When the peak summer temperatures are too much to bear in the lower elevations of New Mexico, that is the time to head for the mountains. There actually is an ancient pueblo tour that can be done in the high elevations of the Santa Fe National Forest and the summer temperatures certainly are pleasant. There are also a few pueblos in this region that have been continually occupied since ancient times and these places are still thriving in this present day. As can be imagined, those who seek native artisan crafts will find that the trading posts in this region have plenty to offer, so finding a prized memento of the journey to bring back home is easy to do.
A good way to start a Santa Fe loop ancient native heritage site tour is to follow U.S. 550 to New Mexico State Road 4. In this region, Highway 550 passes through the Zia, Jemez, Navajo and Jicarilla Apache territories and the majestic terrain is magnificent to see. After getting on State Road 4, the road starts going uphill into the pine forests of the lower Rocky Mountains and this is where the Jemez Pueblo Historic Site and Bandelier National Monument can be found.
An entire two week vacation can be spent touring State Road 4 from Highway 550 to Los Alamos, because there is so much to see and do. State Road 4 follows the Jemez River all the way uphill to the headwaters, so the scenery is as majestic as can be! Starting in San Ysidro, the Jemez National Recreation Area starts next door and there is literally one fly fishing picnic area area after another all the way uphill to Jemez Springs. The Santa Fe National Forest Recreation Areas offer many hiking trails, a few good pine forest campgrounds and opportunities for participating in extreme sports, like rock climbing. In fact there were nearly a hundred cars parked at one of the main rock climbing areas for a big organized event when I passed through, so this part of the National Forest definitely is place for avid climbers to keep in mind.
After passing through Jemez Springs, it is all high elevation pine forests till arriving at the Valle Caldera Wilderness on top of the mountain. This ancient super volcano blew its top way back in ancient times and a massive amount of volcanic ash smothered the entire region. The result was a thick layer of volcanic ash and in some places it is hundreds of feet deep. As the ash hardened, it became tuff, which is soft enough to easily erode over eons of time. The eroded volcanic tuff played an integral part in the history of the ancient cliff dwellings in Bandelier, so touring Valle Caldera prior to arrival at Bandelier National Monument is highly suggested.
The first point of interest at Bandelier National Monument is the Frijoles Canyon Scenic Overlook. Frijoles Canyon is where the ancient volcanic tuff cave cliff dwellings are located and there is a classic “D” shaped ancient great house pueblo in this big canyon. The views from the scenic overlook will reveal how the unique geology of this area made the cliff dwellings possible. Apparently, the Valle Caldera volcanic ash landed only on one side of the canyon and it piled up till it was several hundred feet thick. The other side of the canyon looks like forested natural mountain terrain, while the massive soft volcanic tuff cliff towers over the creek. This all can be seen from the Frijoles Canyon Scenic Overlook, so be sure to check this spot out before passing through the park entrance gates!
There are two things to be aware of when planning a Bandelier National Monument visit. Firstly, this is a park that only accepts bank cards or credit cards and there are no cash transactions. Secondly, during the summer season this park has limited vehicular access from 9:00AM till 3:00PM. The only way to get to the visitors center and the canyon floor trailhead is to park the car next to the White Rock Visitors Center or the Juniper Campground and hop onto the park shuttle bus. There are exceptions to this rule for disabled guests and more, so be sure to visit the Bandelier National Monument website to get all the details.
Taking the time to check out the Frijoles Canyon Scenic Overlook is a good way to become familiar with the Bandelier National Monument terrain. This is a nice cool place to visit during the summer season and the camping in this aromatic pine forest simply cannot be beat!
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