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Hike through Bandelier National Monument

November 19, 2016

After a week covering shifts in Albuquerque NM, I had half a day to explore and photography before returning to Dallas. I decided on a hike to the cave dwellings North of ABQ. In preparation I drove up to Santa Fe after work Thursday evening and stayed in an amazing little casita owned by one of the flight nurses. As usual, there is always an element of misadventure in my travels. I under estimated the cold nights of the NM high desert so I stopped by REI to grab a smart wool underlayer. Once out of the city, I found a side road and tried my hand at some beginners astro-photography. 



Nikon D810 16mm f5 30sec ISO 2000.


I had very little idea of what I was doing but it turned out somewhat decently. More research required before venturing out again. I took a few where I illuminated the bush with my car headlights, but honestly the bush just wasn't very interesting and looked better as a silhouette. In lightroom I applied a gradient that cooled the top 3rd of the photo and left the bottom by the horizon the color temp that it was shot at. I reduced the noise a small amount (not a big deal for a photo in a blog post). Other than those two edits the photo is as is. It started getting late, cold, and a bit spooky, so I called it a night and headed into Santa Fe. 


I set my alarm for 5 am, ended up sleeping until around 6, and realized that one smart wool pullover wasn't going to cut it on a hike in 30 degree weather. I pulled my pants over my pajamas and wore every shirt in my bag, and headed out to the Bandelier National Monument to climb into some ancient cave houses. My first stop is was the Tsankawi trail. The trail head is right off hwy 4, about 30 seconds after you turn off the main road from Santa Fe.


I was excited to see that I was the first one there that morning. This is an amazing trail that I highly recommend to anyone visiting the area, even if you do not have time to visit the actual park itself, this hike took about two hours (with me taking about 1000 photos) and seems to be a bit of a secret (good thing my blog is too!). It starts with a ladder up to the top of the Mesa and loops back around through an area of cave dwellings and pictographs. On the top of the mesa they have left the ruins untouched by request of the Pueblo Native Americans (the people of the near by San Ildefonso Pueblo are the most direct descendants of these ancient cave dwellers); thus there are stones from ancient homes and bits of pottery scattered about. Juxtaposed with the peace of this ancient site, from the top of the mesa  you can see the cars speeding by on the highway below. On a personal note, this reminds me of my childhood in Albuquerque where my grandmother and I used to wander out our back gate and into the desert to explore a dried up river bed looking for treasure, where we'd then sit on a rock and count the colors of cars passing on a distant highway. As a five year old, this was a grand adventure into an expansive wilderness, 30 years later that old dried up river bed in ABQ is nothing more than standard suburbia. But here up on this mesa, I can renew that adventurous spirit and smile thinking of my grandmother.


After climbing down another set of ladders, I made my way around the edge of the Mesa, literally walking in the footsteps of the ancestral Pueblo people. The soft volcanic tuff wore away with year after year of travel from the dwellings to water sources and possible agricultural sites. 


The caves themselves were just large enough for someone 5' like me to stand in hunched over, and about large enough for four or so people to sit inside. I noticed that the ceilings of the cave were covered in soot and imagined this was from cooking, however I later read that they used to burn the ceilings to prevent the rock from crumbling, and that the park service occasionally re-chars them to keep them maintained. I was very impressed that there seems to have been no vandalism and that I could truly picture the inhabitants living here, carving meaningful symbols and pictographs into the walls of their homes. The fact that there was no immediate park service presence on this trail, made this my favorite over the more crowded Bandelier Monument down the road. And it restored my faith in humanity that the trail was immaculately clean and no graffiti or damage visible to these ancient caves.