Many visitors to New Mexico, aware of the ancient history of this region, want to know where they can see petroglyphs and Anasazi ruins.
Chaco Canyon is one place to go and be awed by the remains of a culture who left behind the massive buildings which testify to the organizational and engineering skills not seen anywhere else in the American Southwest. The canyon was central to thousands of people between 850 and 1250 A.D.
At Bandelier National Monument, one of the National Park Service’s oldest sites, Ancestral Pueblo dwellings are scattered across a dramatic landscape of mesas and canyons, which these days provides a habitat for a diverse assortment of flora and fauna. The Ancestral Pueblo People lived here from approximately 1150 CE to 1550 CE. They carved their homes into the volcanic duff and planted crops on the mesas. Corn, beans, and squash (the traditional Three Sisters) were central to their diet, supplemented by native plants and the meat they hunted from deer, rabbit, and squirrel. Domesticated turkeys were used for both their feathers and meat while dogs were trained for help with hunting and companionship.
By 1550, the people had moved from this area to build the pueblos along the Rio Grande. After over 400 years of habitation the land here could no longer sustain them, and it is thought that a severe drought added to what were already becoming difficult times. Oral traditions tell us the people of Cochiti Pueblo, located just south and east along the Rio Grande, are the most direct descendents of the Ancestral Pueblo people who built homes in Frijoles Canyon. San Ildefonso is most closely linked to Tsankawi, a sister site close by.
Bandelier sits atop the Pajarito Plateau, a 1-2 million year old ash flow from volcanic eruption in the nearby Jemez Mountains, that over time eroded into a network of canyons and mesas. This rugged terrain allows us a glimpse into the lives of the indigenous population who once lived along these streams in the canyons, and on the mesas above them. These early Pueblo dwellers may have moved on, but the ruins of their habitations and ceremonial structures remain and are protected by the monument.
The main loop trail in Frijoles Canyon provides easy access (partially handicapped accessible) to the remains of these ancient homes. Like past inhabitants, you can climb ladders into several of the small carved rooms. A more challenging climb can be found at Alcove House where Ancestral Pueblo people built homes in a natural recess in the cliff face. Four ladders and a number of stone stairs are required to make the 140-foot ascent.
Although best known for its archeological sites, Bandelier also includes 23,000 acres of designated wilderness. Over 70 miles of trails vary in difficulty from easy footpaths to more challenging ones perhaps best for experienced hikers. Petroglyphs are plentiful, carved into rocks all along the trails. Permits for overnight stays in Bandelier’s backcountry are available at the Bandelier Visitor Center. It’s an easy drive from Taos, so do head out there for a day trip when visiting Northern New Mexico.
For more information visit the Park Service site linked below