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