Road Trip: Bandelier National Monument

Bandelier National Monument has been on our to-do list for years, so we were thrilled to finally make the trip. We enjoyed everything about Bandelier, from the scenic drive through the scenic Jemez Mountains, to the history, and the ancient dwellings in Frijoles Canyon. The tour starts here, and we hope you enjoy it too!

Where is it?

Bandelier National Monument is about 12 miles south of Los Alamos, New Mexico, a 17-minute drive via State Road 501 and State Road 4. There are a couple of scenic overlooks along the roads, so allow time to stop – the views are worth it. The park’s physical address is 15 Entrance RD, Los Alamos, however we do not recommend using GPS for directions to the park as we found the internet service to be very sporadic.

On the road to Bandelier.

Features of the park include:

  • Frijoles Canyon visitor center/park film/museum
  • Bookstore/gift shop
  • Picnic tables
  • Bandelier CCC Historic District featuring historic park buildings.
  • Periodic ranger talks
  • Periodic ranger guided tours, walks, and hikes.
  • Stargazing and periodic night sky programs
  • 70 miles of hiking trails
  • One family campground, one group campground, backcountry camping with permit
  • Winter cross country skiing trails

Note: The only access to Bandelier during the summer months is via White Rock Visitor Center, 115 State Road 4, White Rock, New Mexico, where visitors can leave their vehicles and take a 20-minute shuttle ride to the park. Shuttles run every 20-30 minutes. Click here for the park’s website.

Frijoles Canyon overlook with the cloud shrouded Jemez Mountains in the background.

Bandelier CCC Historic District

President Woodrow Wilson declared Bandelier a national monument in 1916. Then, as with many other national park units, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) developed the park’s infrastructure during the 1930s. Today thirty-one of the park’s pueblo revival style buildings are collectively a designated national historic landmark and compose the historic district.

Visitor center

The main buildings, which included the administrative building, Frijoles Canyon Lodge, restaurant, and cabins, and staff residences, were designed to look like a southwestern village bordering a main plaza. All of Bandelier’s buildings are built of a stone called Bandelier rhyolite tuff, and the outsides of most of them remain as they were when they were built.

One of the former lodge’s beautifully landscaped patios.

Another historical side note is that Bandelier’s lodge was used to house some of the Project Y scientists in 1943 and then construction crews in 1944 while the secret Los Alamos Laboratory was being built during the Manhattan Project.

Frijoles Canyon

Upon entering the canyon, one can’t help but notice the pink and honey colored Swiss cheese look of the canyon walls. At first, we thought it was sandstone, but we quickly learned that it is volcanic ash that compacted over time called tuff, specifically Bandelier tuff.

Holey tuff

Bandelier National Monument is located in an area where volcanic eruptions shaped the landscape. About a million years ago two huge eruptions in the Jemez Volcanic Field created Valles Caldera, a super volcano that is 14 miles northwest of Bandelier. The eruptions created enough power to cover a 400 square mile area with volcanic ash and other materials up to 1,000 feet thick. Additionally, the same violent eruptions formed the Pajarito Plateau, the geologic area upon which the city of Los Alamos and Bandelier are located. As we ventured farther into the canyon, we soon realized that the builders of the park’s historic buildings weren’t the first people to use Bandelier tuff as a construction material.


Several large ancient pueblos are located within the monument, but Tyuonyi (pronounced QU-whe-nee) is one of the few that has been excavated. Most of Bandelier’s other pueblos remain unexcavated at the request of current pueblo people who live in the area and can trace their ancestors to these sacred sites.

Occupied 500-700 years ago, Tyuonyi was one to two stories high, had 400 rooms, and housed about 100 people.
Historical photo of Tyuonyi.

Cliff Dwellings

We took Pueblo Loop Trail which led us toward the spectacular cliff dwellings. Our first stop was Talus House.

Talus House

Talus House is a 1920 reconstruction, built to show how the ancient dwellings may have looked. However, scientists today are of the opinion that the reconstruction is slightly inaccurate. After further studies, they now believe that the dwellings had no windows, and entry doors were located on the roofs. Nevertheless, we appreciated having some idea of how the Ancestral Pueblo people lived in the canyon. Next, we were off to see our first caveate.

Caveate and ladder

Caveates (pronounced cave-eights) are small caves that were dug out of the cliff and used as living or storage spaces. Stone dwellings were built in front of many of the caveates and attached to the cliff face. According to park information, there are over 1,000 caveates in Frijoles Canyon, some of which have multiple interconnected rooms.

Visitors can climb ladders to some of the caveates, so of course we took advantage of the opportunity!

As we continued on the trail towards Long House, the largest pueblo complex at Bandelier, we saw many petroglyphs and a couple of decorated walls.

Little bird petroglyph. Interestingly Pajarito, as in Pajarito Plateau, means little bird.
Petroglyph of a dancing man perhaps.

Caveate walls and ceilings were usually covered with clay and then blackened with soot to help keep the soft rock from crumbling. Some of Bandelier’s caveates preserve painted images of animals and geometric designs.

Preserved caveate wall art, now protected by glass.

Long House

Bandelier’s Long House is a large pueblo complex that was built along the base of the canyon wall. With the support of the canyon wall, the buildings could reach four stories tall.

Long House

Rows of small holes in the wall are where wooden ceiling beams called vigas were attached to the cliff face. Remains of some of the stone walls abut the cliff at ground level.

Detail of Long House. Note the caveates which would have been on the back wall of the dwellings.
More detail showing the small ground level rooms.

The Ancestral Pueblo people who lived in Frijoles Canyon were small in stature. Women were an average height of 5′ tall, while men were an average of 5’3″, and the average life span was 35 years. They occupied the canyon from 1150 CE to 1550 CE. The people of nearby Cochiti Pueblo are their most direct descendants.

Nature in the Park

Bandelier features additional sites to see, one being the popular Alcove House. We chose not to visit Alcove House because it sits 140 feet above the canyon floor, and getting to it involves climbing several ladders and stairways. Instead, we decided to take the nature trail back to the museum.

Lots of green on the trail near Frijoles Creek.
As we walked, we could hear the water flowing in Frijoles Creek, but we only caught a few glimpses of its sparkling water.
We made a couple of friends along the way too.
We think these cute little guys are fence lizards.

The Museum

Bandelier’s museum is an important part of the park that visitors won’t want to miss. Museum exhibits include life-size dioramas depicting how the Ancestral Pueblo people lived, as well as some beautiful pottery pieces, obsidian arrowheads, and ancient tools. We have featured a few of them below.

One of the museum’s well-done dioramas.
Bandelier black-on-gray bowl. According to the museum, bowls with designs on the inside were used as serving bowls.
More pottery and obsidian arrowheads.

Obsidian is formed when lava cools rapidly making a very hard, glass-like rock. However, it chips easily and sharply, therefore the Ancestral Pueblo peoples used it to make arrowheads, spear points, and implements.

Espinosa Polychrome Pot. Per museum information: Glazed decorated pottery was commonly used in Frijoles Canyon and south along the Rio Grande.

Thank you for visiting Bandelier National Monument with us! We’re going to close with a shot of a really cool rotting tree stump that we saw on the nature trail.

Need more road trip inspiration? Here are some other great destinations:

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Petrified Forest National Park

Cahokia Mounds

Happy, safe travels, y’all!

Mike and Kellye


As always, we strive to be as accurate with our information as possible. If we made a mistake, it was unintentional. (Hey, we’re only human!) Our opinions are our own. ©2023          





86 thoughts on “Road Trip: Bandelier National Monument

  1. A beautiful spot with lots of history Kellye. Love the shot of the cactus flowers. I imagine those homes in the caves were the best way to escape the elements in summer and winter. Thanks for sharing. Allan

  2. Really interesting! Very pretty area. The people were so small! It reminds me of going to Salem, MA, many years ago where the buildings we toured had very small doorways. No standard sizing and average people much shorter than today.

  3. What a fascinating place! I hope that we can visit it someday. I would love to take a guided tour or attend a ranger talk. We live fairly close to Cahokia Mounds, but it’s been quite a while since we visited. Your post was an excellent tour which will have to do until we can visit in person. Fabulous pictures and great information. Thank you!

  4. I’ve vaguely heard of the Bandelier National Monument, but otherwise don’t know what it’s all about. The cliff dwellings and petroglyphs are impressive and definitely worth a visit over! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  5. Love the picture of you in the caveate! This looks like an amazing place full of history, ingenuity, and nature. Im so glad you marked off this long awaited visit and so glad to follow along with you to it 🙂

  6. Most of Bandelier was closed when we were in New Mexico, we could only visit the Tsankawi section. That was fascinating enough (lots of caveates) but now I see how much we missed out on in the Frijoles Canyon area! Thank you for the excellent virtual tour 🙂

  7. That is a seriously interesting park, those volcanic rock formations and caveates are so interesting, must be great to see them in person. We would be all over climbing those ladders up into those caveates! Interesting history from a place we’ve never even been close to.

  8. So interesting! Thanks for all the details. I can tell I’ll be referencing your site a LOT when we retire and start RVing more in a couple of years (that’s the plan, anyway)! I really appreciate all your informative posts. Great work!!!

  9. Wow, the caveats are very interesting – thanks for taking us through some of these dwellings. And it seems the parks in the USA are rich in petroglyphs (lucky you)! What lovely close up shots of the little lizards – they are usually so fast that one struggle to get a good photo. Kudos on getting two lovely pictures.

  10. Thanks for taking me to Bandelier National Monument Kellye. I do enjoy the “Swiss cheese’ description of Frijoles Canyon, very apt. Tyuonyi, wow, could you go walking within the ruins? Or just view from a distance? The black and white photo looks like a shot from the moon! Loved the rare shot of you and Mike crouched down in a caveate, would like to see more of you guys in articles;) Petroglyphs are always fascinating and these are certainly that. I hope you are both well, have you finished Museum of Innocence?

    1. Thanks so much, Leighton! We took a lot more photos of ourselves on our last road trip – coming soon. I haven’t finished the book, but I just have a few chapters left. My poor mother has been admitted to the hospital and I’ve been doing a lot of running back and forth, so I’m behind on everything else.

  11. Interesting post Kellye, your posts are always so well researched. I don’t think I’ve ever seen rocks like those. Amazing how old they are. It’s good that the wall art is now protected.

  12. Geoff Stamper

    I have figured out that you have a better to-do list than I have! My wife and I stumbled onto Carlsbad Caverns by accident decades ago when driving across the country on a move. But I had not even heard of Bandelier until today. You do such a thorough job that in a few years I will be describing Bandelier as If I actually visited it!

  13. Have to admit, never heard of Bandelier National Monument before – thanks for taking us through what they have to offer. Will definitely add it to our stops next time we are in the area!

  14. You find the most beautiful and historical places to tour. I can’t believe you were allowed to climb the ladder to the cave. I would have been there in a heartbeat. Just to think about what it was like all those years ago and know you stood where they did.

  15. The Frijoles Canyon looks fascinating with all those holes. It’s incredible to think how these cliff dwellings and caveats were built before modern technologies and tools. And wow, hard to believe that the average life span for the ancestral Pueblo people was 35 years!

  16. Fantastic. This is truly one of my favorite parks of our indigenous people. And once again you did a great job at showcasing our beautiful country through your lens and your words.

  17. This must have been such a great experience. I like so much of the place from your pictures. Those honeycomb walls and you looking out from a cave. The flowers and the ‘ lizard’ . Thank you so much for such an interesting share. I think you are going to get two comments. I tried yesterday too. Your post didn’t come up on my reader , got it in my e- mails. So sorry I didn’t see this earlier.

    1. We live one hour to the New Mexico (our neighbor to the west) border, so it’s not a long drive for us to get there – and that state has a lot to see and do. However, if we go to our eastern neighbor, Louisiana, it takes about seven hours of driving to get there. We plan our road trips so that we can visit as many sites as possible in one trip. Luckily, we have a lot of wide-open spaces, so road trips are easy and relaxing. Thanks for reading.

  18. Absolutely intriguing. My imagination goes wild thinking about a day in the life of a previous cliff dweller as well as seasons living in a small city made of rock… You make me want to put that place on my list!

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