Roaming About

A Life Less Ordinary

Day Trips around Santa Fe, NM – Bandelier National Monument

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.

Pretty spot for the night

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)

Frugal tips:

  • 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.


  1. What an amazing area to explore Liesbet and sorry to hear about your headache. Hope you are feeling better and enjoy the rest of your weekend! 😉💖 xxx

    • Thanks, Xenia. No more headaches after that weekend. I”m sure it was the combination of altitude, not being used to it yet and the exertion. We actually stayed at above 9.000 ft this weekend, but with just a lot of driving and no hiking, I didn’t feel anything at all. 🙂

  2. Headaches are the worst. Mine are often triggered by changes in the barometric pressure. Thanks for sharing your amazing journey with us. I really enjoyed the photos.

    • Glad you enjoyed the virtual tour, Jill. Yep. I have ailments of all kinds and headaches are pretty darn bad. The only thing I remember hurting a lot as well from being younger was ear aches. Haven’t had one in decades, though. I was comparing the way I felt that weekend with being seasick on our boat (which did not involve pain) and I have to say, being nauseous and having a killer headache at the same time… it doesn’t get much worse than that. Sorry to hear about your headaches. Maybe mine are related. It could be the pressure, but I never had any conclusion about that.

  3. As a former sufferer of migraine headaches, I felt your pain! Oddly, I have only had one altitude headache (in Cusco, Peru), but beating sun can still get me sometimes. This looks like a great place to hike and learn something at the same time (always a good combo), and what a bonus that it was within pretty easy striking distance from your housesit. Did you not have any animals to care for this time?

    • Hi Lexie! No pets this time, otherwise you would have met them in the photos already. 🙂 This is the first time we do not have any animals to take care of (just lots of plants) and, while we miss the company and the daily walks, it does give us more freedom in regards to visiting parks that don’t allow dogs. We figure we’d do them “all” now, so, whenever we have our own dogs again and live in the RV full-time, we can visit all the others. 🙂 I have often compared these headaches with people who have migraines, never thinking that is what I have, since they do disappear with just Tylenol, usually, and after an hour or so. As a former sufferer of migraines, what did you do that got rid of them (mostly)?

      • Caffeine, a dark room, Advil, Tylenol, etc. Usually they just took time to pass. I don’t get them any more, and looking back, I think they were largely caused by birth control medication! (Not just me, apparently – the hormone mix gives many people bad headaches.) I do still get occasional tension headaches and “sun” headaches, but nothing like I used to.

        • That’s great, Lexie! I had no idea that caffeine would work. I thought the contrary. The dark room is key for me! Getting off my birth control would bring other and bigger issues…. 🙂

  4. What a beautiful area! I’m a little surprised they let people go up those ladders and enter the caves… you never know when some knucklehead will do something dangerous or destructive.

    Sorry to hear about your headaches. I’m so lucky that I don’t suffer from bad headaches, but I know plenty of people who do. I hope they don’t curtail your explorations too much.

    • Luckily, no knuckleheads encountered, Janis. But, I see what you mean. Your comment actually did make me think about a sign and a call box I saw today, when walking over the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge in Taos. It mentioned there was “hope” and help was just a call away. It took Mark noticing my uncomprehending stare to tell me it was for suicide jumpers. I have yet a lot to learn! 🙂

      As to the headaches, I have the same attitude as with my sea sickness: I don’t allow it to get in the way of adventure and figure that sometimes some suffering has to be had to experience wonderful things. Mark does not agree. Well, he seems not to have cared about the sea sickness (sailing was his passion), but he has asked me many times recently why I still want to do tough hikes in the sun, while I know I will get sick… The answer is that I never really, totally know for sure that there will be a headache at the end, and I have started to remember taking some meds before setting off. 🙂

  5. This looks like such an amazing hike, Liesbet. Your photos are stunning. Since there is little chance that I would ever attempt those ladders, I was happy to enjoy this post vicariously. I am sorry to hear that you had altitude sickness and hope that you recovered fully and quickly!

    • Thanks for the compassion and coming along for the ride, Donna. I seem to have gotten used to the altitude as of now, three weeks in. And, I have learned a thing or two along the way. 🙂 There is so much to discover in New Mexico that we will have to come back. Maybe in the spring… Back to work now, and next weekend, we are off to Colorado!

  6. I have had Bandelier NP on our list for a while now. After seeing you pictures I hope that we will be able to make it there next spring after we come out of Mexico but we will have to see. The hikes sound just like the type of hikes that we love.

    Glad that you recovered from the altitude problems, many people have them, even me sometimes.

    • Good idea to come here next spring, Ruth! I think you guys will enjoy this state tremendously, especially the hiking and the views. And, there is free camping in beautiful surroundings everywhere! The climate is much cooler than one would assume in the high dessert, especially above 6,000ft! While it was in the 80s (around 30C) today and yesterday, when we slept in our camper last night, it went down to 40F (less than 5C)!!! We did not quite expect that, but we were up in the mountains, and we discovered that the heater worked. Yay! We didn’t have to try it yet before.

  7. This is amazing. We ‘ve seen cliff dwellings in Utah and Arizona but never anywhere you could actually climb into them. New Mexico is on my list – the road veered into it briefly when we were in Arizona but, as we were always within the Navajo Nation, there were no state boundary signs (that I noticed anyway) so I don’t think that’s long enough to count it as a state I have visited! Sorry about the altitude sickness – we’ve both suffered at some point and it’s not pleasant.

    • Oh, Anabel! You and John will truly LOVE it here. Some similarities with Arizona, but the list of exciting parks and nature and cultural attractions to visit will keep you busy for weeks – a great next holiday destination. 🙂 And, it is not busy at all, even in the towns. We drove through “rush hour” in Santa Fe once and had to wait for 5 minutes at a traffic light. That was the extend of it. 🙂 I think Bandelier is quite special about the cliff dwelling visits. These were the first ones we visited, so we can’t compare yet.

  8. I remember the altitude headache when I made the long climb (by car of course) to Los Alamos. But it was so worth it. I wish I’d known about Bandelier National Park when I was there. It looks absolutely fascinating. Oh dear… another thing to add to the ever-lengthening bucket list. Thanks for sharing, Liesbet including the great photos.

    • You will definitely have to come back to New Mexico, Karen. Then, you can visit Bandelier and the Tent Rocks and Ra’s caves. Oh, and the other places I will write and post photos about the next couple of weeks. Except, Los Alamos, which is next on the blogging list. 🙂

  9. Loving the photos, even the rear end ones going up the ladders 🙂 Brilliant spot to park up with the van, the space, the freedom! Great post Liesbet.

    • When will you ever get another chance to look up at Mark’s bum, Suz? 🙂 Maybe I should have asked his permission to post this photo? I’m actually not even sure he knows I took it… Hey, he has his life behind the computer and I have mine. Freedom, indeed, with the writing, the camera and the camper van. 🙂

  10. I am so much sorry for your headache. I know this pain myself. It can be simple unbearable.
    But I love your photos so much.

    • Thanks, Lana! Sometimes one has to suffer in order to see and do extraordinary things, right? Or, to be able to share it all with others. 🙂

  11. Your photos of these areas are wonderful, though it does look warm and dry! It is so easy to get those altitude and dehydration headaches, they are sneaky! It feels cool-ish but the dryness, altitude (takes 14 days at altitude to reach max red blood cells) and warmth can be a recipe for those headaches. Looks like you are still enjoying yourself and enjoying a vacation!

    • Our weekends are like mini-vacations here, Terri, especially now that we have our camper. I think after three weeks, I have gotten used to the altitude. The sickness does sneak up, you are right! The air is very dry and the temps have been perfect for us, around 80F during the day. It is actually surprising how much green some areas sport. More about that in the future. Happy blog hopping! 🙂

  12. Sorry you were unwell. I suffer from migraines and get how debilitating a bad headache can be. I’d never heard about sleeping lower than where you exercise. Interesting tidbit. Gorgeous pics as always. Looks like a wonderful place to explore (minus the altitude sickness).

    • It is so nice here, Ellen, we wish we could stay longer and hope to be back one day. Sorry to hear you have migraines as well. Hopefully not in combination with sea sickness. 🙂 That tidbit came to me when researching what to do about altitude sickness. I never thought it would take a few weeks to not feel any effects anymore. That apparently differs from person to person.

  13. What an amazing place.I love the mural that was found behind the wall. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to live in a place like that. Amazing views, but probably very tough trying to survive. I wonder if it got as hot back when those first caves were formed?

    • The material of the rocks is called tuff. It is basically volcanic ash from eruptions over 1 million years ago, that settled into layers and became harder over time. So, when the holes – some which later turned into caves – were formed (by air/gas pockets) it surely was much hotter than now, Hugh. 🙂 It’s because these rocks are relatively soft that the Indians could easily make caves in them, sometimes using existing holes to start with. When we were sitting in the dwellings, looking out over the scenery, it seemed easier and more productive to live closer to the ground and the river. If you like murals, keep your eye out for my future post about petroglyphs… hopefully in a week or two.

  14. Exciting, if painful, stuff, Liesbet! Clambering into the Alcove House didn’t look too bad but I might struggle to get back down again. 🙂 🙂 I’ve heard that altitude sickness is really debilitating but I hadn’t assocated it with New Mexico. You’ll know better next time.

    • I have learned my lesson, Jo. Like you, I did never think the elevation gets “high” here. I guess I did not understand what “high desert” meant. I now know that a desert is not necessarily a desert. 🙂

  15. You’re a wonderful tour guide Liesbet! I’m in awe looking at your magnificent photos. I’m dying to go there! I miss beautiful Arizona too. I think I’m a mountain girl at heart. Enjoy every day! 🙂

    • Trying to enjoy it as much as possible. Every day, I look out the window at the mountains and the sunshine, and I check the temperature online, which has been around 28C. And then, I look at my computer again, planning to quit work early. And then, it is 6pm, the clouds our back and it is getting chilly. Time to water all the plants, bird baths and garden, and think about dinner. But, the weekends have been perfect! 🙂 I hope you get to visit New Mexico one day. It is similar to Arizona, but appears to be more varied and cultural.

      • I know what you mean how quickly the days pass. Yes, I will get there for sure, hopefully next time I get back to Arizona (which won’t be until the politics change) 🙂 Enjoy! xx

  16. Oh, I could not climb those ladders! Somehow as I have become older, I have developed a fear of heights, and especially ladders. It might started because of a ladder accident as a teen and another incident of losing my footing climbing down a cliff face around the same age. Oh well.

    So I am so glad to see your marvellous photos.


    • I’m sure those accidents didn’t help with the fear of heights. I”m sorry to hear about that, Jude. My husband used to have a fear of heights, but it has gotten better over the years. I used to have to climb the mast on our first boat, but he was able to do work on the top of the mast of our most recent one. That being said, I – for the first time ever! – had a bit of uneasiness when looking over the bridge railings across the Rio Grande Gorge in New Mexico a couple of weekends ago. A new experience that made me appreciate other people’s fear of heights. Mark did not last more than a few seconds on the edge of that bridge. 🙂 I’m glad you enjoyed the photos. More to come – from the gorge – later.

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