Glimpsing the Past at Bean Creek

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by BawBaw on October 7, 2011

As a child in the Southwest, a weekend in the country was generally quite different from what youngsters experienced in areas with higher amounts of annual rainfall. Like those who lived in wetter climates, we spent our leisure time by going to rivers and streams and even the occasional lake. But our outings usually included wide stretches of what some would see as nothing but barren desert. More lush destinations tended to be tucked away in some sheltered place or on the windward side of a mountain, catching the rainclouds.

One of those sheltered places that I learned to love as child was Frijoles Canyon. By southwestern standards, Frijoles Canyon is truly a lush paradise. Carved from the Pajarito Plateau by the Rito de los Frijoles (Bean Creek in Spanish), the canyon and its permanent water supply provide protection for a rich variety of vegetation and proved an attractive haven for the Anasazi (the Ancient Ones), the native peoples who settled throughout this region during the centuries before the Spanish conquest.

Frijoles Canyon is the most visited and best known portion of the Bandelier National Monument, named for Swiss-born explorer and archeologist Adolf Bandelier (1840-1914). Located just south Los Alamos off New Mexico Route 4, Bandelier extends over 50 squares miles of federal land and includes more than 23,000 acres of designated wilderness area. It boasts among its holdings a National Park Service Visitor Center; more than 70 miles of wilderness trails; and numerous archeological sites, including the remains of Anasazi dwellings, ceremonial sites, and petroglyphs.

Even without its wonderful archeological treasures, this scenic canyon would be well worth the U.S. National Park Service's price of admission (currently $12 per car per week). The road leading down from the rim of the plateau is often narrow and sometimes clings precariously to the sheer face of the canyon wall, with driver and passengers alike praying fervently not to meet oncoming traffic. Seen from the canyon floor, these same walls form lines of yellow- and tan-colored talus cliffs rising to meet the dazzling blue of the New Mexican sky.

Pillars of stone stand detached from the cliff face and arches of stone carved by wind and water lend a surreal drama to the landscape. Stands of cottonwood, pine, willow, and elder grow abundantly along the stream bed, and the open areas beyond are home to desert grasses, cacti, and a variety of small shrubs. The air is full of the sound of small animals scampering, bird calls, and the rustle of leaves bending to the breeze.

Even the most urban modern visitor should have no problem understanding the attraction this place once held for the Anasazi. And certainly the abundance of pueblo-style and cliff dwellings left by these ancestors testify to their strength in terms of both numbers and prosperity. The communities that lived here grew corn and beans in the fertile soil, hunted the canyons and mesas for game, sent out war parties when necessary, and traded far and wide.

Such a place can be a wonderland for a child with an imagination. In my mind’s eye, the pueblos and cliffs were populated with tall graceful people who wore buckskins and feathers in their braided hair. For a child, this was also a place where young limbs could run, climb ladders leading to openings in the cliff face, and wade barefoot in the shallow river. It was paradise. For adults, at least speaking for myself, it is no less compelling. With a child’s imagination replaced by a measure of knowledge about the site and its former inhabitants, Bandelier serves as one of those portals through time, allowing the present to touch the past. . . . And even for an adult, wading in a cool stream of a hot summer day has its attractions! For me, it has been a place that has retained its magic, again and again.

Of the hundreds of ruins that extend through Bandelier, those in the area near the Visitor Center are the most easily accessible. The Loop Trail takes the visitor past the Big Kiva (an underground ceremonial chamber), through the Tyuonyi Ruin, and past a number of talus dwellings and the Long House (built into and along the cliff face on the southeast side of the canyon). Then the trail doubles back along the creek and returns to the Visitor Center. At several places along the trail, visitors are invited into the world of the Anasazi. For example, ladders lead to doorways that open into chambers carved from the soft stone. Or narrow, steep trails lead along paths that must closely parallel those used by the canyon's original inhabitants. In other places, signs are posted strictly forbidding trespass.

More ambitious visitors may elect to leave the Loop Trail at its northwest end and continue along Frijoles Creek to the Ceremonial Cave (about 4 miles round trip from the Visitor Center). There a series of ladders and a 140-foot climb will take you up to the cave entrance and provide a spectacular view of the canyon.

The Bandelier Visitor Center is open all year. I've been to this special place many times and have found that each season here is accompanied by its own special beauty.

© BawBaw, LovesTravel, DAnneC
Bandelier National Monument
15 Entrance Rd.
Los Alamos, New Mexico, 87544
(505) 672-3861

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