Summer Special: What’s Old is New Again: Bandelier National Monument Sheds Light on the Ancestral Homeland of Five Modern Pueblos
Editor's note: Among the many units that comprise the National Park System are national monuments, "landmarks, structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest" situated on public lands that were added to the system by presidential decree. At Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico the history of an ancestral Pueblo homeland is preserved and interpreted. Guest writer Nicky Leach traveled there recently to explore this rich landscape with so much human history.
A visit to Bandelier National Monument always feels like a homecoming. For Santa Feans like myself that’s partly because this 33,750-acre park is just 48 miles from Santa Fe. Locals tend to have proprietary feelings toward the unique 900-year-old Ancestral Pueblo cliff dwellings in Frijoles Canyon. It’s our neighborhood park – a place to make personal pilgrimages, enjoy the changing seasons, immerse ourselves in another era, and wow out-of-state visitors.
Bandelier also has a strong family appeal. That’s no accident. There’s an unbroken ancestral connection between the Ancestral Pueblo people who built their homes here and their modern-day descendants, who still live in the nearby pueblos of Cochiti, San Ildefonso, Santa Clara, and Santo Domingo, as well as Zuni, far to the south. “This place knows us,” said one Pueblo elder. “We are all part of this place.”
A Place of Returns
As you drive over the rise on the park entrance road and start the precipitous 600-foot descent into Frijoles Canyon, time seems to shift and the 21st century drops away. Sunlight melts into shadows, and the eye is soothed by a swath of evergreen ponderosa pine forest as gentle as an Irish mist. Far below is the shiny ribbon of Frijoles Creek, bubbling merrily through the center of the canyon. Modest though it appears, Frijoles Creek was entirely responsible for etching this canyon into the pale, hardened volcanic ash, or tuff, of the Pajarito Plateau. The presence of water has led life to congregate here.
They call New Mexico the “Land of Enchantment,” but “Volcano State” might be more apt. The plateau sits on the eastern edge of the Jemez Mountains, left behind a million years ago when a violent eruption collapsed the Jemez Volcano, spewing ash for 100 square miles. The mighty Rio Grande occupies the Rio Grande Rift Zone, which is pulling apart and may eventually become an inland seaway. The heart of Jemez Volcano may be glimpsed just north of Bandelier at Valles Caldera National Preserve, which protects the dormant caldera.
Although Paleoindians hunted big game through the area and Archaic hunter-gatherers traveled here seasonally, the first permanent residents didn’t arrive until after the sudden collapse of the Chaco civilization in AD 1150. These pioneers were joined in the 1200s by newcomers from Mesa Verde, as severe drought, resource depletion, population pressures, and political meltdowns emptied out the Four Corners region to the north by AD 1300.
For millennia, native people had traveled here to obtain obsidian, the hard black volcanic rock that was long-prized for the manufacture of flaked spear points, arrowheads, and tools. Now, as the world they had once lived in imploded, Pueblos embarked on a new adventure in a land they already knew was resource-rich and welcoming.
Generations thrived in Frijoles Canyon and spilled out all across the Pajarito Plateau, where they built thousands of pueblos – there are 3,000 archeological ruins in Frijoles Canyon alone. But by the 1500s, the same old bugbears – climate change (this time a cooling trend), growing populations, diminishing resources, and a move toward coalition into larger pueblos – triggered another migration, albeit one closer to home. Groups linked by their shared Keres and Tewa languages and traditions moved to warmer lowlands and began building autonomous pueblos along the Rio Grande, using lands from the river to the mountains.
Pueblo people continued, as they do today, to make regular pilgrimages here to perform ceremonies at shrines in the backcountry and collect plants and other resources. In this untouched place, they feel closest to their ancestors, whose spirits, they say, still occupy these lands.
“The Grandest Thing I Ever Saw”
Bandelier’s treasures slumbered quietly for centuries. Then in 1880, a Cochiti Pueblo man, Juan Jose Montoya, led Swiss self-taught ethnographer and archeologist Adolph Bandelier into Frijoles Canyon to show him the dwellings. “It was the grandest thing I ever saw,” said Bandelier, who would later write a fictionalized account of Pueblo life here in his book The Delight Makers.
Bandelier’s report on the Indian ruins of the Southwest led directly to the founding of the School of American Archeology (now School of Advanced Research) in Santa Fe. Its first director was Dr. Edgar Lee Hewett, a charismatic Midwestern teacher and self-taught archeologist who had come to New Mexico to teach at the Las Vegas Normal School (now Highlands University).
The Jemez Mountains held a powerful attraction for Hewett, who even spent his honeymoon camping on the plateau and exploring the ruins. Following Bandelier’s lead, he undertook extensive excavations on the Pajarito Plateau in 1907, with summer school students. He showed the ceramics he was unearthing to local Pueblos, including a talented San Ildefonso potter, Maria Martinez. Intrigued, she and her husband began experimenting with reviving the old pottery styles, triggering a renaissance in Pueblo pottery that has remained to this day.
Hewett’s other important contribution was to write the final draft of the powerful Antiquities Act. The act granting U.S. presidents the power to protect historic resources without congressional approval was signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. This paved the way for Bandelier to be set aside as a national monument in 1916. Its name was a tip of the hat to the “father” of Southwest archeology – Adolph Bandelier.
The Largest WPA Art Collection in the NPS
At the height of the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) set up in the canyon. A Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp housed scores of young men who learnt traditional crafts from local artisans and completed government projects for $1 a day. The CCC constructed the first road into the park in 1939 and built traditional Pueblo Revival-style buildings of adobe, with carved wood beams and punched tin fixtures and fittings.
Santa Clara Pueblo artist Pablita Velarde was hired to paint scenes from traditional Pueblo life and German-born Helmut Naumer, a contemporary of Santa Fe’s famous Cinco Pintores artists, contributed a dozen vibrant pastels depicting the scenery and buildings in the canyon. Today, the park has the most extensive collection of WPA buildings and art in the National Park System (you can view much of this online at this site.)
Easy Trails for the Whole Family
Bandelier is 70 percent wilderness – if you’re looking for backcountry solitude, look no farther. Most visitors stay in the 6,000-foot elevation main canyon, enjoy the historic visitor complex, and hike around looking at the Pueblo dwellings. It’s a compact area, making it a good place for people of all ages and abilities to enjoy a pleasant day out.
The 1.2-mile Main Loop Trail along the bottom of Frijoles Canyon begins behind the visitor center. The trail passes the foundations of Tyuonyi Pueblo, a large 13th-century pueblo built by refugees from Mesa Verde. Tyuonyi is an example of the consolidated pueblo lifestyle that took hold later on, and which remains a feature of modern pueblos along the Rio Grande.
Beyond Tyuonyi, the trail climbs toward the sheer south-facing tuff cliffs, where early residents built small two-family cliff pueblos. The soft tuff could be easily carved with simple basaltic tools into hundreds of cave rooms, or cavates. Inside, men wove cotton on looms hung from the ceiling, and women made distinctive gray-on-black pottery, creating finely crafted jars and bowls inspired by their new homeland.
You can still see the black smudges from fires in these small spaces and the postholes where vigas (carved roof beams) were directly placed against the chalky surface of the tuff. Some may be accessed by ladder – the classic Bandelier rear-end photo op.
An additional mile round trip takes you to Alcove House (formerly Ceremonial Cave), a cliff dwelling and kiva that sits 140 feet high and has the canyons’s most dramatic vistas. To reach it, you must climb three long ladders. Don’t attempt this with young children or if you are afraid of heights or have health issues.
Beyond the Canyon
Of Bandelier’s 70 miles of trails, my personal favorite is the moderate Falls Trail, which highlights Bandelier’s geology and natural features. It leads past two waterfalls – the first 1.5 miles from the trailhead, the second located 0.25-mile farther down – and ends at the Rio Grande, 2.5 miles later, for views of Pueblo lands on the other side of the river.
There is no overnight camping in Frijoles Canyon itself, but the recently renovated Juniper Campground near the park entrance is the perfect place for an easy camp-out. The campground and Frijoles Canyon are linked by the steep 2-mile Frey Trail, the original trail into the canyon. It is named for pioneer innkeeper Evelyn Frey, who operated the Lodge of the Ten Elders. The first lodge was pulled down and replaced by a new building near the visitor center in the late 1930s. It was commandeered for use by Manhattan Project scientists from nearby Los Alamos during World War II and is now Bandelier Grill. Mrs. Frey arrived in 1925 and remained in the canyon until her death in 1988.
The New Old Visitor Center
An extensive $4 million renovation of the attractive Depression-era visitor center now highlights the unbroken connection of people and place in Bandelier. The lobby has been reconfigured to make it a hands-on learning place with a ranger desk, computers for kids, and a topographical model of the park with light-up hiking trails. Museum exhibits have been completely redone, in consultation with the affiliated tribes, with modern dioramas, models, and interactive exhibits that reflect Pueblo interpretations of Bandelier.
The old theater is now an attractive bookstore, with carved bookshelves and an expanded book selection. A new theater has been added unobtrusively to the back of the historic building, and a new 14-minute, high-definition park film -- Sky Island -- is shown regularly. The silky smooth narration for the film, which was written, produced and directed by the Park Service and Harpers Ferry Center filmmaker John Grabowska, is provided by Academy Award-winning actress Meryl Streep and Pulitzer Prize winning author N. Scott Momaday, who was raised at nearby Jemez Pueblo.
Taking its cue from successful wildlife films like Planet Earth, the HD film is the perfect introduction to Bandelier’s breathtaking natural beauty. It features a symphony of seasonal sights and sounds shot throughout the park over five seasons, including sweeping aerials of park landscapes filmed using an ultralight aircraft and intimate closeups of wildlife, from black bears and mule deer to charming, sleepy owls.
Bandelier is busiest in late spring and early summer, when the parking lot fills quickly and there may be a 30- to 45-minute wait by midday. Local Pueblos offer crafts demonstrations on weekends in summer and colorful ceremonial dances on holidays. Bring a picnic to eat beside the creek. Wander among the ruins. Leave off your wristwatch. Turn off your cellphone. Bandelier is a perfect refuge from the 21st century.