Southwestern US, US National Parks

Pueblos and petroglyphs – Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico

“The grandest thing I ever saw” – Adolph Bandelier, archaeologist

Nestled in Frijoles Canyon, which has been carved into the Pajarito Plateau, is an 800-year-old pueblo called Tyuonyi. Tyuonyi (pronounced KYU-weh-nee, and no, that’s not a typo; it’s been three months, and my brain still struggles with seeing a T and having to make a Q sound) was built by the Ancestral Puebloans, who are the original inhabitants of this land. They built many villages – or pueblos – over the course of the hundreds of years they inhabited the region; Tyuonyi is one of the largest, and is the centerpiece of Bandelier National Monument.

(Ancestral Puebloans, by the way, are the ancestors of modern day Puebloans who still live throughout New Mexico. They are sometimes called the ‘Anasazi’ but this is a Navajo word meaning ‘enemy’ and is no longer considered appropriate. Click here for more information on the present-day Puebloans with historical ties to Bandelier.)

While the main attraction of Bandelier is the ruins, the geology of the region is interesting in its own right. The Pajarito Plateau is made of tuff, a soft, light-colored rock created from volcanic ash. About a million years ago, a nearby volcano erupted twice, burying the surrounding landscape in a layer of ash over 1000 feet (305 m) thick. This ash cooled, hardened, and compressed to form the plateau. Over the years, irregular erosion of the tuff has created the valleys, cliffs, and canyons visible at Bandelier today.

Frijoles Canyon
Tuff formations in Frijoles Canyon

We began our day at the visitor center, which also houses a museum with information on the history – both human and geologic – of Bandelier. After touring the museum, we set off on the 1.4 mile (2.3 km) Pueblo Loop Trail through the center of Tyuonyi and up to the edge of the cliffs. Here, we could climb ladders into some manmade caves called cavates (pronounced CAVE-ates) and see the ruins of Long House, a dwelling built into the cliffside. Due to the softness of the rock, it was relatively simple to excavate small holes in a cliff face to insert crossbeams, allowing for construction of multi-story dwellings with roofs.

Tyuonyi as seen from above
One single pictograph (painting) has been preserved at Long House
Pueblo Loop Trail

Usually, you can continue past the loop an additional mile to Alcove House which is, as the name suggests, a house built up in an alcove. The trail was closed during our visit for bridge and ladder repairs, though, so unfortunately we weren’t able to see it. One of the dwellings on the Pueblo Loop Trail was inaccessible as well due to recent vandalism. I wish it didn’t have to be said, but clearly it does: please treat the ruins with care and respect. Stay on the trails/ladders, and don’t climb on, graffiti, or otherwise deface the pueblos, cavates, or rock art.

Since we weren’t able to visit Alcove House, we had a little extra time on our hands. A ranger in the visitor center recommended the 2.7 mile (4.3 km) hike to Frijoles Falls, which he assured us was flowing despite the fact that it was November in the desert. I’m glad we opted to do it; it was a nice hike. The waterfall wasn’t rushing by any means, but there was some water. Plus, the walk along the creek was nice.

I promise, there really is a waterfall in the middle there. It’s in the shadows; clearly we picked the wrong time of day (or maybe just the wrong time of year) to do this hike

Later that afternoon, back up on the rim of Frijoles Canyon, we hiked out to Tyuonyi Overlook. As you might guess from the name, this leads to a view of Tyuonyi from above. It was a little too far away to make out much detail, but it was a nice view of the canyon and surrounding terrain.

Jemez Mountains, as seen from the Tyuonyi Overlook Trail
Ruins on the mesa top
Tyuonyi Overlook

While this completes our one full day in Bandelier, we actually returned to small sections of the park on each of the following two days. One visit was to the Tsankawi section of the park, which is completely disconnected from the rest of Bandelier. Tsankawi (pronounced SAN-kah-wee) protects an unexcavated village, as well as petroglyphs and cavates, all of which can be seen on the 1.5 mile (2.4 km) loop trail through this section. Although there is less to see here than at Tyuonyi, I still enjoyed the hike, both for the views and the trail itself. Between the ladders, drop-offs, and narrow walkways, it was a lot of fun to hike!

Tsankawi Trail
Views from the Tsankawi Trail
Tsankawi petroglyphs

Our final excursion in Bandelier was a hike to the summit of Cerro Grande. Cerro Grande is the highest point in Bandelier and is actually located right on the edge of the monument, on the border with Valles Caldera National Preserve. Valles Caldera is what remains of the volcano that erupted to create Bandelier, and will be the topic of my next post. I’m going to wait and talk about this hike next week, too, since it’s more relevant to Valles Caldera than it is to Bandelier. In the meantime, here’s one of my favorite photos from the trail.

There is actually much more to do in Bandelier that what I’ve detailed here, but it all requires hiking many miles. Most of the monument is not accessible by road. We will hopefully be back someday to visit Alcove House (once the trail reopens) and explore the backcountry terrain of Bandelier. But in the meantime, we really enjoyed our time here and appreciated the variety of attractions the monument has to offer.

The Important Stuff:

  • Getting there: Bandelier is about 25 minutes south of Los Alamos off NM Highway 4. Note that to exit Los Alamos from this direction, you must cross through Los Alamos National Laboratories which requires an ID check upon entry. We were very confused when our GPS sent us this way, but it is in fact the only way through. Just stay on the main road and don’t take any photos on this short segment of the route (these were the instructions we received at the checkpoint).
  • Fees and passes: $25/car for a 7-day pass; America the Beautiful passes are accepted.
  • Where to stay: there is one campground in the monument and reservations are not accepted. Backcountry camping is allowed in certain locations with appropriate permits (free, more information here).
  • Hiking: there are so many trails in Bandelier, ranging from short, relatively flat walks to multi-day hiking loops. Here is more information on each trail.
  • Other: please please please don’t touch, step on, draw on, or otherwise deface the ruins. If there is a ladder, you are allowed to climb it and step inside the cavate. Otherwise, please stay on the trails and do not enter the ruins.

34 thoughts on “Pueblos and petroglyphs – Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico”

  1. What a fabulous area with so many unique experiences and perspectives to be had. Getting inside a caveat must have been amazing, and I love the idea that at first glance you wouldn’t necessarily know there’s a waterfall there. There’s so much mystery to this region I feel, both visually and in the names and language. Great stuff, Diana.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What an awesome trip, post and pictures. The picture of the ruins from above really gives a good perspective of the village that existed. Your reviews are always very thorough and full of interesting details. And, your blog is a wonderful resource for Colorado and the Southwest. I’m putting this on my bucket list!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wonderful photos of a fascinating park, Diana. We loved our two visits at Bandelier and your images brought back nice memories. We were fortunate enough to be able to hike and climb to Alcove House, an experience associated with some butterflies in the stomach while climbing the ladders.
    It’s very sad to hear about vandalism in the park.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I never would have guessed that that’s how you would pronounce Tyuonyi! What an interesting place to explore with all those ladders and cavates built into the slide of the cliff. It’s a shame to hear about how people have vandalized some of the dwellings.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The vandalism was really upsetting. There’s always someone who manages to ruin things for the rest of us. (In our case, it was the two women in front of us attempting to climb ladders in their super cute dresses and inappropriate footwear so they could pose for instagram…)

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh hmmm… that’s a really good question. I’m not sure. To actually take a tour of the labs you do have to have a US passport. But to just drive through, they only checked our drivers licenses. They didn’t ask for a passport or proof of citizenship. There is another way in to Bandelier, though, further west from the town of Jemez. That route doesn’t require ID checks.


    1. Haha yeah, when the ranger at the visitor center first said Tyuonyi, I had to ask him to please repeat it for me. It wasn’t even close to what I’d been saying in my head as I researched for the trip.


  5. That looks like a very cool monument to go exploring that’s filled with historic attractions and unique things to marvel at. I have yet to go see any cliff dwellings and I really want to! It would be an amazing experience to climb into cavates, view a talus home, and ponder over what the petroglyphs may have meant to the people who once inhabited the area. Thank you for sharing and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Aiva, I’m glad I could share Bandelier with you. Hopefully one day you’re able to come tour this little corner of the world. There is so much history, and many additional ruins and structures beyond what we saw here.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This looks like such an interesting area to visit! Tyuonyi … for me it remains unpronounceable (even if you spelled it so beautifully at the beginning) 😉. I always love seeing petroglyphs (and pictograph is something new to me). Those ruins of Long House are beautiful and the narrow walkways between the rocks fascinating. Love your last photo – what a view!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. The cavates are fascinating. They kind of remind me of similar cave dwellings we saw on the cliffs in Northern Nepal. I went right past the waterfall picture and then wandered why you didn’t include a waterfall picture. Found it on my second look, I’ll trust you that it was there. 😊 Maggie

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ahaha there really is a waterfall, I promise! I was pretty disappointed with those photos, but we didn’t feel like waiting around for an hour for the sun to move a little further west, so oh well. I didn’t know there are cave dwellings in Nepal (or maybe I learned about them from your blog and have since forgotten). It’s amazing how people all around the world came up with similar survival strategies.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Now I know why “Anasazi” went out of usage, thank you! I remember visiting Aztec Ruins, etc, as a kid and it was always Anasazi. As I’ve been researching for my upcoming trip, it left me wondering what happened to the word I could never figure out how to say…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I forget where and when I learned that but I think it was within the last 3-4 years. There’s one place in SW Colorado that still hasn’t changed its name and it bothers me a lot.


  9. Ah, these cavates are similar to the dwellings in Mesa Verde (another place I’ve yet to visit)! These are incredible feats of engineering for the Puebloans who lived there hundreds of years ago; I can imagine it’s a lot of fun (and a workout!) to climb the ladders up and down whilst exploring the inside…and gorgeous, intricate petroglyphs don’t hurt, either! I’m dying to return to the US Southwest, especially New Mexico, and I’m racking up a list of places that I must see (including Bandelier)– thanks to your posts!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You should definitely add Mesa Verde to your trip! It’s not far from the NM border and, as cool as Bandelier is, Mesa Verde is infinitely more amazing. For example, the cavates were only large enough for a couple people to move around in (and you couldn’t stand up). The dwellings at Mesa Verde were home to hundreds!

      Liked by 1 person

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