The Puye Cliff Dwellings aren't open for visitors right now, so I I stumbled upon the Tsankawi section of Bandelier National Monument instead and it’s my new favorite hiking trail in the Santa Fe, New Mexico area.
It’s just off State Highway 4, about a dozen miles from the main park entrance. I spotted it because there were about 10 cars parked on the side of the road, which is a sure sign that there’s a good trail nearby. I was right.
At Tsankawi, you take a 1.5-mile loop hike along a mesa top. There you’ll find the remains of an ancient, abandoned pueblo. Along the hike, you’ll see blooming cactus, cavate cliff dwellings, petroglyphs and the abandoned kiva remains. You’ll have to climb their ladders and squeeze through a series of slot-like trail areas.
The entire area is a former pueblo with over 300 dwellings, but much of it is overgrown and only the keenest eye can decipher which rocks are ruins.
The Tsankawi site is essentially a miniature similar to what you will find at Bandelier National Monument but less trafficked. When I hiked the trail, there were less than 6 other people on the mesa with me.
I began my hike like everyone on a lovely sandy, bushy hillside covered with pinyon and juniper pines. Once you make it to the mesa base, there is a 12-foot wooden ladder that you must climb to the top. There are two other ladders on the trail, but this first one is by far the easiest.
Like much of the area, the mesa top is an orange and grey lava rock filled with large air bubble holes and exciting formations. Trailing alongside the edge of the mesa, I worried about people who bring children. The mesa ends in a fall between 10- and 40 feet and one stumble could send you over. Aside from that, this is a great hike for kids because it’s interesting and not too hard – if you do it right, which I did not.
Stay on the Trail (unlike I did)
There is a sign that indicates where the trail to the second ladder starts. Still, I misunderstood and continued along the edge (the correct path is the one that is worn white on the left). The loop can technically be hiked in either direction, so I could have just continued, but I didn’t. High above me, I saw the second ladder and determined to get to it with incredible difficulty. I didn’t know then that if I continued in the direction I was going, I would eventually come to it from a more straightforward route.
Since this mesa section is all rock, there’s no discernible trail and no stacked rock cairns to guide the way. So, I navigated what I thought was the trail up to the second ladder (it was not the trail). It was a strenuous climb for me, but after a few minutes and an encounter with a Prickly Pear Cactus, I made it to the second ladder.
The top-most part of the Tsankawi mesa has clearly marked trails and grassy fields amid the ancient pueblo rocks left behind. You’ll pass a few sections where it’s clear there were kivas or other types of dwellings that are now almost unrecognizable. After a while, you’ll make your way to the third ladder, though you must look for it. It’s hidden at the end of the mesa and you need to crouch down onto it from a deeply grooved path in the rocks.
This third section of the trail is the most interesting. Once you squeeze through the entrance to the ladder and down it, you’re among the cliff dwellings. Here, the stone changes from orange to white and it’s pocked with holes like oversized swiss cheese.
Like at Frijoles Canyon in the main section of Bandelier, the Anasazi people enlarged and carved out these natural air bubbles in the volcanic rocks to form larger dwellings, known as cavates. They bored into the stone and affixed wood timbers and extended their living space out among this mesa. The evidence is everywhere.
The trail in this section is difficult to navigate because it goes through trenches of stone, most only wide enough for one leg at a time. I had to squeeze through the mini canyons with rock up to my hips. Long pants would have helped here, as my calves were heavily scratched by the end.
Trenches and Petroglyphs
But the hardship of the Tsankawi trail is easy to overlook for the uniqueness of the landscape. Along this narrow, difficult path, you’ll find many cave dwellings that you can enter and you’ll see dozens of petroglyphs carved into the stone around them.
Keep going and eventually, you’ll make your way back around to the beginning of the trail again. Follow the instructions here, or just follow the signs at the park and you’ll have an easier time than I did. This hike is worth your time.
Tsankawi trail is a part of Bandelier National Monument, and you are required to pay the fee or display your park pass.