main parking lot by the visitor center. It also is a relatively easy hike that provides fantastic views through a different part of the canyon and takes you to a waterfall. And who doesn’t love waterfalls?
What was great for us is that we actually were the first ones on the trail that day. The night before, there was a light snowfall that covered much of the trail. Seeing no other footprints as we started our hike actually was really neat! Considering this is a popular hike, we definitely feel as though we lucked out with having the trail to ourselves for a while. Alas, we did see a few other hikers as we returned to the parking lot.
The Falls Trail follows Frijoles Creek as it makes its way through the canyon. You do have to cross the creek two times but the bridges were nice and stable, even when covered with snow. While there are a few rocks and roots to watch out for, the trail was not difficult even with a gradual decline of 400 feet as you hike to the waterfall. And, the trail was a nice mix of shaded and open.
Even on the return trip, the uphill was so gradual that it really wasn’t too difficult. That said, the elevation at Bandelier is about 6,000 feet, so if you aren’t used to the higher altitude, you might be huffing and puffing in a few spots.
The waterfall at the end is fairly tall but the flow was relatively light during our visit. Still, it was great to see a waterfall in the middle of this larger desert ecosystem.
Whether you chose the Falls Trail or another trail, we highly recommend doing some hiking at Bandelier National Monument. It’s a great way to get away from the crowds at the visitor center and on the main loop trail. And, of course, it’s a great way to enjoy even more of this fantastic desert canyon!
Getting to Bandelier National Monument
How easy or difficult it is to get to Bandelier National Monument definitely depends on the season and the weather. The parking lot at the park is quite small, so during the summer, you’ll have to take a shuttle from the nearby town of White Rock from 9 am to 3 pm daily. The shuttle is free (you still have to pay the park admission) and runs every 20-30 minutes.
If you arrive before 9 am or after 3 pm, you can drive straight to the park. Additionally, anyone with a handicap placard or those who are camping can drive to the park. Since we haven’t visited in the summer, I can’t comment on how well the shuttle system works. But, anything is better than not being able to park!
In the winter, the shuttle does not run, so you can drive right to the park. We recommend that you arrive early or late in the day, as the parking lot does still fill up. Additionally, winter weather can be an issue and the roads do wind quite a bit through the mountains.
I actually called the park the day before our visit since winter weather was forecast in the area. When I spoke to a ranger on December 28, I was told that the parking lot had been filling up most days. Thankfully, the snow the night before our visit was fairly light and did not impact the roads. Still, we made a point to arrive early to beat the crowds.
Where to Stay and Eat Near Bandelier NM
You could make a day trip from Santa Fe or even Albuquerque. But I would suggest staying in either Los Alamos or White Rock. Los Alamos is definitely the bigger of the two towns. Indeed, White Rock isn’t much more than a couple of neighborhoods and maybe one or two gas stations and restaurants.
The only reason we stayed in White Rock is because that’s where the Hampton Inn is. If you’re not a loyal Hilton fanatic like us, you’ll find more options in Los Alamos. In fact, I think the Hampton Inn was the only hotel in White Rock. The hotel was quite comfy and was a good base for exploring the area.
In terms of food, we drove into Los Alamos on our first night for dinner at Pajarito Brewpub & Grill. They don’t actually brew their own beer but they do carry a wide variety of craft brews, many of them from New Mexico.
In terms of food, we both chose local flavors: the New Mexico Green Chile Philly Cheesesteak for me, while Grant opted for the Green Chile Pub Burger. Both were tasty, with Grant proclaiming his burger to be one of the best-prepared burgers he’s ever had. My cheesesteak was good and the green chiles were a nice twist but I can’t claim it was the best ever.
We really enjoyed the food and beer and our service was great! That said, the prices were a bit steep. I know there are still all kinds of supply issues, so we try not to complain too much. But if you’re on a tight budget you might want to check prices before sitting down here.
On our second night, we decided to just walk from our Hampton Inn to the Mexican restaurant next door, El Rigoberto’s Tacos. The food was tasty but nothing super exciting. Still, if you are staying in White Rock, there aren’t many options, and this fits the bill for a quick and easy dinner.
Sirphey at Bandelier
Finally, there actually is a small restaurant at Bandelier National Monument, called Sirphey. The information on the park’s website regarding Sirphey was conflicting. In the front page alerts, it said the restaurant was closed. When we arrived, though, we found it open. After I did some digging online, I found that it was open only on certain days. And, it may have only been open right around the holidays.
All I know is that I certainly hope it is open when you visit! The menu is quite interesting, offering a wide variety of options such as samosas (Indian stuff puff pastry), plantains, spring rolls and a wide variety of burgers, served with beef, bison or elk.
I chose the Indian Fry Bread Burger, a beef patty with cheese, caramelized onion, cheese, pico and spring mix lettuce on, of course, Indian fry bread. Grant went with the Doug, which is topped with cheese, caramelized onions, hatch green Chile, fresh mozzarella, bacon and a stuffed chile relleno! Both were absolutely spectacular!
And, not only did they serve beer and wine but they actually had a few different local mulled wines. The nice, warm wine was perfect for warming up on a cold day. Finally, the friendly service and personal recommendations we got we spot on and very much appreciated.
The meal was definitely a step above the peanut butter and jelly we would have made otherwise!
Visiting Valles Caldera National Preserve
Just about 20 miles west of Bandelier National Monument, you’ll find another park site: Valles Caldera National Preserve. As the name implies, the park sits in a 13-mile-wide depression that was created by a volcanic eruption roughly 1.25 million years ago.
The park mostly just preserves the natural landscape, made up of a variety of meadows and streams. It’s also home to a variety of wildlife, most notably elk. The park once was a working ranch and several of the historic ranch buildings are preserved as well.
Most visitors enjoy watching wildlife or a variety of recreational activities, including hiking, fishing, hunting, bicycling, skiing and more. Indeed, there is not much development in the park. And, in the winter, snow can make a big impact.
In fact, the park was closed the first two days we tried to visit due to winter weather. As it was, we had to squeeze in just a quick visit before leaving the area to continue our road trip. And, with all the snow, there wasn’t much we could see or do.
Still, we saw enough to know that we definitely want to return! The drive from Bandelier to Valles Caldera takes you through up to an elevation over 8,000 feet. Along the way, there is a nice mix of forest and open canyon views. It really is a spectacular landscape that most people probably wouldn’t expect to find in New Mexico.
We’re hoping to return one summer when we can spend some time hiking and really exploring the park.
Other Nearby National Park Sites
Bandelier National Monument and Valles Caldera National Preserve are just two National Park sites in Northern New Mexico. And we visited all of them on this trip. Not too far to the east, Pecos National Historical Park and Fort Union National Monument both preserve frontier history and archeological ruins.
To the west, Chaco Culture National Historical Park was home to, perhaps, the largest concentration of Ancestral Puebloans in the American Southwest. The massive buildings once housed thousands of people from about 850 to 1250 CE. We have now visited more Ancestral Puebloan sites than we can count and Chaco Culture is one of the most impressive!
Farther south, we visited El Morro and El Malpais National Monuments, along with Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque. We’ll have articles on those sites soon, too!
And, if you’re heading north, it is just a short distance to one of our favorite towns, Pagosa Springs, CO. Of course, the American Southwest is chock full of amazing sites, including Mesa Verde National Park (southwest Colorado), Monument Valley (southeastern Utah) and several more Ancestral Puebloan sites in northern Arizona.
Final Thoughts on Bandelier National Monument
I would assume that most people visit Bandelier National Monument to view the Ancestral Puebloan mesa top and cliff dwellings. But the scenery is equally as interesting! The area is an interesting mix of small scrubby desert plans and tall trees, along with both canyons and mountains.
If you have limited time, you can enjoy all of this from the main loop trail in just an hour or two. But, with more time, you can get yourself off the beaten path and really soak it all in.
With a little extra time, we encourage you to take the short drive up to Valles Caldera National Preserve. There may not be much there, but it’s a great drive and plenty of additional opportunities for hiking, biking and more.
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