New Mexico state has so many natural and cultural treasures, that when the weekend approaches, Mark and I are filled with excitement and the promise of wonderful excursions. We pack our camper van up and only have to drive an hour or two to reach enough sites to fill days. Of course, we only have two of those a week, and, after a tiring work week, immediately getting on the road Friday night is not the way we like to approach our time off. Instead, we have a glass of wine and a snack, make an ever-pleasing vegetarian pizza, and put a few things in the camper before picking up the mail or in between watering the plants.
On Saturday, we have a not-to-early start and depart to our destination, in this case, Bandelier National Monument, NW of Santa Fe. During the summer season (May 14 – October 15), a free shuttle bus is the only way to enter the main part of the park between 9am and 3pm. Before or after those hours, you can take your car. Our late start meant that we had to park Zesty at the visitor center in the small town of White Rock, and wait for our 25-minute ride. The whole arrangement cost us a lot of time, since our final destination was Los Alamos, on the other side of Bandelier. We would drive this road three times.
The park has multiple sections to explore and heaps of hiking trails, the majority of them near the Bandelier Visitor Center. The walks outside of this area are always accessible by car. We decided to start with the most popular one, the Main Loop Trail, which is only 1.2 miles long (1.8km). A detour of 1 mile, including ladders, allows a visit to the Alcove House. We were looking forward to that part, but first, we walked by the ruins of ancestral Pueblo people, who lived on the valley floor and in the rocks. Some of the cliff dwellings were reachable by wooden ladders and provided an interesting peek into the living quarters of the indigenous people. While the view was alright and protection better than on the ground, I’m not sure I would be happy to climb up and down these caves on a daily basis. It is a bit trickier than getting in and out of our bed in the camper, which is all but easy to begin with.
Reaching the Alcove House is not for the faint of heart. A series of steep and narrow ladders brings you high above the canyon. From this massive cave, the view is not too shabby, and its shade provides reprieve from the beating sun. On the way down, the metal railings were untouchable and even the wooden rungs of the ladders had become extremely hot. Taking your time is essential. Some people voiced that going down is more nerve-wrecking than walking up. You’ll have to try it for yourself.
In the afternoon, Mark and I decided to follow the Falls Trail (3m/4.5 km), which also starts near the visitor center. We could use some more exercise, but suspected that the water at the end would just be a trickle this time of the year. The only other hikers we saw, returning, were disappointed and hot. Meeting them confirmed that our goal should not be to see a waterfall, but to hike in beautiful scenery. We ate our packed lunch by the river, underneath a rare patch of trees, and took a little breather before continuing on. Most of the trail was uncovered and the sun was hot at this altitude. The hike was very enjoyable and the scenery was worth it, especially when we reached the canyon walls. The Rio Grande, brown and small, was visible in the distance. We took it slow on the way back. Mark suspected I would have a massive headache later, something that often happens when I exert myself in hot (usually humid) climates.
Our last sight see objective of the day, was White Rock Overlook. A 360° view let us take in the vast landscape of the high desert, with the Rio Grande beneath, a side river with narrow waterfalls, and mountains as far as the eye could see. It was quite spectacular and the photos do not do it justice. It was also a very easy reward: park the car, walk a few feet, and there it is, the expansive view.
Unfortunately, Mark was right about that headache. Despite taking some Tylenol preemptively, it was the altitude that did me in, eventually. (Which I didn’t realize until later that weekend, after some research.) Like always, we had set our minds on a free camping spot, which we found after driving along a quiet road near a ski resort. The view was gorgeous and we settled in nicely. From the moment Mark started cooking a wonderful dinner, my nausea and pain increased, to the scary point of not getting any better after hours of laying down and getting sick. This was new. Nothing seemed to help, and we both started to worry. About five hours after the first symptoms and after a second dose of medicines, my health finally began its return to normal. My conclusion: after ten days in Northern New Mexico, I had not gotten used to the altitude yet. That, combined with sweaty activity, a strong sun, and ending at an altitude of almost 10,000ft (the highest point we reached thus far) must have caused this dreadful experience. Experts say to drink a lot of water at higher altitudes (we do) and to sleep lower than where you exercise (we did not). Lesson learned! Luckily, the following day things improved and we enjoyed more excursions.
One thing we did on Sunday, but that could have been added to Saturday’s program, was walk the 1.5-mile loop trail at the Tsankawi section of Bandelier National Monument. Initially, we took our time when climbing a few short ladders, scrambling over rocks, strolling through ruins of an old pueblo, taking in the view, looking for petroglyphs and making ourselves as skinny as possible to walk the narrow, ancient footpaths. Then, a massive storm cloud approached and we made it back to the camper just in time, and without a headache.
Extra info for Bandelier NM:
- Stay on the trails and don’t climb into the dwellings unless there is a ladder
- Carrying a lot of water when hiking is always recommended
- There are water fountains at the visitor center and the start of the Falls Trail
- There are flush toilets at the visitor center and vault toilets near the Alcove House
- No pets are allowed on the trails
- Prepare to hike at higher elevations: hat, sunglasses, sunscreen
- Hiking boots are recommended, but sandals work – closed shoes are safer on the ladders
- Alcove House is closed during the last two weeks of September 2017, to replace the ladders (check the website for details)
- The entrance fee is US$20 per vehicle
- There is a snack bar (and gift shop) next to the visitor center, but bringing your own lunch is much cheaper, and water bottles can be refilled in the park
- Mark and I did not spend any money on this excursion, except for fuel. I prepared sandwich lunches and we have a National Park pass, which provided free entrance. An annual NP pass costs US$80, money we spent when visiting Yosemite NP with family earlier this year.