Bandelier cliff dwellings, Valles Caldera, and epic New Mexico scenery

November 13, 2022

In early September, at the end of our trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico, we drove to Bandelia National Monument. We last explored its ancient cliff dwellings and pueblo ruins two decades ago, and we’d love to see it again.

Bandelia National Monument

We took the scenic Pueblo Loop Trail, which winds through Frijoles Canyon and along tall cliffs of soft, volcanic rock called tuff. Late summer/early fall wildflowers bloom along the trail.

Frijoles Canyon is quietly picturesque today, but about 800 years ago it was home to hundreds of indigenous people who raised, hunted, herded and herded turkeys. They built houses and storage areas in hollow caves in the mountains and multi-storied, stone and mud structures on the canyon floor. The park’s website offers this history:

“Ancestral Pueblo people lived here from about 1150 CE to 1550 CE. They built houses carved out of volcanic tuff and planted crops in the fields above the mesa. Maize, beans, and squash were the focus of their diet, supplemented by native plants and the meat of deer, rabbit, and squirrel. Domesticated turkeys were used for both their feathers and meat while dogs aided in hunting and provided companionship. By 1550, Ancestral Pueblo people had moved from this area to pueblos along the Rio Grande. After more than 400 years the land could no longer support the people and a severe drought added to what were already difficult times.”

Today you can explore the canyon and even enter some of Bandelier’s Cave, named after Adolphe Bandelier, a 19th-century anthropologist whose work drew attention to the importance of the site, eventually leading to its preservation as a national monument.


Along the mountain path you will come across the Big Kiva. A kiva is a circular, underground space for religious ceremonies or communal gatherings, accessed by steps on a roof made of posts and mud. The roof of the Big Kiva is long gone, but the stone circle remains.

A small kiva has been excavated a short distance along the trail.

Ruins of stone block houses can be seen nearby.

According to the sign, about 100 people may live at home on the canyon floor and another 400 in the cavet (pronounced). Cave-eight), or a cave carved into a tall rock on one side of a canyon. In the summer they farmed on the mesa above the farm. Imagine scrambling to the top of that tending to your crop!


You are allowed to enter the cavates that have ladders. A ranger told us that the local Puebloans used to build stairs from a single pole with a notch cut for the footing, or two poles struck with wooden turns. Can you imagine climbing a single-pole ladder to enter your home, perhaps carrying a baby or food supplies? In all weathers?

And yet they did. According to Bandelier’s website:

“More than a thousand of these rooms are located on the walls of Frijoles Canyon…These groups of houses, caveat villages, were used by generations of Pueblo people…Gauges on the roofs of the caveats show that the builders used tools such as digging wood and sharpening stones. Enlarges naturally occurring pores for Most caves are single rooms, but some are connected by internal doors. Many of the pits were fronted by masonry structures up to three stories high built of tuff blocks and mud mortar…these rooms were used for many things, including weaving, grinding corn, and storage. Many cavets have carved and plastered niches, probably for storing pots and household items. Sockets in the roof, with anchors in the floor, were supports for looms which were used for weaving. Caves were also used as dwellings.”

A room with a view

Tunney Town

The caves overlook the ruins below, known as Tuni Pueblo.

Built in a circle, the ruins of the foundation show where a living village of multi-storied rooms stood 800 years ago…

…presented in this image from a National Park Service brochure. Circles centered with ladders are kivas. Against the mountain wall in the background are masonry structures in front of some hollows.

Talus House

Along the cliff, Talus House is a reconstruction of an early 1900s masonry structure that fronted some of the caves. It probably had neither a window nor a door; The existing window is there so visitors can see inside. Instead, the roof could be accessed by stairs.

Ancestral Pueblo people must have been adept climbers.

The soft and cratered volcanic rock of Frijoles Canyon comes from ash flows from Valles Caldera, which we visited later that day (photo below).

These decaying stone pillars look human, don’t they? One is seated, the other standing, looking over the ravine.

We imagined we saw a skull on a part of the mountain.

Look back at Talus House

Chickpeas and wild flowers

More wildflowers

long house

A section of the hill shows evidence of multi-storied houses built against the cliff wall. It is called a long house.

Rows of holes in the soft rock show where wooden poles called vigas once supported the roof.

Hundreds of petroglyphs – some of turkeys and dogs – remain today, carved into rock, providing evidence of how people lived.

A painting also survives, now protected under glass.

Datura and red morning glory, growing wild

More chickpeas with wild flowers

A sphinx moth dressed in the same colors as the pictograph charmed me here, fluttering among the flowers, scooping up nectar with its long tongue.

zoom — by a fly!

Dining on wings

Canyon View

The trail continues another half mile towards the Alcove House and dips into a woodland, where we were fortunate enough to witness this exciting cannibal scene. Sorry for the blurry photo from a distance, but a large snake on the right is devouring the still struggling smaller snake on the left. The smaller snake locked its tail around something to try to pull it away, but the larger snake overcame it, swallowing half of it before slithering away, tail dangling from its mouth.

Alcove House

On previous visits we had never made it up to Alcove House, a large cave in the face of a cliff 140 feet high. David was excited to climb it. It is accessible by 4 wooden ladders and stone steps. I decided to pass, remaining below to photograph his ascent.

There he goes.

He took this photo looking at the third staircase.

And here’s his view from the inside. A reconstructed kiva sits here and this lofty cave can hold up to 25 people at a time.

If you go up, you must go down.

Valles Caldera National Reserve

Bandelia is fascinating, and we’re glad for the opportunity to explore it again. After a picnic lunch we drive 30 minutes west to the Valles Caldera National Preserve — the source of all of Bandelier’s volcanic rocks. Where once there was destruction, today a beautiful green valley spreads before you.

A bulleted mark tells the story:

“About a million years ago, the great valley before you was formed by collapse, a series of massive volcanic eruptions that ejected 500 times more material than the May 1980 eruption of Mount St. and to the north formed the dome-like mountains in the skyline, the opposite wall of the great Valles Caldera.”

“You are standing on a dormant volcano,” explains one sign. I have been to a few of these in my lifetime.

The grass in the valley is moss-green, the surrounding blue-green hills. It was fantastic.

Prairie dogs make their homes here, and cute mice were standing and jumping across the road when we stopped to watch them.

Anderson Scenic Overlook near Los Alamos

From there we drove to Los Alamos, where we discovered that every car was stopped for security at the entrance to town, asked for their business, and — when viewed on your camera console — told not to take pictures of the buildings on the right as you drove by. OK then! I didn’t take any photos at Los Alamos, as we just drove by, but it satisfied our morbid curiosity to see the city where the atomic bomb was built.

On the way out of town, back to Santa Fe, we came across a breathtaking view of orange mesas lined with olive green trees, blue mountains in the distance. On our last day in New Mexico, we drove to the Anderson Scenic Overlook to take in another stunning vista of the Land of Enchantment.

This is my final post about our late summer road trip to New Mexico. To read the series, check out my post about the Santa Fe Railyard Park and Farmers Market and work backwards from there, looking for additional links at the bottom of each post.

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dig deep

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All material © 2022 by Pam Penick for Excavation. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

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