This is where the fairy folk would live. Here, against unusually light coloured rock, a beige hue steals the show from the frothy, green underbrush. The wooded pines are brimming with thick and dark leaves, creating groves worthy of Enid Blyton’s Enchanted Forest. The landscape lends itself to the image of Bessie dragging us through the thicket to meet Moonface and Silky. It’s not hard to imagine the fairy folk inside the caves, striking a warm, snug bonfire to keep their little hands warm. Have you guessed where this mountain escape is yet? No. Fine. This gem is a national park just an hour away from New Mexico’s charming capital. That’s right! I’m taking you to Bandelier National Monument today as part of a short day trip from Santa Fe.
We pull into the tiny parking lot of Bandelier. It’s early, barely half past seven in the morning. My eyes are still blinking mechanically, searching for segments of light that hit the mountainscape at fragmented angles. The dull fluorescent glow from within the Visitor Center is dim. We tug fruitlessly at the locked door before noticing a sign with the visiting hours. 9 AM. Well, we might have arrived a little before hand, but that’s alright. In a small wooden box, there are several pocket sized red maps that are available to borrow. We grab one and head out on the back trail.
The path at first is lightly dusted with broken twigs and scraps of leaves, but eventually, it rolls into a smoothly laid out trail. As we walk, we can hear the sound of rushing water off in the distance. A sliver of a stream can be seen by a fork up ahead. There are two roads here, and let’s just say, right now, we are taking the one more travelled by (sorry, Robert Frost). But you won’t regret it. The other one is an insanely wildlife-rich backpath, but it is much more challenging and definitely can’t be completed within an hour.
We amble on for a while, sucking in the forested pass. Our first stop on this trail is the remains of a Kiva. This group of bricks is stacked into a maze-like area. It stretches into strategic rooms that vary in size. The walls eventually curve towards the back, but the structure is still well proportioned and the adjoining walls are perfectly parallel, something that we are definitely not expecting in the remains of a 10,000 year old structure. Here we are, at the first arch in the rich history that makes Bandelier unique. You can easily imagine the Pueblo Indians performing elaborate religious ceremonies within the once enclosed space.
We trek on further and climb upwards two flights of stairs that take us to the first vantage point. We look out and see the scope of the park as it stretches onwards – a mix of green and beige. The cliff dwellings have expanded from dots at ground level to a stretch that is now accessible. We grab onto the ladder and follow it upwards. The ladder looks dangerous, but keep in mind, so did Severus Snape at first (appearances can be deceiving). We enter the cliff dwelling and are engulfed in darkness. The walls are a more sooty colour from the lack of light, but bits streak in through the main gap and smaller cracks (perhaps windows), outlining the edges. We sit cross-legged and look out from the room, outside into the world. For a moment, I’ve forgotten my fear of heights as we marvel at the beauty.
We head back down, again by ladder, and continue on the trail. Certain caves can not be entered by park rules, but you can still look inside and make out the shape of even more elaborate room plans (the Native Americans were genius in crafting these).
The path extends for 1.2 miles and takes roughly two hours to complete and let me say, it feels far from a hike. The incline on the main loop isn’t rough or challenging and creates the environment for a casual, pleasant amble. As we go back around to the Visitor’s center, we start to see a steady stream of people coming through (see why I forced you to wake up early). A group of young joggers, elderly couples, and even families with small children scrambling among the rocks, smile and stroll past. Bandelier is a place that transcends generations. It tells a timeless story from ancient history of a group of people that wanted to root themselves deeply in a location. The best part? We get to go and walk through the homes that they lived in 10,000 years ago. The feeling that we can physically step into the past is beyond belief. I know that I’m still in awe. Are you?
Did you enjoy this day trip from Santa Fe? Have you ever been to Bandelier National Monument? Tell me in the comments below. I love hearing from you!