The Good Way – Bandelier National Monument

A long weekend backpacking in Bandelier National Monument.


“…ask for the ancient paths, Where the good way is, and walk in it; And you will find rest for your souls.”   -Jeremiah 6:16


Presidents Day Weekend saw much warmer temperatures then I would like for backcountry skiing. And the avalanche danger was still high.

So my mind turned from skiing to backpacking. A chance to spend two nights in the backcountry with the stars above me and the ground beneath me.

Simple. Relaxing. And something I was looking forward to as backpacking is ultimately my favorite way to spend time outdoors.

Where to go?

Utah beckoned with its deep canyons, ancient artifacts and red rocks.

But the drive over I70 on a holiday weekend during winter, quite frankly, scared me off. A six-hour drive could easily turn into a 13 hour ordeal.

Then my mind turned south to the “Land of Enchantment”.   New Mexico called with its wonderful winter light, deep culture and sublime scenery.  And, I must confess, the lack of ski traffic was equally appealing.

I decided on a place I have wanted to visit for quite some time: Bandelier National Monument.

A place that would have equal measure of history and natural beauty.

On Saturday I made the drive down the highway into New Mexico. The lodge pole pines and spruce trees turned into pinon pine and juniper. The gray rock turned into red. And Anglo town names gave way to Spanish names.

The national monument was reached by early-mid afternoon. My free permit was obtained and my pack was hoisted.  I was on my way.

Making my way up the canyon, I immediately noticed the volcanic tuff that formed much of this area. A perfect material for carving the pueblos and other buildings not far from me.

I soon reached the turn off for the Alcove House and climbed the steep ladders 140 ft above the canyon floor. The sacred kiva was reached with its commanding view below.

The hike to the Alcove House ended the “tourist” path until my last hour or so in the monument. From this point forward, I’d have to deal with the aftermath of the 2011 Los Conchas fire and the massive flooding in the months and years that followed.

I was to find that the trails were non-existent in the canyon bottoms and that I’d have to pay attention to topography and my map to exit the canyons. There would be scrambling over charred logs, unsure footing in places and more difficult going then I imagined. But also a much more satisfying trip then I anticipated. A more-than-fair trade-off.

Start of Frijoles Canyon

I made my way up the canyon and admired the cliffs above me. It was as scenic as many canyons I’ve explored in Utah.

Apparently there were steps over this boulder at one point

I pressed up the canyon and tried to imagine the sheer amount of water flowing through the area known as The Narrows.

Shortly after exiting The Narrows, I entered my camping zone for the night.  Bandelier makes it easy to backpack: a free permit, you can generally camp anywhere on the mesas (with some restrictions) and the canyons have designated zones. Camp anywhere where you want in a zone that is roughly a mile long.

I found a suitable spot in a small alcove. The sound of the nearby creek lulled me to sleep in the cool night air.

The following morning, I was so lost in my revelry of enjoying the canyon, I passed my exit point. The map and topography showed I was about a mile up from where I should have been. Yikes! I quickly turned around, backtracked and saw what looked like an obvious place to exit the canyon.  Sure enough, I  saw  a cairn and some pink survey tape.

I quickly found the eroded, but usable, trail and climbed out of the canyon.

I crossed the mesa and followed the eroded trail that vanished. I pulled out my map, figured out a logical place where the trail would descend into the canyon and saw the trail below. Some slight bushwhacking brought me to the steeply switch-backed trail that dropped me into Capulin Canyon. This wide canyon really showed the effects of the fire and floods.

The “trail” in the canyon was as expected: Non-existent for the most part…but still beautiful.

With daylight running out, however, I wondered if I’d reach my destination in time? The Painted Cave was on my list of MUST SEE things on this trip. Tired, but determined to see the cave in the late afternoon light, I pressed on.

I came to the cave at the perfect moment. The lighting was soft. The red rock almost glowed. And the ancient paintings from the past stood out in sharp relief on the rock.

Daylight was running out. I made my way back up the canyon in the gorgeous early evening light.

I went to a camp spot in the designated zone that I had spied earlier while making my way down to the Painted Cave.

Dinner was eaten, tea was brewed and I sipped my hot drink in extreme contentment. The stars were clear above, the sound of the creek was again relaxing and there was no other place I wanted to be at that time. It was one of those moments in the backcountry we all have had: peace, contentment and joy while being immersed in beautiful surroundings.

The following morning, I made my way up stream to exit the canyon. But I took a quick side trip to the burnt down ranger cabin first.

The remnants of the cabin looked like a homestead from the turn of the last century rather than a building that stood in 2011.  Nature is reclaiming the land quickly.

A few minutes later in the other direction, I spied the eroded trail and an actual trail sign about where I thought my exit point from the canyon would be. Maps…they work!  😉

A steep climb was made out of the canyon.

The mesa was soon reached and I joined the more popular part of the park. A well worn path was spotted with many cairns to mark the way.

I soon reached a shrine sacred to the Ancient Pueblo and their modern descendants. The Yapashi pueblo area was also reached.

This photo is courtesy of Google image search. Stupid me did not realize what I was looking at until after! 🙂

It was quiet on the mesa top.  I had the ruins to myself.  The remnants of the stone walls and the earth mounds were the only testimony to the people who lived here over 800 years ago.

I soon climbed into Alamo Canyon and back out again…rather steeply!

After crossing in and out of two more canyons, I reached my final descent into Frijoles Canyon. I could see the main loop across the canyon bottom.

The Talus House

At the trail junction, I decided to play day tourist and hike the main loop. The “trail” was a paved path. With my backpack and hiking poles, I looked a bit different from the usual day tourist. 🙂

I enjoyed the petroglyphs and pictographs. A well-preserved wall painting was especially nice.

The long house was seen up close as well.

Before checking back in at the ranger station, I made one last stop at the remnants of a large kiva.

I went to the ranger station, checked out the small museum and checked in with the ranger. When she asked how my trip was, I think she was quite happy to hear how beautiful I found it all.

And it was.

After forty-eight hours in the backcountry, I was again enchanted by New Mexico.

I’ll be back soon.

All the photos

The Deets

  • Check out the national monument website for driving directions
  • During the winter, you can park at the monument. During peak season, you need to take a shuttle
  • The entrance fee is $12 and a backcountry permit is free
  • The map to use is Nat Geo Trails Illustrated #209
  • Since the fire and floods, the “trails” are a little hard to follow at times. Pay attention!
  • The route I took was ~26 miles and 3700′ gain. Respectable for 48 hrs in the backcountry. However, the quasi-off trail hiking and scrambling made it interesting at times….
  • Sorry, no GPX tracks. The route is easy enough to figure out if you can read a map. 🙂
  • Talk to the ranger  to get the latest trail info
  • And, most importantly, you are walking in areas that are still held to be sacred to the modern-day Pueblo nations. Be respectful when you enter these areas.

And a quick gear review…

This was my first trip with a Gossamer Gear Kumo Superlight pack.  I chose this pack as it is a sub-1 lb pack that is a bit more rugged than similar packs (including Gossamer Gear’s Mumur Hyperlight). I do a good amount of scrambling and off-trail hiking. I needed a very light pack that would not tear up easily.

Though one trip is not enough for a thorough review, here are some quick initial impressions.

What I liked:

  • The main body was indeed rugged. I scrambled over burnt logs and rocks, through burnt logs and rocks AND under burnt logs and rocks.  The pack was scraped, squeezed and battered.  The pack is a little dusty from ash but held up nicely.
  • It held my 2.5 days of food and a luxury item (a book I am reviewing) quite nicely, too. It fit well and was comfortable. I think 5 days would not be out of the question with the pack.

What I did not like:

  • I do not like buckle closures for the main body. I prefer a simple draw string as I think that is more effective and less prone to failure
  • I did say the main body was rugged… The mesh stow pocket in front? Not so much. I already have a large rip in it. A heavier grade of mesh would have been nice. It would have been more rugged without any major weight penalty.  Looks like the same mesh used on the Murmur. Since the Murmur is more for trail hiking (in my opinion), a heavier grade of mesh on the Kumo would have been nice. Nothing a little (a lot, actually 😉 ) Kenyon repair tape won’t fix….

Overall, I like the pack and plan on using it more in the coming year.  I’ll have a more thorough review of the pack later this year.

Note: This pack was given to me free as part of initial sign on to the Gossamer Gear trail ambassador program. I did not pay for this pack out of my own funds.

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Philip Werner
10 years ago

Yeah, Gossamer Gear’s mesh pockets are not for off-trail travel. I don’t bushwhack with them because trees and branches cut through them like butter. But they’re perfectly adequate for hiking on maintained trails. In fact the new mesh is a million times more robust than the bigger weave mesh (larger holes) they used to use a few years ago. The old stuff tore if you looked at it funny, even for normal trail hiking. One of the big improvements Gossamer Gear made recently was replacing the old side mesh pockets on their Dyneema packs with solid fabric panels. That really… Read more »

JJ Mathes
JJ Mathes
10 years ago

I agree with you on the buckle closures for the main body, I too prefer a simple draw string. Although the the buckle system provides a tidy and clean look which I like, in the long run I’ll sacrifice appearance for simplicity and durability.

Craig "Skygzr" Gulley
10 years ago

very nice trip report and lovely pictures- thanks

10 years ago

how was te weather ? looks like a great hike .
always looking for interesting backpacking opportunities in winter months that don’t require snow shoes and heavy packs

Glen Van Peski
Glen Van Peski
10 years ago

Loved the pictures. When taken with the lovely descriptive prose, they effectively ‘put me there’.

Shannon McCready
10 years ago

I love this place, and have camped in Capulin Canyon four different times. The last time (2007) was with my oldest son before the latest fire. Beautiful pics, great memories. Sad to see the condition of Capulin Canyon.

John Gentry
3 years ago

Thank you for the great write-up. I have been hitting Bandelier a few times this year and want to see the painted caves. You are right the light when you went was good, and I may just do a remote camp close by to make sure I get good light as well.