You'll Find Tuff Blocks, Fibrolite Axes and Squirrels with Tufted Ears at Bandelier National Monument

Bandelier NM by zadro.

Bandelier has a great combination of scenery and history. Photo by zadro via Flickr.

Houses made of tuff blocks and axes made of Fibrolite may sound like a workshop in high-tech building materials or "green living," but you'll find examples of this very old technology in a park with great scenery and top-notch archeology. If you visit, keep your eyes open for squirrels with tufted ears.

Bandelier National Monument in northern New Mexico offers plenty to do, whether you're interested in archeology, natural history or some fine hiking opportunities.

Most national parks are named for a prominent local feature (i.e. Grand Canyon), the person commemorated by the site (i.e. Lincoln Home) or an important event which occurred there (i.e. Gettysburg.) Bandelier, which celebrates an anniversary today, is a bit different.

Adolph Francis Bandelier was a Swiss-born scholar who grew up in Illinois and came to the Southwest at age forty to pursue a life-long dream of exploring the ancient sites of the Pueblo Indians. By mastering foreign languages easily, Bandelier communicated with the native peoples and in 1880 became the first to study and report on the dwelling sites in Frijoles Canyon... With the aid of more prominent archeologists, Bandelier illuminated the importance of preserving the heritage in Frijoles Canyon and was recognized by President Woodrow Wilson, who established the area as a national monument and named it after him.

Originally established by presidential proclamation on February 11, 1916, the area was transferred from the U. S. Forest Service to the National Park Service on February 25, 1932. About 70 percent of the park's 33,000+ acres is designated as wilderness, but there's plenty to do for both casual tourists and serious hikers.

People have lived in this area for over 10,000 years, and Ancestral Pueblo people built homes in the park's canyons and on the mesas. The primary cultural resource is the remains of 13th-century Pueblo Indians’ cliff houses and villages, which brings us to the matter of those tuff blocks and fibrolite axes.

Homes were constructed from blocks of volcanic tuff, which is soft and relatively easy to break into blocks... natural erosional processes often create slopes of talus or broken, often block-like pieces of rock at the bottom of canyon walls. The Ancestral Pueblo people has sources of hard rock, basalt, just a short distance down canyon. From this more durable rock the people made axes and hammers which could be used as tools to form the tuff blocks.

Distinctive axes made of fibrolite have also been found here.

Fibrolite is composed of highly metamorphosed shale, and Fibrolite axes are made from a type of fibrolite found only in an area near Truchas Peaks, located in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, 26 miles northeast of Santa Fe. Not only is the stone itself distinctive, but the form into which it has been ground is also instantly recognizable. Most noticeable is the sharp blade and the spiral groove where the handle is attached.

You'll find a good introduction to the area's attractions in the visitor center, where displays showcase Ancestral Pueblo pottery and tools and artifacts of daily life. Two life-size dioramas compare Pueblo life in the past and today, and a ten-minute introductory film, "The Bandelier Story," will recap the highlights of the park story.

A popular way to begin an exploration of Bandelier is to take a walk on the Main Loop Trail. This short 1.2 mile loop starts from the Visitor Center and leads through excavated archeological sites on the floor of Frijoles Canyon. A portion of this trail is handicapped accessible. Although this is the only trail in the park cleared of snow, at times during the winter the trail may be an out and back trail instead of a loop due to the closure of an icy slope.

There are plenty of other short trails and opportunities for longer hikes in the park. Bandelier's backcountry offers opportunities for multiple-day overnight backpacking trips on 70 miles of trails. Be sure to get a free backcountry permit at the visitor center if you plan to camp overnight.

If you prefer a different type of camping, the park has a developed campground and sites for organized groups. These areas are normally closed December through February.

This park has a wide variety of terrain: the elevation of sloped mesas and steep-walled canyons varies from over 10,000 feet at Cerro Grande to just over 5,000 feet at the Rio Grande. The result is some interesting plants and animals, including Abert squirrels.

Abert's squirrels are unique mammals found anywhere in the monument where there are enough Ponderosa pine trees to supply their nutritional needs. Identified by their dark gray backs with a red-brown patch, white bellies, and long fluffy white tails, the most destinctive feature of Abert's squirrels are their big tufted ears... In summer, Abert's Squirrels shed their distinctive tasseled ears and their thick winter coat.

Since an Abert's ears are somewhat larger than other squirrel's ears, they still have a very unique appearance. When baby Abert's Squirrels emerge from the nest in late summer, they can easily be distinguished from their parents because they will already have the ear tufts they will continue to wear through the long winter months.

Bandelier also enjoys quite a bit of variety in the weather, so it's good to check ahead if you're planning a visit during the winter. The park is located about a hour's drive from Santa Fe and 30 minutes from Los Alamos. You'll find driving directions, maps and other information to help you plan your visit on the park's website.


We found this park on our first trip to New Mexico. We really enjoyed the scenery and the ruins. I wasn't sure that I could make the climb but I went through the first part of the trail while my husband went a litte farther.
It is a unique place for you to visit and really easy to get to.

Bandelier was beautiful this past fall. I loved how evident the man + volcano link is at the park: if it weren't for the tuff from volcanoes of ages past, man couldn't have lived in the canyon. Pretty cool when you think about it.

I recommend the Frijoles Falls trail down to the Rio Grand. :-)


My travels through the National Park System:

Thanks for the comments - and the trail recommendation!