Scaling Heights of New Mexico Cave Dwellings

In 1880, Swiss-born anthropologist and archeologist Adolph Bandelier traveled to New Mexico to explore the cave dwellings of Frijoles Canyon. Calling the place “the grandest thing I ever saw,” he settled in Santa Fe and spent the rest of his life studying the ancestors of the Pueblo Indians, who once occupied the steep-walled canyon.

Today, visitors to Bandelier National Monument can explore nearly 50 square miles of wilderness, but the most popular area remains the series of short trails in Frijoles Canyon.

The monument receives about 350,000 visitors annually, mostly in the summer. It’s open year-round (closed only on Christmas Day).

But winter may be the best time to make the 50-mile trip from Santa Fe. Legend has it that the sun rises at the entrance of the east-facing pueblo on the day of the winter solstice. Santa Fe-bound skiers could really enjoy a detour to the monument.


Frijoles Canyon is interesting not only for its archeological significance, but for its geological origins. When the massive Jemez Volcano blew its top a million years ago, it threw volcanic ash and basalt five miles into the air. When the material settled, it lay 1,000 feet thick over 400 square miles. Canyons were cut through the compacting ash by creeks flowing to the Rio Grande, and the “Swiss cheese” caves and cave-ettes were formed by the uneven cooling of gases.

These caves were later occupied by the Anasazi--ancestors of the Pueblo Indians who inhabited Frijoles Canyon from approximately AD 1200 to 1550. The canyon provided a subsistence living for the Anasazi, who grew blue corn, squash and beans and hunted deer and other animals. They moved on when the land was exhausted and could no longer support the population.

The best introduction to the national monument and the best way to see the cliff dwellings is via the self-guided interpretive trail through Frijoles Canyon. Highlights of the path include a ceremonial kiva and the ruins of a 600-year-old village.

Note that to reach the cliff dwellings at the end of the trail, you’ll have to scale some ladders. This is not an activity for the clumsy or those scared of heights.

Besides the two-mile-long canyon trail and a couple of miles of side trails, the national monument also boasts more than 70 miles of maintained back-country trails. Paths lead to caves and pueblo ruins, the gorge of Alamo Canyon and White Rock Canyon of the Rio Grande. The Bandelier back-country trails also lead to the adjoining Dome Wilderness and Santa Fe National Forest.

Day-hikes that are particularly recommended are the 5.5-mile round trip to the Rio Grande and the 12-mile round-trip trek to Stone Lions Shrine. Ask park rangers for the latest trail conditions. Wilderness permits are required.

Directions to trail head: Bandelier National Monument is 46 miles west of Santa Fe off New Mexico 4. From Santa Fe, travel north on U.S. 285 to Pojoaque, west on New Mexico 502, then south on New Mexico 4 to the national monument.

The hike: Begin at the handsome adobe-styled Visitor Center, which is a National Historic Landmark. Built during the Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps, it was built to last, with solid construction, hand-carved benches and handmade lamps. Tour the displays of artifacts and take in the slide show and movie for additional interpretation. You can even sign up for a guided ranger tour.


Frijoles Canyon is well marked. Numbers along the self-guided trail refer to the interpretive brochure available for purchase at the Visitor Center.

You pass first through the farming area, then past a longhouse and a storage silo. Rock art and intriguing cliff dwellings hollowed out of the canyon walls are sights to remember.

At the end of the interpreted trail is the ceremonial cave. To enter the cave, you must ascend a series of four nearly vertical ladders with no hand-holds. Those with heart or respiratory difficulties or fear of heights should not attempt this part of the walk (remember the mile-high altitude).

For those who decide to explore the cave, it’s an awe-inspiring adventure and an opportunity to feel much closer to the ancient ones who once made their lives in this quiet canyon. This kiva site was unearthed in 1908. Sit in one of the tiny caves, contemplate the pine trees 140 feet below, and bask in the warm rays of the setting sun.


Bandelier National Monument is a great place to reflect on another time, another people.

Hiking / Bandelier National Monument Frijoles Canyon Trail Where: Frijoles Canyon, New Mexico Length: 2-4 miles round trip, longer trips possible. Terrain: Dramatic cliffs, river canyon. Highlights: Anicent cliff dwellings, caves. Precautions: High-altitude hiking, near vertical ladders. For more information: Call Bandelier National Monument at (505) 672-3861. Ceremonial Caves: 2 mi. round trip Ruins Trail (to stop 21 & back: 1 mi. Tyuonyi: 1/4 mi. one way Tyuonyi Overlook Trail: 2.4 mi. Frijolito Ruin: 1/2 mi. one way via switchbacks; via Long Trailk 1.7 mi. loop Falls: 3 mi. round trip Rio Grande: 5 mi. round trip