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The wilder side of Bandelier.

Backcountry trails near Santa Fe lead to scenic views, ancient sites, wildlife

THE TRAIL CUTS THROUGH AN area of Bandelier National Monument that burned 16 years ago. Some trees remain, but for the most part, this area, known as Burnt Mesa, has the open feel of a meadow, with easy hiking over level terrain.

From the trail, the views look west over Los Alamos, New Mexico, to the high country flecked with fall color, while the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, lit to rose and violet by a late-afternoon sun, command the eastern horizon.

After an hour's hiking and with darkness fast approaching, a call breaks the silence and trumpets across the mesa. A herd of maybe 70 elk crosses the trail, hooves rumbling, the sound as unforgettable as the sight.

Although the trail at Burnt Mesa is only a few miles from the hubbub around the monument's visitor center, it feels much farther away.

If you've never been to Bandelier, by all means head into the main part of the monument to see the 12th-century pueblo ruins. But if it's a return visit, or if you want to explore the monument's other moods, consider any of these three hikes. All of the trailheads are easily reached from State Highway 4. Carry water.

Burnt Mesa. For the best chance to spot elk, deer, and other wildlife, time your walk for early morning or late afternoon. The up-and-back trek is between 5 and 6 miles round trip. The trailhead is on the south side of State 4, about 2 miles east of the junction with State 501.

Ponderosa Group Camp to Upper Frijoles Crossing. This trail descends nearly 600 feet into Frijoles Canyon, offering beautiful forest scenery and some dramatic canyon views. Round trip to the crossing is about 3 miles, but the elevation changes are concentrated in one stretch, so the climb out of the canyon will seem steep. Give yourself some time to enjoy the canyon and its namesake creek before heading back out. To reach the trailhead from State 501, turn left onto State 4 and look for a quick right and a parking area. Once past the campground gate, look for the trail on your right.

Tsankawi Interpretive Trail. This 2-mile trail in a separate area of the monument offers cultural sites, volcanic formations, and big panoramas. Some trail sections follow part of the original Indian footpath, and interpretive booklets are available to direct you to an assortment of petroglyphs and unexcavated ruins.

Tsankawi is on State 4, about 12 miles northeast of the monument's Frijoles Canyon Visitor Center, on the right; from Santa Fe, make a left turn off State 502, then turn left in just over a mile.

Maps showing the three trails are available at the visitor center. It's open 8 to 6 daily in summer, 9 to 5:30 in fall. Admission to the monument costs $5 per vehicle.
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Title Annotation:Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico
Author:Jaffe, Matthew
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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