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If you’re looking for a place that will never stop surprising you, New Mexico is the destination. While I only took my first trip to New Mexico in July 2021 (to see the Virgin Galactic launch!), I made a return trip in September 2022 to explore a different part of the state, and I am endlessly surprised by how different New Mexico is compared to what I expect. Land of Enchantment, indeed.
See, New Mexico is not like Arizona, nor is it like West Texas. It’s geographically different from Southern Utah and Southern Colorado – and it’s certainly not like what you’d find if you crossed the border into Mexico (though the southernmost part of the state is certainly similar as it’s part of the same Chihuahuan Desert.
But New Mexico is its own place – with its own people and rich heritage and food culture, and so much more. Bandelier National Monument is one of the places that best exemplifies that, and well worth adding to your New Mexico itinerary.
Best of all, you only need to spend one day in Bandelier to really appreciate what makes this place special and see the main sites in the 33,000-acre park. Below you’ll find my guide on how to do that – and some of the incredible sights (both natural and cultural) that you’ll see along the way.
In this post, I promote travel a destination that is the traditional lands of the Pueblos, Núu-agha-tʉvʉ-pʉ̱ (Ute), Tigua (Tiwa) peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
Planning Your Visit to Bandelier National Monument
Before jumping into the step-by-step itinerary I recommend for one day in Bandelier, here are a few important logistical details to cover first – and which make sense of my suggestions later.
Bandelier National Monument Entrance Fees
Bandelier National Monument is a fee-collecting site within the National Park System. You’ll either need to pay an entrance fee or use a National Parks Pass to enter.
Here are your options:
- The private vehicle entrance fee, good for 7 days, is $25.
- You can walk or bike into the park for $15 per person, also good for 7 days.
- An annual America the Beautiful Pass is $80. This gets you into every national park and all fee-collecting federal lands. I got my first one in 2019 and it’s such a money-saver that the America the Beautiful Pass is totally worth it!
You can read more about the fees – and check that the above is accurate – on the Bandelier NPS website.
Driving & Parking in Bandelier National Monument
Parking in Bandelier National Monument is extremely limited; the Frijoles Canyon Visitor Center only has a few dozen spots – and they usually fill up quickly each day. In fact, in Summer 2022 (when I visited), the NPS instated a shuttle system; those arriving after 9am (or after 3pm) are directed to park at the White Rock visitor center (about 8 miles from the park entrance) and ride the shuttle in. Fees still apply on a per-vehicle basis if you ride the shuttle.
The main parking area in Frijoles Canyon is down at the Visitor Center (within the canyon); there are a few other small parking areas in other parts of Bandelier, such as at the overlook and in the Tsankawi section – but your best bet is to either arrive early/late or take the shuttle.
What to Do in Bandelier National Monument (When You Only Have One Day!)
Okay, so that I’ve covered the basics, here’s a schedule for spending one day in Bandelier and making as much of your short time as you can.
Arrive Early (Before 9am!)
As mentioned, the best way to make the most of one day in Bandelier is by arriving early so you don’t have to spend time taking the shuttle in and out of the Frijoles Canyon area (the main part of the park).
If you arrive before 9am, you can drive your vehicle down into the canyon and park at the Visitor Center; I did this, entering the park around 8:30am, and the parking lot was about 50% full when I got there. After 9am, you’ll park at the White Rock Visitor Center and take the shuttle; this ride is about 20 minutes.
The Visitor Center doesn’t open until 9am, so unless you arrive close to or after 9am, I suggest getting right out onto the main trail to have time to enjoy it before the park gets busier.
Hike the Pueblo Loop Trail
The main trail in Bandelier National Monument is the Pueblo Loop Trail (formerly called the Main Loop Trail). This trail is a 1.4-mile loop, though you should plan about twice as long as you think it would normally take you to hike such a distance.
The highlight of the Pueblo Loop Trail is – as the name suggests – the archaeological evidence along the way. There are 21 points of interest along the first half of the trail, including the Big Kiva, Tyuonyi, Talus House, and Long House. Best of all, ladders along the trail allow you to climb into some of the cavates (small human-carved alcoves). It’s moments like this where I found myself appreciating Bandelier’s status as a monument rather than park, since it allows a bit more access than the big, popular parks usually permit.
The second half of the trail passes through a nice forested area with less to see and goes more quickly, but while you’re out at the far point of the Pueblo Loop…
Climb to Alcove House
Add on a trip to Alcove House – it’s easily the most impressive structure in Bandelier National Monument.
Alcove House sits out on a spur trail off the Pueblo Loop Trail; it’s well-marked so easy to see when you have to decide whether to loop back or take the trail out further. It’s only a half-mile to the Alcove House viewpoint, and then you have to decide: am I up for an adventure?
Alcove House sits 140 feet above the floor of Frijoles Canyon and to reach it you must climb four ladders affixed to the canyon walls. I’m not afraid of heights, but even I found this part a bit terrifying… I did it anyway though, and encourage you to do so as well unless you have a paralyzing fear of ladders or heights. It’s not for the faint of heart – and it’s rewarding once you make the climb. (Actually, the descent was harder!)
Once you reach the top, you’ll be in Alcove House, formerly called Ceremonial Cave. It was once home to about 25 Ancestral Pueblo people, and you can see evidence of their lives here: there’s a reconstructed kiva and the niches of (very cozy!) former homes.
Visit the Visitor Center
Once you descend back to the canyon floor, make the return hike on Alcove House trail back to the Pueblo Loop Trail and return to the Visitor Center. Unless you arrived really early, it should be open by the time you get there.
You can then explore the exhibits about Bandelier and the Ancestral Puebloan people who called this area home, as well as ask the rangers any questions you have. This is also a good time to use the facilities and refill your water bottle.
Hike Falls Trail
If you still have some energy, there’s another good trail in this part of the national monument: Falls Trail is a 3-mile out-and-back trail that sets out from the Visitor Center parking lot.
Along the way, you’ll see less evidence of past human habitation than on the Pueblo Loop Trail, but instead, work through several different ecosystems while following Frijoles Canyon creek as it makes its way toward the Rio Grande. Incredible rock spires, towering trees, and dusty hillsides provide plenty to look at on this far-less-popular trail.
At the far end, you can admire a view of Upper Falls (the more impressive ones); the trail is closed and unmaintained after that point, so you’ll have to turn back. There’s about 400 feet of elevation loss on the way to the falls, so be prepared to re-climb that on the way back.
As a pro-tip: this hike is better in the early part of the summer when there’s still a good amount of water in the canyon; I hiked it in September and the falls were dry.
Grab Lunch at Sirphey at Bandelier
After over five miles of hiking, I was ready for lunch at this point – and perhaps you will be too. During the summer season (March through October), Sirphey at Bandelier is a great option for good food in Bandelier National Monument. (Emphasis on good – it wasn’t the standard cafe or overpriced cafeteria fare you find in other parks.)
The Fry Bread Burger with green chiles is a must-try – it honors some of the flavors and food traditions of the area and will recoup any calories you’ve burned.
Explore the Tsankawi Section
After lunch, it’s time to get out and explore more. There are a few other hikes in the Frijoles Canyon part of Bandelier, but I recommend taking the afternoon to visit a different part of the park entirely.
Tsankawi is a small, separate section of Bandelier National Monument, located near the intersection of State Highway 4 and State Highway 502 north of White Rock. This means you’ll either want to drive back up out of the canyon and drive toward/past White Rock, or take the shuttle back to White Rock and drive from there. (You can also pop into the White Rock Visitor Center while passing through – it’s quite nice with different info than the Frijoles Canyon Visitor Center.)
Tsankawi has a small parking area just off the highway, and is easily missed – but it was my favorite hike in the whole of Bandelier, so it’s where I suggest spending an afternoon.
While the hike at Tsankawi is only 1.6 miles in a loop, it’s the most diverse hiking experience: you climb ladders up and down onto different parts of the mesa, see ancient ruins, cavates, and petroglyphs, and take in sweeping views from atop the natural formation. Parts of the trail are single or double tracks carved into the stone by years of hikers before you.
As you’ll be hiking this trail in the heat of the day and it’s mostly exposed, be sure to bring plenty of water and sun protection.
Dine & Stay in Los Alamos
While it will likely only be mid-afternoon by the time you finish hiking at Tsankawi, I recommend calling it a day; I found that I both needed more water and needed a break from the sun – I also felt like I had really seen Bandelier and the best it had to offer, despite only having one day.
It’s a short drive from White Rock/Tsankawi to Los Alamos, New Mexico. This might be my favorite city in New Mexico – though admittedly there’s a lot more I haven’t seen yet and still want to explore.
In any case, there are a few good things to do in Los Alamos, primarily focused on the Manhattan Project (a National Historical Park with a Visitor Center, Museum, and historic sites around town) and Los Alamos National Labs.
There are also a few nice chain hotels where you can grab a shower, relax, and rest after a long day in Bandelier. Which brings me to…
Where to Stay Near Bandelier National Monument
As with most NPS sites, you have two options for accommodation near Bandelier: hotels or camping.
The NPS advises that there are options in Los Alamos, White Rock, Espanola, and Santa Fe – I think that Espanola and Santa Fe are pretty far away unless you’re traveling to those cities in the next part of your northern New Mexico itinerary.
Instead, I’d stay in Los Alamos (or White Rock as a backup). As most options are targeting business travelers coming for Los Alamos National Lab, I stayed at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites during my stay (Rooms from $142/night; book on Booking.com or Hotels.com).
For camping options, there are two main campgrounds in Bandelier – and one that’s the most convenient. Juniper Family Campground is located right near the park entrance; Ponderosa Campground is in another part of the park. Check out the Bandelier NPS site for all the details and what you need to know about fees and reservations.
There you have it – a guide for making the most of one day in Bandelier National Monument, which I think is the perfect amount of time to see the best that the park has to offer and still maximize your visit to Northern New Mexico. What questions do you have about spending a day in Bandelier? Let me know in the comments below.