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Hike through Bandelier National Monument

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.

New Mexico Astrophotograph

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.

Ancient path carved into the rock.

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.

Keeping to my schedule, I returned to the parking area, meeting only one other small group of hikers at the trail head, and continued my journey into Frijoles Canyon and the main part of the park. Not 100% sure why it is called Frijoles canyon, the river (creek) that runs through the canyon and joins the Rio Grande 2.5 miles down stream is called "El Rito de los Frijoles" perhaps the Spanish settlers were excited that there was enough water here to grow their beans. As I mentioned before the rock on the Pajarito Plateau is soft due to the volcanic sediment left by the eruption of the Jemez Volcano over a million years ago. (This info comes from the National Park guidebook, and my own misinterpretations, so use extreme caution if you are using my info as a source for this information!) The people started building homes in this canyon approximately in 1150 CE when they began to practice agriculture and did not leave until around 1500 CE when they built more modern settlements along the Rio Grande. Prior to 1150 CE the people of the area were nomadic and may have lived in the canyon seasonally.

When you start along the trail, you wander through the ruins of a village on the canyon floor. They had these underground circle rooms called Kivas that were important for religion, education, community events, leadership gatherings...yeah the park service basically just lists anything that humans could possibly do, could have happened in these circular basement structures, so basically no idea, and although larger than the cave homes, they are by no stretch the size of a grand hall. There are ruins of pueblo type homes in a circle surrounding the Kivas.

After passing through the ruins of the Tyuonyi village the trail takes you up along the cliff to climb a lot of fun ladders and enjoy seeing the cave habitats. The trail in this part of the park is paved (sort of) and well maintained to cope with the many visitors. The edges of the canyon are impressively tall, and the sky was an amazing brilliant blue, lending to some excellent photo opportunities.

Cave dwelling shaped like a mouth

Ladder up to Native American cave dwelling

The homes built along the cliff wall were multi storied. The small holes in the wall were used to place rafter beams to create a sturdy ceiling and second level floor. The larger holes are interior 'back rooms' carved into the cliff. If you've seen a modern Pueblo village, it isn't hard to imagine the structures that once existed here. An interesting tidbit is that the doorway entries to these homes were thought to be in through the ceiling rather than the front ground level of the structure. Perhaps so coyotes didn't make themselves unwelcome visitors in the middle of the night?

At one point I spotted a small herd of does and a single buck down at the creek, and I proceeded to fill up the rest of my first CF card with photos of deer. Seeing as I am in no way a wildlife photographer, and my 120mm lens just didn't have the reach, I'll spare my readers all but one photo of the deer. Up until that point, I had been using my wide angle lens, once I switched for the deer I ended up keeping the kit lens (24-120) on for the remainder of the hike. Even with 24mm I still was able to capture some incredible photos of the cliff which just goes to show the scale of it all.

I also channeled my inner Ansel Adams and shot with my Nikon FE2 and ended up with some great black and white film shots, that will require a bit free time for a trip to the darkroom to print.

At the Apex of the main loop, and an hour before I had to be back in the car to catch my flight home, I was faced with the decision of whether or not to visit the Alcove house high up on the cliff. Of course I had to give it a go. Ever since the deer I had befriended a middle aged Midwestern couple and joined them up the new path pointing toward the Alcove. About a half a mile though the woods along the canyon floor we came to what I will refer to as 'The Great Climb'. Signs kept boasting of the 140' of ladders ahead, warning off those with heart conditions. As a pilot 140' doesn't really seem all that high....As an out of shape sea level dweller a 140' climb up wooden ladders at 6,000' elevation might as well be Everest.

After an extreme exertion and a somewhat perilous climb arriving at the Alcove house was extraordinarily anti-climatic. Its a decent sized cave with a miniature version of those round basement rooms called Kivas. This one had a roof, and you couldn't go inside. But live with no regrets, right? So I grabbed a couple shots, glanced at the time, and started my scramble back down, and my sore-legged limpy jog back to the car park. All in all, an amazing experience that I would highly recommend to anyone visiting the area. Visit the National Park Website here for more info:

Some times my photo adventures only end up not working out and I only get one or two shots, if any. This was a literal treasure trove of photo ops and I came away rich! See my best photos in my New Mexico gallery.

Brick framed window in ancient cave dwelling

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