Together with my husband we’ve visited many cliff dwelling historical sites before we even had kids. As expected, they were all amazing and truly special. But Bandelier? Bandelier was different even back then, and we literally couldn’t wait to bring our kids. The verdict??? Not only you won’t find a shortage of fun and unique child-friendly hiking trails in Bandelier, chances are your kids will love retracing the steps of Ancestral Puebloans so much, they won’t want to leave! (Sorry.)
What makes Bandelier special?
Bandelier National Monument, located near Los Alamos in New Mexico, is a unique place that preserves the legacy and spirit of the Ancestral Pueblo people that inhabited this land between 1150 and 1550 AD. While most sites in the U.S. tend to protect the area and to overprotect the visitors by creating an artificial bubble of super safety, here in Bandelier you’re given a chance to self-guide, truly experience and fully absorb, all while protecting the integrity of the site and without incurring additional tour fees.
The entire monument is spread out over 50 square miles on the Pajarito Plateau, on the slopes of the Jemez Volcanic field in the Jemez Mountains. The main part of the monument is rather compact though and parking is extremely limited, so you may be required to take a FREE shuttle down into the canyon to the main visitor center, depending on when you come.
The shuttle buses leave from the White Rock Visitor Center outside of the monument and make a stop at Juniper Campground within the monument. The entire ride is about 25 min.; less than 10 min. from the campground stop.
Your kids will have a blast in Bandelier! (And so will you.)
The great thing about Bandelier is that even though there are over 70 miles of hiking trails here, you can actually see a whole lot while staying relatively close to the visitor center!
Unique Child-Friendly Hiking Trails In BANDELIER
MAIN LOOP TRAIL – Bandelier
This is the main trail in Bandelier, and the only one on which snow is removed in the wintertime. This 1.2-mile trail starts at the visitor center and is mostly paved and flat, but a portion of it requires walking up and down numerous narrow stone stairways.
The Main Loop Trail is a must-do hike that covers the highlights of Bandelier. You’re going to find a lot of history here and an entire small metropolis of Ancestral Pueblo dwellings! Some homes were built on the canyon floor with blocks of soft volcanic tuff while others were made in the voids of the canyon wall and further carved out.
First you’ll get to see BIG KIVA which is a partially restored sacred communal place of the Ancestral Pueblo people that’s 8 feet deep and almost 42 feet across, hence the name. The trail winds alongside the kiva and right through the remnants of TYUONYI which is a circular pueblo site consisting of about 245 ground level dwellings that once stood 1-3 stories tall.
Next you’ll pass by a group of TALUS HOUSES which were strategically built at the base of the cliff from rock debris on the talus slope.
You’ll get a chance to explore some of the cliff dwellings (cavates) that are found right on the trail as long as you don’t mind climbing up a few short wooden ladders.
The next stop is LONG HOUSE that was once a structure of multi-story homes in the front of the cliff with back rooms in hand-carved caves. Wall foundations and rows of beam holes are still visible here, and the back cavates remain as well.
A number of petroglyphs can be found in this area, though many are very faint.
Many of the back walls of the former front rooms were decorated with paintings. A few of these ancient paintings remain, with one geometric design decoration protected by a glass covering (further to the right on the picture below).
After passing Long House, the loop takes you across Frijoles Creek before winding back to the visitor center under the shaded canopy of a beautiful woodland (unless you continue to the Alcove House).
ALCOVE HOUSE – Bandelier
There is an optional extension to the Main Loop Trail about halfway through (right after crossing the creek) that continues to the famous Alcove House. It’s a very pleasant hike about a half-mile further upstream (or slightly over 2 miles if you’re starting at the visitor center).
First you’ll make your way through a flood-damaged woodland with rich ponderosa pine scent lingering in the air, crossing the creek several times. It’s a stunning walk, really, with plenty of shade.
Before you know it, you’ll be standing at the base of the climb to the highlight of this trail – the Alcove House. In order to get all the way up to the Alcove House, you’ll need to navigate narrow walkways, scramble up stone stairs (I lost count), and climb up four steep ladders and a total of 140 feet. Even though these are wide sturdy wooden ladders, the climb is not for those with fear of heights. It is an optional part of the trail though.
I’ll be the first to admit that I felt a brief tiny bit of trepidation as I stood beneath the Alcove House with my 4 and 7-year old prancing around. A bunch of ginormous ladders going up 140 feet with some spotty steep drop-off and the clumsy little hands and feet of my two kids that happen to be so easily distracted? Oh look, a cloud! Where!?!
Like, what was I thinking???
But it turns out, they know no fear and the higher the better… Because kids.
Once you make your way up, you’ll find a large alcove with some additional rooms and a restored kiva. The perfect spot for a break and some well-deserved shade!
The kiva in the alcove was open to the public the last time we visited (which was like 500 years ago), but it turns out it has since been closed indefinitely due to structure stabilization concerns and much needed repairs.
The view from up there?
If you’re not afraid of heights, this is a unique trail and a pretty cool archeological site to visit. Even if you decide not to climb up, it’s still a great hike!
FREY TRAIL – Bandelier
The Frey Trail starts at Juniper campground’s amphitheater (where the shuttle bus stops) and is 1.5 miles each way. (You don’t have to commit though and can take the shuttle back up.) The trail brings you down into the canyon where it joins the Main Loop Trail. Before the modern entrance road to Bandelier was built, this was supposedly the only access to the canyon (Frijoles Canyon is a really tough place to get into!).
It is a mostly downhill path from the campground’s shuttle stop and not a strenuous hike per se, BUT… Because there is practically no shade before you get to the edge of the canyon, it can get long and a bit difficult, especially when you’re hiking with kids and at the wrong time (that would be us). These are the times when my 4-year-old begs for Ergo and threatens to throw her sweaty little worn-out body into the nearest cactus pile if I don’t comply. So I comply. What mom doesn’t love to sweat up a storm?
Once you get to the rim and the trail switchbacks down to the canyon floor, things get much better though! You may find spotty shade, and spotty shade can make a world of difference here in Frijoles Canyon.
The Frey Trail is very exposed to the elements, but it has some great vantage points, including a bird’s eye view of Tyuonyi. There are also far fewer visitors here on this trail, so you can find both solitude and scenery here. Make sure to bring good hiking shoes, sunscreen, hats, and plenty of water on this trail!
FALLS TRAIL – Bandelier
The out-and-back Falls Trail was designed to take you past the Upper and Lower Frijoles Falls, all the way to Rio Grande. Unfortunately, this trail is washed out beyond the upper falls due to past fires and floods and has been closed indefinitely beyond the first falls, possibly permanently. Also, if you’re hoping to cool down beneath the refreshing waters of Frijoles Creek, keep in mind that you don’t get anywhere near the waterfall but to a waterfall viewpoint instead.
It’s about 1.5 miles to get to the Upper Falls, and the trailhead is located near the visitor center at the east backpacker & overflow parking lot.
The initial portion of the trail is a gradual descent on a path that’s pretty much fully exposed to sun. Boy was it hot! The perfect recipe for sweaty little sour faces…
HOWEVER… If you keep walking, you eventually enter the most charming forest, and walking underneath tall pine trees and right beside a bubbling creek suddenly makes it all worth it!
Like magic, the sweaty little sour faces were instantly turned upside down when they spotted the shallow stream of water, curling down playfully over pebbles and rocks. The creek can be a major slow down or an awesome break, depending on how much time you have…
You’ll be walking by the creek for a while before retreating away and closer to more cliff-side dwellings. After a brief climb along a hillside and a single switchback descent later – TA-DA!!!
This is not a very frequented trail, or at least that was our experience. Not sure if we just got lucky, but I think we only met like 5 other people total on this trail. Not bad if you want some peace…? The initial part of the trail is fully exposed and may seem long, even more so when hiking back and uphill, but the forest/creek segment almost makes it all worth it regardless. It really is stunningly beautiful.
MEANWHILE, it was on this trail that we managed to go from hot to pleasant to cold to freezing to pleasant to hot within a matter of like 45 minutes. Temperatures can change drastically and quickly in an environment like Bandelier, so do come prepared! (Lesson learned.)
TSANKAWI – Bandelier
Tsankawi is NOT located within the main area. It’s a remote and detached part of the monument, and it may be a tad tricky to find. It’s also the only trail on which we got lost. (Twice.) This trail is a true gem though and worth the drive!!! You can read more about Tsankawi here, including detailed directions to Tsankawi.
We had so much fun in Bandelier!!!
Juniper Campground in Bandelier
We spent 3 nights at Bandelier’s Juniper campground (first-come-first-serve).
At first it seemed like we couldn’t find the right spot that had a bear box on site (bears are active here) and wasn’t in full sun. We also arrived late, when the sun was about to set, because my husband found this great shortcut to Bandelier which of course ended up as hours of off-roading on isolated meandering dirt roads in the remote mountains of New Mexico where your GPS laughs at you and the only living thing you’ll see is a Sasquatch who probably eats humans. But it worked out fine despite of having very little shade because we were hardly ever there during the day anyway. The restrooms had flushing toilets (no showers) and were updated and incredibly clean during our visit.
The grounds were quiet, the nights were pleasant, the early mornings were surprisingly hot (early June), and we had a great time here!