Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Alcove House

Kiva and cavete at the Alcove House
2.4 miles round trip, 250 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate, but ladders may be challenging for those with a fear of heights.
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Bandelier National Monument entrance fee required

Between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries, Ancestral Pueblo peoples inhabited New Mexico's Frijoles Canyon, building an enclosed stone village, planting crops, and carving cave houses out of the canyon's walls of volcanic tuff. In 1492, as Europeans initiated colonization of the Americas, this canyon carved into the Pajarito Plateau, high above the Rio Grande, was home to perhaps as many as a thousand people. By the time Spanish conquistadors arrived at the foot of the Jemez Mountains, the people of this canyon had abandoned their village, settling into their current homes in the valley of the Rio Grande. This cultural landscape is today preserved in Bandelier National Monument; many of the remarkable structures in Frijoles Canyon can be seen along this short hike to the Alcove House, a former cliff dwelling built high up the canyon's walls. Although not lengthy, this trail has more than its fair share of challenges: the approach to the alcove requires climbing up 140 feet of ladders, making this hike inappropriate for those with a fear of heights.

Bandelier National Monument is about an hour out of Santa Fe and less than half an hour from Los Alamos; in fact, it's close enough to Los Alamos that scientists working on the Manhattan Project were housed in some of the park's visitor facilities during the second World War. During my visit, I drove up from Santa Fe, taking US 285 north to Pojoaque, following New Mexico Highway 502 west across the Rio Grande and up the Pajarito Plateau to a junction with New Mexico Highway 4, and then following Highway 4 south past White Rock until I came upon a sign on the left hand side of the road for Bandelier National Monument; I turned left here and followed the road to its end at the visitor center at the bottom of Frijoles Canyon.

The hike described here is a loop of sorts- on the way out, it follows the eastern branch of the Main Loop Trail at Bandelier, which visits many significant archaeological sites, before joining the Frijoles Canyon Trail to Alcove House. On the way back, it's possble to retrace your steps, but I'll present an alternative route of finishing the Main Loop to return to the visitor center. The visitor center sells useful guides to the Main Loop Trail and often has a few copies for visitors to borrow as well.

I circled around the visitor center to start the Main Loop Trail, which I followed counterclockwise. Within a few hundred feet of the visitor center, the trail came to a big kiva, a large, circular structure used by the Ancestral Pueblo people for ceremonial purposes. This kiva is the largest of the many kivas found in the canyon; during the period of Ancestral Pueblo inhabitation in this valley, the kiva would have had a roof of wood and earth, with access through a ladder in the roof. The kiva has been excavated and partially reconstructed; its wall are made of the volcanic rock common to the Pajarito Plateau.

Great kiva in Frijoles Canyon
The paved trail headed up the canyon through land that would've been part of the farms of the Ancestral Puebloans who lived here. Even though the landscape near the Jemez Mountains is substantially wetter than that of other parts of New Mexico, such as Chaco Canyon, water was still scarce at Frijoles Canyon. Thus, the people of the canyon adapted, implementing grid gardens and spreading pumice, a volcanic rock that slowly releases water, throughout their fields. They harvested corn, beans, and squash- the Three Sisters- and stored dried food in the basement levels of their pueblos.

Past the big kiva, the next stop was the village of Tyuonyi. This stone village was built with masonry walls of volcanic rocks; the village was designed in a circular layout around a central plaza containing three smaller kivas. All that is left of Tyuonyi are the rooms of the ground floor, which make clear that the structure contained over 200 ground floor rooms; it's likely that the village was a few stories tall, considering the multistory architecture employed by the Pueblo peoples both before and after their residency in Frijoles Canyon, in places such as Chaco Canyon and modern Taos.

Excavated rooms at Tyuonyi
After leaving Tyuonyi, the trail came to a junction, with the left fork heading directly towards the Long House and the right fork climbing uphill to visit some of Bandelier's unique cavetes carved into volcanic tuff. I followed the right fork, making an ascent up the slopes at the base of the canyon. I found desert-like vegetation here, despite being in a canyon of pines and junipers where rain is a little more frequent than most other places in New Mexico.

Cacti along trail
Bandelier National Monument lies on the Pajarito Plateau, which is actually the east flank of Jemez Mountains. The Jemez Mountains are themselves centered around the massive Valles Caldera, a 14 mile wide circular valley created from the collapse of a supervolcano. The caldera formed in two massive eruptions of the Jemez Supervolcano over 1 million years ago, each time ejecting a volume of ash hundreds to thousands of time more than the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens. The consolidated ash from these eruptions formed the Bandelier tuff, the rock that underlies the Pajarito Plateau and that forms the walls of Frijoles Canyon. Tuff is, ironically, not super tough, which made it possible for the Ancestral Pueblo people of Frijoles Canyon to expand small holes in the rock until room-sized cave dwellings, which are known in Bandelier as cavetes.

The trail came visited many of these cavetes along the base of the north side of the canyon. A couple of these cavetes had ladders allowing visitors to climb up and explore; it's important not to enter any other cavetes to help preserve this unique archaeological site. When occupied in the earlier half of the second millenium, these cavetes were actually the back rooms of dwellings: masonry buildings were constructed in front of these cavetes, with the back of the buildings opening into the cavetes. Many cavetes exhibit a line of uniform holes about eight inches in diameter above their entrance: these are holes for vigas, the timber used to support the roofs of the residences.

Cavetes of the Pueblo people who inhabited Bandelier
From the elevated location of the cavetes, I looked back down to the bottom of the valley and could clearly see the layout of Tyuonyi. It was not difficult to imagine that just a few centuries earlier, the village was intact, standing perhaps three stories tall, bustling with the activities of its many hundreds of residents.

Continuing along the trail, I saw many more cavetes and passed by a reconstructed masonry house that would have served as the front room of one of the cavete apartments. A note in the trail guide from the visitor center noted that the reconstruction was likely inaccurate, as the residents of these dwellings would likely have entered from by descending ladders through doors in the roof rather than walking in through doors in the sides of the building. This preference for entrances on the roof might have been an adaption to prevent rodents from easily accessing storerooms within the dwellings.

The Talus House, just a few meters further on the trail, was the most fun to explore of all the Bandalier cavetes. Here, a ladder led up to a series of linked cavetes, each joined by passages carved into the tuff walls. The ceilings of the cavetes were blackened with smoke to cover the soft tuff and stabilize the rooms.

Passageway between cavetes in the Talus House
Past the Talus House, the trail began to descend back towards the valley floor; the last cavete of interest along this stretch of trail was the reconstructed cave kiva, a rounded cavete over 10 feet in diameter that likely served as a kiva in the past.

The trail returned to the valley floor, where it came to a fork: the trail to the left led back to Tyuonyi, while the trail to the right continued towards Long House. I took the right fork, which took me further up the canyon to the Long House.

Bandelier National Monument is named after Adolph Bandelier, a Swiss-American archaeologist who studied the Ancestral Pueblo dwellings of the Southwest extensively. Upon arriving in Frijoles Canyon, he proclaimed the cave dwellings of the area, including the extensive and well-preserved apartments at Long House, as "the grandest thing I ever saw."

Long House was indeed extraordinary. Consecutive cave dwellings and masonry rooms stretched for over two hundred meters along the base of the cliffs on the north side of the canyon. Vigas holes and windows were stacked one atop another along the canyon walls, providing firm evidence of multistory construction. Petroglyphs dotted the walls and the insides of the cavetes.

Windows, vigas holes, and ruins of rooms at the Long House
At the end of Long House, the trail returned back to the valley floor, crossed Frijoles Creek, and came to a junction with the Frijoles Canyon Trail, after somehow managing to pack so many extraordinary sights into just 0.7 miles. I took the right fork, which led towards Alcove House. The trail to Alcove House was no longer paved, but was a pleasant hike along a wide path through the fairly flat canyon bottom. The trail made multiple crossings of Frijoles Creek on wooden plank bridges. Along the way, I could spot even more cave dwellings arrayed along the foot of the canyon's north walls, further evidence of the extraordinary construction that had occurred nearly a thousand years ago in this canyon.

About half a mile after leaving the Main Loop Trail, the trail passed a bathroom and then crossed Frijoles Creek again at the foot of the canyon below Alcove House. Looking up the canyon's north walls, I spotted multiple alcove-like structures and one actual indentation into the tuff that housed Alcove House itself. From here, I could also see the many ladders leading up to the secluded dwelling.

View of Alcove House from the base of Frijoles Canyon
Soon after the stream crossing, I came to the spur trail for Alcove House, on the right side of the trail. Although the hike had been extremely easy up to this point, the final short stretch required an ascent up four sets of long ladders and a set of stairs hewn into the tuff cliffs. If you're comfortable with ladders you'll likely have no problem here, but if you rarely go up ladders or have a fear of heights you may find this part of the hike very uncomfortable. It's important to remember if you decide to go up that you'll have to come down as well.

Ladder ascent up Frijoles Canyon to the Alcove House
Climbing the ladders quickly brought me up to the overhanging rock of Alcove House. A deep indentation into the tuff here created a covered rock area that was likely ideal for building a dwelling, minus the whole climbing up the side of the canyon part. Alcove House's natural setting was spectacular, with views to the bottom of the canyon, across it, and up the canyon to the snowy Jemez Mountains. The dwellings here were actually quite small: there are two cavetes carved into the north wall of the alcove, each lined with vigas holes, which likely would've been the residences in the alcove; there was also a reconstructed kiva at the south end of the alcove. I had read online that it was once possible to enter this kiva, but a sign atop the kiva now indicates that entering is no longer allowed.

Alcove House
Hiking this trail early in the morning, I had the alcove to myself for nearly 15 minutes before any other visitors made their way up.

I returned along the trail on which I had came back to the junction with the Main Loop Trail. Here, instead of recrossing Frijoles Creek and heading back to the Long House, I followed the trail on the south bank of Frijoles Creek to the picnic area, then completed the loop by crossing a footbridge from the picnic area to return to the visitor center. Along the way, I saw a few Abert's squirrels, which have distinguishing tufted black ears. Returning to the visitor center, I browsed the exhibits, which explained the migration of the Ancestral Pueblo peoples first from their Four Corners homes of Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde to places such as Frijoles Canyon in the Jemez Mountains and then later from the landscape of Bandelier down to the valley of the Rio Grande. The people of the Cochiti and San Ildefonso Pueblos claim direct descent from the peoples who once lived in what is now Bandelier.

This short hike took me nearly 3 hours: there's quite a bit to take in and appreciate along the way. It's convinced me that a return trip to Bandelier is necessary to check out the unexcavated village of Yavapai and the pictographs at Painted Cave. It impressed upon me further- and surely it will do the same to you- the extraordinary achievements of the civilization of the Ancestral Puebloans.

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