Part of the fun of travel is discovering these little hidden gems. Before we headed west, I had no idea that so many National Monuments existed.
So what’s the difference between a National Park and a National Monument? I think I explained previously, but here it is. According to the National Park Service, National Parks are areas set apart by Congress for the use of the people of the United States generally, because of some outstanding scenic feature or natural phenomena. National Monuments, on the other hand, are areas reserved by the National Government because they contain objects of historic, prehistoric, or scientific interest and are usually established by Presidential Proclamation. So, there you go!
Bandelier National Monument’s primary attraction are the ruins of Ancestral Pueblo people, both cliff dwellings and pueblo dwellings. We’ve visited other Ancestral Pueblo areas at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument and Mesa Verde National Park, but each area has been distinctly different and worth visiting in their own right.
Due to limited parking, visitors during peak season are required to stage their vehicles in town and take the free shuttle into Bandelier. We went reasonably early and found plenty of parking available at the White Rock Visitor Center shuttle stop. The shuttle made stops inside the park at the campground and the Visitor’s Center.
The Main Loop trail encompasses most of the historical sites of interest. The trail itself (a mile or two long) is reasonably flat, but getting up to the cliff dwellings requires climbing a combination of steep stairs and/or ladders. This Park was neat in that you could climb ladders right into some of the cliff-side ruins and explore. Most of the ladders were relatively short, but getting into one of the areas (Alcove House) required 140 feet of vertical climb and FOUR ladders, two of which were more than 25 feet high. It was scary, but I just put on my big girl panties and did it!
Bandelier is interesting geologically, because the cliff dwellings are built into “tuff” (ancient petrified volcano ash) cliffs rather than sandstone or limestone. This softer stone erodes easily, creating a Swiss-cheese-like rock face. Some of the holes look downright creepy. It IS almost Halloween, after all!
Touring these ruins always makes me wonder what it was like to live there. Mentally, I picture walls and roofs where only the skeleton remains. The walls are coated with brightly – painted stucco, and floors laid with clean mats. Pottery jars holding precious water and food supplies neatly line the walls while people go about their domestic chores – tending crops, grinding grain, weaving fabric, and minding children. I can hear their chatter and singing as they go about their normal day. A busy life, but a good life, in this fertile canyon — long, long ago.