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Bandelier National Monument

Bandelier: 3,000 local archaeological sites

—Margaret M. Nava

Surrounded as we are by magnificent mountains, historic villages, and spectacular high desert vistas, it is easy to forget how close we live to one of our nation’s oldest and most important archaeological treasures—Bandelier National Monument.

Covering more than 33,000 acres set high atop the rocky Pajarito Plateau, the area now called Bandelier National Monument contains as many as 3000 archaeological sites, indicating human presence as far back as 10,000 years ago. Once frequented by nomadic hunter-gatherers, it wasn’t until the twelfth century that ancestors of the Pueblo people began establishing permanent settlements in the rugged canyons and ponderosa-covered mesas that characterize this region. Perhaps attracted by a dependable water source and an abundance of wild game, early settlers lived in pit-houses, while later residents moved to the shelter of the steep cliffs, where they carved homesites into the pink volcanic tuff, collected edible plants, planted crops, and created the stunning polychrome pottery they used for cooking, serving, and storing their harvests. After 400 years of continuous occupation, the Ancestral Pueblo people left the plateau and moved to the lowlands along the Rio Grande River.

Influenced by the work of American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, who was researching the social organization of Native Americans, Adolph Bandelier embarked on a study of North American archaeology. After establishing himself as an authority on the history of native civilizations, he negotiated and received a grant from the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) to conduct fieldwork at the abandoned Pecos Pueblo east of Santa Fe.

The year was 1880, and although the railroad had reached the territory several years earlier, New Mexico was, as one author wrote, “as dangerous a country as ever lay out of doors.” Nevertheless, Bandelier packed his journals and excavating tools and boarded a train headed west. After arriving in Lamy, he made his way to the long deserted Pecos Pueblo. In a report back to the AIA, he wrote, “The vandalism committed in this venerable relic defies all description.

Treasure hunters have recklessly and ruthlessly disturbed the abodes of the dead.” Even so, he collected two boxes of artifacts (no human remains) and sent them to the Peabody Museum of Harvard University.

From Pecos, Bandelier expanded his research to the Pueblo de Cochiti, where he met Juan José Montoya, who escorted him to Frijoles Canyon and introduced him to the ruins of his people’s ancestral homeland, Tyuonyi Pueblo. Upon viewing the ancient cliff dwellings, Bandelier proclaimed it was “the grandest thing I ever saw.” From that point on, he spent the rest of his 18 months in the New Mexico Territory, allowing the artifacts he discovered to speak for themselves.

Traipsing through thick vegetation and following primitive trails, he unearthed pieces of flint, obsidian, and fragments of broken pottery. After carefully examining each object, he recorded his observations and then returned the piece to its original location.

Although Bandelier never excavated any of the ruins in the canyon, he measured and sketched most of them. Whenever the weather was calm, he built a small fire and camped within their shadow. During storms, he sought the shelter of the natural caves dotting the base of the cliffs. He drank from the clear streams, ate the wild plants, and studied the world around him. Never trying to emulate the Ancients who once lived in the region, he wanted to experience their lifestyle, so that he could learn more about them. Upon returning to Cochiti, he observed the people who lived there, painstakingly documenting their lifestyle, folklore, dances, and ceremonies. Wanting to dispel the myths and “tell the truth about the Pueblo Indians,” every bit of information Bandelier collected was carefully recorded in one of the many journals he always carried and became the basis for his many scholarly publications, including The Delight Makers, his novel about Pueblo life.

As might be expected, news of Bandelier’s research prompted other explorers to visit Tyuonyi and the surrounding ruins. Author and adventurer Charles F. Lummis joined Bandelier in 1888, archaeologist Edgar L. Hewett mapped the territory in 1896, and Alfred V. Kidder began excavation of Tyuonyi in 1897.

Unfortunately, with explorers came pothunters. According to one source, “Ancient pottery, tools, and jewelry began to appear on the shelves of curio shops and in the homes of private collectors…”

Edgar Hewett’s 1902 documentation on the impact of pothunters in Tyuonyi and other Southwestern sites was one of the driving forces that led to the signing of the Antiquities Act of 1906. And in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed legislation to create Bandelier National Monument to preserve the “relics of a vanished people with as much land as may be necessary for the proper protection thereof.”

It has been more than a century since Bandelier set foot on this ancient site. In the intervening years, much has changed. In the 1930s, workers from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built 31 buildings, including a visitors’ center and lodge utilized by personnel working on the Manhattan Project. A new archaeological survey conducted in 1987 yielded the discovery of 467 new sites. And the recent renovation of the visitors’ center included the addition of a high-tech theater, featuring a 14-minute film about the monument, Frijoles Canyon, and the amazing beauty of the surrounding area.

But, while there has been change, much has remained the same. Although some have been paved to provide accessibility, the trails Bandelier once walked are still there, as are the rugged canyons, the ponderosa-covered mesas, and the pink tuff cliffs. And for those willing to slow down, watch the soaring birds and scurrying insects, and listen to the wind, maybe there may be something else…

When was the last time you visited Bandelier National Monument? July is the perfect time for a hike or picnic. There’s a no-hookup family campground, as well as a two-site group campground. The trails are open from dawn to dusk; there are night walks, evening programs, and cultural demonstrations from now through Labor Day.

For more information, call (505) 672-3861, extension 517, or log on to

Valles Caldera mountain biking

Whether expert or novice, you’re sure to enjoy a day of mountain biking in the Valles Caldera National Preserve. Four trail loops, ranging in length from two-and-one-half to 12 miles, wind through forested terrain and across or around large meadows. The mostly double-track trails allow riders to easily ride in pairs and traverse varying terrains that include some ascents and descents, as well as great views. And, with the great lineup of events, most cyclists should be able to take advantage of the opportunity to explore the caldera on their own steam and two fat tires.

On Saturday, July 9, the first of two Cruise the Caldera events kicks off from the parking area at the Valle Grande staging area, located between mile marker 39 and 40 on NM Highway 4 between Jemez Springs and Los Alamos. Limited to 200 participants, riders will be divided into cruisers, those folks wanting a relatively easy ride for the whole family, and climbers, those looking for some elevation change and longer distances. Check- in time is between 7:30 a.m. and noon, but all riders will need to be back in their cars by 4:30 p.m. This event repeats on August 13―same time, same starting point.

On alternating weekends (see Web site calendar), the Banco Bonito Mountain Biking Trails will be open to 40 riders preferring a more solitary ride. Since riders will not be sharing trails with hikers, horses, or other visitors, distractions will be at a minimum. Check-in for these rides begins at 9:30 a.m. at the Banco Bonito staging area, located at mile marker 30 on NM Highway 4, with departure no later than 6:30 p.m.

If the idea of riding under starlit skies and possibly spotting some of the preserve’s night creatures intrigues you, consider the Twilight Mountain Bike Ride that is scheduled for Friday, September 2. Limited to 300 riders, this journey will start at the last strands of daylight, proceed through twilight, and end with moonlight. Check-in for this event is between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m., with all riders back in their cars by 10 p.m.

Whichever event you choose, expect to see a wide array of birds and perhaps a bear or coyote along the way, beautiful vistas, and, of course, the elk.

Recreation Specialist Kimberly DeVall reminds all participants (including adults) that helmets are required for all biking events and that riders should be prepared for high altitude riding conditions. “At an elevation of 8,700 feet and higher, your lungs will have to work harder to get needed oxygen. A couple of aspirin and drinking lots of water will usually alleviate any negative effects,

but don’t push yourself if you start feeling ill. Also, be sure you bring sunscreen, insect repellent, rain gear, and a jacket or sweatshirt―weather conditions change very rapidly up here.”

For a complete list of upcoming special events at the Valles Caldera National Preserve, log on to, and to make reservations for Cruise the Caldera or the Banco Bonito Mountain Biking Trails rides, click on “How to Reserve,” or call the toll-free number at (866) 382-5537.




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