Our Weekend in Los Alamos: Bandelier National Monument & More

Updated: Feb 17, 2021

Hi guys, I hope everyone is having a great start to their week! I had been assigned this weird schedule for the last week and half that made me feel like all I was doing was going to work and sleeping. Actually, I've been assigned a lot of weekend shifts for this travel nursing contract in New Mexico which limits the amount of adventuring we can do. I was initially super upset about this (especially because I was given the impression that I would only be required to work every other weekend), but I'm trying to stay positive. As much as I want to accomplish this bucketlist goal of visiting all of the country's national parks, I think I may have left New Mexico as one of the last states I would have chosen to visit. That was before I knew how much it had to offer. Now that I've done by research, I'm trying to be extra grateful for any free time we have to explore because this state isn't called the Land of Enchantment for nothing!

One of the popular places of attraction in the state is Bandelier National Monument. Located 48 miles northwest of Santa Fe, it was a 4 hour and 10 minute drive from our RV park in Alamogordo- making it the perfect weekend getaway. We spent Saturday afternoon exploring Bandelier and the next day hit up a few trails in Los Alamos that caught my eye on AllTrails. I can't wait to share the highlights of our weekend because it really was an absolute blast!

Bandelier National Monument: A Quick Bit of History

Trucked within the Frijoles Canyon are the historic cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Pueblo People. These people are thought to have descended from hunters and gatherers who inhabited the region over 10,000 years ago. There are said to be at least 3,000 sites of shelter within the National Monument, though not all are accessible by visitors.

The rocks of Bandelier originally formed from consolidated volcanic ash. When a nearby volcano erupted, ash flowed upward reaching 1,000 feet- making the formations seem more like mountains than rock. In other areas, the ash flow eroded the area, forming the rugged canyon and mesa terrain that Bandelier is also known for.

Usually our hiking destinations lead us to beautiful, naturally-occurring wonders. This stop was extra special because we were experiencing history while exploring! Walking along the trail leading up the the rock, we passed ancient garden sites and spotted a few petroglyphs alongside of the Pueblo shelters. Spotting the rock shelters left us feeling like we were taking a trip back in time- but even more so when we scaled the wooden ladders to climb into them!

Recommended Trails

I would like to emphasize that our visit to the national monument was only about 4-5 hours long. With a little research about recommendations before our visit, we learned that the trails we decided on were some of the most popular in Bandelier- making a day trip to the monument packed full of fun, but totally doable!

Main Loop Trail

Length: 1.4 mile

Trail Type: Loop

Elevation Gain: 219 feet

Rating: Easy

AllTrails Link: https://www.alltrails.com/trail/us/new-mexico/main-ruin-loop-trail

This was our first trail of the trip. The paved section of the trail leads hikers up to the rocks and allows you to climb shorter wooden ladders to explore some of the cliff dwellings (pictured above). Because it is a popular trail and the path becomes narrow at times, it can get a little congested. However, it really is a great trail for starting out a visit at Bandelier because it gives visitors a taste of climbing the ladders if they plan on continuing on to the famous (and much higher), Alcove House.

Alcove House

Length: 2.6 mile

Trail Type: Loop

Elevation Gain: 252 feet

Rating: Easy

AllTrails Link: https://www.alltrails.com/trail/us/new-mexico/alcove-house-trail

Extending the path from Main Loop Trail, it is a half mile walk to Alcove House. This was the trail I was super excited to hike because it is the most famous in Bandelier and I had seen a lot of pictures online of previous hikers climbing the wooden ladders.

Located 140 feet above the canyon floor, this hike requires visitors to ascend 4 different, exposed wooden ladders to reach what was previously called Ceremonial Cave, once home to 25 Pueblo People. These wooden ladders are much lengthier than the ones found within Main Loop Trail and as hikers get closer to the start, signs are displayed warning those with a fear of heights to refrain from attempting.

That's what pulls me in- the thrill. And not to toot my own horn in any way, but I was pretty confident starting my climb having accomplished Half Dome in Yosemite National Park nearly one year ago. The way up wasn't bad at all, but I will be the first to say, the way down had my knees shaking a little. My body was fearful of falling off the ladder, making me feel like I was almost collapsing against it during my descent. Colton even had to encourage me down the longest one. Definitely not the hardest thing I've ever done, I'm just trying to emphasize- don't underestimate it.

Below is a picture I snapped on our way back from Alcove House. Here is a glimpse of the wooden ladders required to climb to reach the top.

Upper Falls Trail

Length: 2.9 mile

Trail Type: Out & Back

Elevation Gain: 495 feet

Rating: Easy

AllTrails Link: https://www.alltrails.com/trail/us/new-mexico/upper-falls-trail

This was our final trail during our visit, which focuses more on the geologic beauty of Bandelier rather than the ancient rock shelters. We obviously expected to be greeted by a waterfall at the end of this trail, but during our visit (late September) it was dried up. This may lead you to believe that this trail isn't worth attempting, but I beg to differ! The views of the canyon and overall scenery throughout the trail were breathtaking. Just spotting Colton in this picture below proves how vast the canyon is!


I would also like to strongly encourage anyone visiting to stop at the Visitor Center. Not only will this help plan your visit, but you can browse through one of the cooler gift shops I've seen. There is also a cute outdoor café available. Both of these are open daily from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Bandelier is open year round, excluding December 25th and January 1st.

We pulled our RV for the weekend and stayed at White Rock Visitor Center RV Park. I want to include this information because sometimes there isn't parking available at Bandelier and a shuttle service is required. This wasn't the case for us (I'm attributing this to the pandemic), but it was nice to have Switchback Sally parked nearby as a home base for the weekend, a whopping 12 minute drive from Bandelier.

This RV park has limited sites (15 and even less with Covid restrictions) which are first come, first serve and electric hookup only. There is a self-pay machine which accepts credit cards only. It is a $20 per night fee.

White Rock Visitors Center

115 State Road 4

White Rock, NM

Our Next Day: Nearby Trail Recommendations

Spence Hot Springs

Length: 0.7 mile

Trail Type: Out & Back

Elevation Gain: 144 feet

Rating: Moderate

AllTrails Link: https://www.alltrails.com/trail/us/new-mexico/spence-hot-springs-trail

Located within the Santa Fe National Forest and seeming to come out of no where are the Spence Hot Springs. This was about an hour drive for us and knowing that the springs are a popular area, we left for them early in the morning. And man, what a beautiful car ride it was. Reviews of the trail said that previous visitors to the springs had left it littered, but Colton and I said to each other prior to arriving that the drive alone was worth the trip. We passed colorful birch tree covered mountains, wide canyon views, and even an open plain area created by a previous volcanic eruption. It was like nothing I'd ever seen!

New Mexico will never cease to amaze me in the vast temperature changes that can occur when traveling in and out of the mountains. We were sweating like crazy hiking in upper 80 degree temperatures at Bandelier and the next day we were wrapping ourselves in our towels on our short hike to the hot springs in low 50 degree temps. The springs were the perfect antidote. There is even a section in the springs that creates a cave, where the highest temperature water is. Even my claustrophobia wasn't enough to keep me from checking that out.

Natural Arch via Old Mitchell Trail

Length: 1.7 mile

Trail Type: Out & Back

Elevation Gain: 515 feet

Rating: Moderate

AllTrails Link: https://www.alltrails.com/trail/us/new-mexico/natural-arch-via-old-mitchell-trail

If you don't know already, arches are my absolute, without a doubt, favorite geological formation ever. Arches National Park has my heart and the second I saw a nearby trail to an arch in New Mexico, I knew we had to visit.

This trailhead is located just off a street in town. AllTrails has a feature that allows you to track your location on a selected trail if you have service (you can pay for this feature for hiking in areas without service) and I recommend using it throughout this hike. The trail intersects with a few different routes and could get a little confusing in the start. However, once you start climbing up the mountain, cairns frequent the trail making the arch easy to find.

Below is a picture of me in our final scramble to the arch with Los Alamos in the background. Sitting at 8,182 feet in elevation, I struggled a little bit to breathe as I usually do at this height. This trail requires quite a bit of scrambling, which was fun!

We somehow had the arch to ourselves and we spent awhile up there, taking in all the sights. The top offered a really cool view of the valley below. I loved being able to see some of the trees changing color since I'll miss autumn back at home in Ohio this year. There were frequent gusts of wind up there and I know it sounds cheesy but I broke into "Colors of the Wind" from Pocahontas more than once.

Well, that was our weekend! Whether you're planning a trip to northwest New Mexico or simply following along on our adventures throughout my travel nursing experience, thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed the blog post! It was fun to reminisce on what I already know will be one of my favorite memories from my 13 week contract here in New Mexico!

"Travel far enough, you meet yourself." -David Mitchell

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