Bandelier National Monument

Bandelier National Monument


Ancestral Pueblo People

Life in Bandelier
The Ancestral Pueblo people lived here from approximately 1150 CE to 1550 CE. They built homes carved from the volcanic tuff and planted crops in mesatop fields. Corn, beans, and squash were central to their diet, supplemented by native plants and meat from deer, rabbit, and squirrel. Domesticated turkeys were used for both their feathers and meat while dogs assisted in hunting and provided companionship. 

Moving On
By 1550, the Ancestral Pueblo people had moved from this area to pueblos along the Rio Grande.  After over 400 years the land here could no longer support the people and a severe drought added to what were already becoming difficult times. Oral traditions tell us where the people went and who their descendents are. The people of Cochiti Pueblo, located just south and east along the Rio Grande, are the most direct descendents of the Ancestral Pueblo people who built homes in Frijoles Canyon.  Likewise, San Ildefonso is most closely linked to Tsankawi.

Vital Statistics

Ancestral Pueblo People - Vital Statistics

Cold, snowy days intermix with warm sunny days. Heavy pollen in the air from blooming junipers can mean watery eyes and runny noses for many people. The Main Loop Trail is the only trail where snow is removed. Snow and ice remains on most other trails and turns to muddy muck by mid-afternoon. The ladders at Alcove House may remain closed due to safety concerns if it has been a snowy winter. The Cross-country ski trails still have plenty of snow but on warm afternoons can become slushy. Abert's Squirrels remain active and may be seen feeding on the newly-running sap of Boxelder trees. By late month, the Sandhill Cranes can be heard as they pass overhead migrating back north. Visitation is slow but may begin to pick up by President's weekend. On occasion the parking lots have filled over this holiday. Collection of the entrance fee is done at the visitor center instead of the entrance station. Interpretive programs are only offered occasionally.

The ladders at Alcove House are currently open (02/18/08) but could close again if there is more snow. Skiing had been excellent at the Cross-country ski trails. Warmer daytime temperatures have made them slushy. The Falls Trail is in good shape above Lower Falls except for small icy patches in the morning and slush in the afternoon. The trail below Lower Falls was obliterated in some areas by another flashflood that occurred in January. The area near the Rio Grande is extremely muddy. Also near the Rio watch for a half dozen feral cows that have been occupying the area. Willows near the Rio should be blooming by President's Day weekend.  Abert's Squirrels are very active and have been seen eating Boxelder sap, a true sign that spring is coming.


Ancestral Pueblo Farming

The Ancestral Pueblo people depended on agriculture to sustain them in their more sedentary lifestyle. Corn, beans, and squash were the most important crop items. Called the "three sisters", these foods were essential to survival because together they provided for many of the people's nutritional needs. For example, when eaten together corn and beans contribute a full protein.

Field Locations
Mesatops were used for much of the farming. Small plots were probably located in the narrow canyons as well. However, steep canyon walls blocked much of the day's sunlight and the canyons worked as cold sinks making growing crops in the canyon somewhat problematic. Field locations dotted the mesatops where afternoon thunderstorms were the most likely to offer necessary moisture.

Dry Farming
Water is the most important ingredient for successful agriculture in this arid climate. The Ancestral Pueblo people developed a number of farming techniques that conserve water. Pumice (a light, frothy rock that is full of gas) is a major component of the local volcanic tuff. Pumice can act as a sponge, absorbing water and releasing it slowly over time. It was used as mulch to preserve moisture in the soil. Other water-preserving practices included terracing, check dams that slowed water moving across slopes, and waffle or grid gardens. Waffle gardens are constructed by forming small depressions surrounded by a low earthen wall. Seeds are planted within the cavity. The selection of plants was also a good one. Corn is sun-tolerant and grows tall. Beans and squash are less tolerant but grown shorter and can be shaded by the corn plants which also provide support for growing.

Natural Features & Ecosystems


Frijoles Creek begins on the snowy slopes of the 10,199-foot-high Cerro Grande Peak. Carving its way down through the Pajarito Plateau for over fourteen miles before entering the winding Rio Grande, Frijoles Creek drops about 4,000 feet. This dramatic change in elevation on the Pajarito Plateau creates climate differences that support a wide diversity of life. This diversity made the area livable for the Ancestral Pueblo people, providing them with food, medicine, clothing, and supplies.

Native Plant Use

Although Ancestral Pueblo people were not totally reliant upon gathering like their predecessors, the Paleo-Indians, they still depended upon native plants to supplement their diet and numerous other uses.

Yucca leaves are stiff and full of fibers. The yucca leaves were collected and stripped of fibers. The fibers were then woven into sandals, baskets, or rope. Twine made from yucca fiber was twisted with wet turkey feathers or strips of rabbit fur to made nice warm blankets. Imagine curling up on a cold winter's night under a nice warm thick turkey feather blanket you had just made. The people could chew one end of a short length of yucca leaf, exposing the fibers and producing paintbrushes for decorating pottery. If you've ever accidentally backed into a yucca plant you know a sharp, hard point tips each leaf. These sharp leaf ends could be used as needles for sewing when combined with the fibrous threads from the leaves.

The soft, fleshy fruit of the yucca was a staple of Ancestral Pueblo diet. It could be eaten raw, cooked, or mixed with other ingredients. In early summer the yucca blooms with shiny white flowers. These flowers are sweet and can be eaten raw. If you're very hungry, you can even eat the root. Unfortunately, it's like washing your mouth with soap since it tastes like detergent.

The young pads of the prickly pear cactus are also edible. Cut into strips, the pads are boiled. The pads contain a thick, mucilaginous fluid to help maintain moisture. The resulting food, called nopalitas, can have this same unappealing consistency.


Bandelier's human history extends back for over 10,000 years when nomadic hunter-gatherers followed migrating wildlife across the mesas and canyons. By 1150 CE Ancestral Pueblo people began to build more permanent settlements. Reminders of these past times are still evident in the park as are the strong ties of the modern Pueblo people. By 1550 the Ancestral Pueblo people had moved from their homes here to pueblos along the Rio Grande (Cochiti, San Felipe, San Ildefonso, Santa Clara, Santo Domingo).

In the mid-1700's Spanish settlers with Spanish land grants made their homes in Frijoles Canyon. In 1880 Jose Montoya of Cochiti Pueblo brought Adolph F. A. Bandelier to Frijoles Canyon. Montoya offered to show Bandelier his people's ancestral homelands.

In 1916 legislation to create Bandelier National Monument was signed by President Woodrow Wilson. In 1925 Evelyn Frey and her husband, George, arrived to take over the Ranch of the 10 Elders that had been built by Judge Abbott in 1907. Between 1934 and 1941 workers from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) worked from a camp constructed in Frijoles Canyon. Among their accomplishments is the road into Frijoles Canyon, the current visitor center, a new lodge, and miles of trails. For several years during World War II the park was closed to the public and the Bandelier lodge was used to house Manhattan Project scientists and military personnel.


Mrs. Frey

The Early Lodge
A man named Judge Judson Abbott build the first lodge in Frijoles Canyon in 1907. From Santa Fe, he moved here and became a caretaker for the Frijoles Canyon archeological sites. The lodge, called the Ranch of the 10 Elders, was located across Frijoles Creek from Tyuonyi.

The Freys Arrive
In 1925 George and Evelyn Frey, with their infant son, took over the running of the Ranch of the 10 Elders. At that time, the only way into and out of Frijoles Canyon was a steep, dirt path. All of the Frey belongings had to be tied onto mules for the arduous journey down from the canyon rim.  The family possessions included household goods, 75 fruit trees, and several hundred chickens. 

Stone Tools

Obsidian, a form of volcanic glass, was mined in the local area. Obsidian is very hard and breaks in very sharp edges, making it an excellent choice for arrowpoints and scrappers.  The local obsidian is good quality for tool making and was traded far and wide.

Basalt is also a very hard, dark rock.  It was used mostly for pounding and cutting tools such as hammers and axes.  Like obsidian, basalt is found locally mostly in the southern section of the monument.  

Cultural Demonstrations

Cultural demonstrations are provided every weekend between Memorial Day and Labor Day. These demonstrations vary but include pottery-making, drum-making, traditional dances, and bread-baking in an outdoor horno.


Home Construction

Tuff Blocks
Homes were constructed from blocks of volcanic tuff, which is soft and relatively easy to break into blocks. In fact, natural erosional processes often create slopes of talus or broken, often block-like pieces of rock, at the bottom of canyon walls. The Ancestral Pueblo people has sources of hard rock, basalt, just a short distance down canyon. From this more durable rock the people made axes and hammers which could be used as tools to form the tuff blocks. Axes were also used to fell large Ponderosa pine trees whose straight, thick trunks made excellent vigas (the beams used to support the roof).

Blocks of tuff were held together with a mud mixture. This mortar is often missing when a site is excavated. In the past, the mortar was often replaced with concrete, a much harder material than the tuff. This lead to problems and currently an effort is underway to replace the old concrete with a new mortar that has properties more similar to the original.

How Many Stories
Dwellings built along the base of the canyon wall were often more stories than similar ones built on the canyon floor. These dwellings used the support of the canyon wall. One can determine exactly how many stories tall they were by looking at the rows of viga holes.

Cavates, carved rooms, were also common behind the rooms built at the bottom of cliffs. Luckily, the tuff is soft and malleable. Carving these rooms using stone tools would have still been very difficult. The walls of the cavates were often plastered and the ceilings smoked. Smoking the ceiling made it less crumbly. Sometimes pictographs painted on or petroglyphs were carved into the walls.