NM – Bandelier National Monument . . . backpacking a loop

I spent a day at Bandelier hiking the popular sightseeing trails (link to related post), but then it was time to delve deeper into the backcountry. First stop was the Visitor Center to obtain a free permit and information about water sources and trail conditions.

Camping is by permitted by zones. On trail signage makes it easy to ensure compliance.

Recent fires and flooding have created challenges.

My plan was a 30-mile loop beginning with the Frijoles Canyon Trail to Upper Crossing to Stone Lions Trail to Capulin Canyon Trail to West Alamo Rim Trail to Mid Alamo Trail. Some sections of this loop require navigation skills and long water carries. 

Wildflowers were an unexpected pleasure. 

Water is a precious resource and requires careful planning. I was grateful the Visitor Center provided known sources. Finding unreliable water is a bonus.

Getting in and out of canyons can be fun. This is the Ponderosa Trail, one I was glad to avoid this trip. 

Stone Lions Trail leads to this shrine. 

For years, Zuni Indians from westernmost New Mexico have traveled from Zuni to a place near the Rio Grande north of Cochiti Pueblo, on pilgrimages to a shrine 200 miles from their village. Even within the past 3 or 4 years, Zunis have camped in Frijoles Canyon, on their way to this same spot. The shrine that draws the Zunis so far from home is a pair of rough figures of mountain lions, rudely carved on an outcrop of tuff, crouching side by side with extended tails. Each is about 6 feet long and 2 feet high, rudely done and in poor condition, worn and disfigured and scarcely recognizable as a lion. Indeed, they have been mistaken for lizards. They are enclosed by a low wall of unshaped stones. This shrine is on the Potrero de las Vacas, one of the long, high, narrow mesas of the Pajarito Plateau, in the rough, little-travelled southern portion of Bandelier National Monument, west of Santa Fe. It is one of the very rare instances of full-size sculpture in aboriginal North America north of Southern Mexico.

The Zunis believe that the stone lions guard the entrance to a place called Shipapolima, the dwelling place of the important supernatural being called Poshaiyanki. Why these rude statues in north-central New Mexico are so important to the distant Zunis is unknown. The ideas of the local pueblos about the lions seem to be entirely different.

The stone lions are important to, and venerated by, the Cochiti Indians who live only about 10 miles to the south. But to the Cochiti they do not represent, as far as is known, an entrance to the dwelling place of a god. The Cochitis call them the “sacred place of Mokatc”. Mokatc is the panther-fetich of Cochiti hunters, and is one of the most important animals in Cochiti ritual and belief. The shrine of Mokatc was used as a place of sacred pilgrimage by a secret religious society of Cochiti, probably the hunters’ society. The stone lions apparently are still objects of veneration to the Cochitis; tracks of unshod horses have been seen there within the past two or three years. The lions probably were made by the ancestors of the Cochitis who occupied the nearby ruin of Yapashi, which was probably occupied from the 13th to the 16th century. Source: NPS

Look carefully and you might find offerings. Please don’t disturb the offerings and be respectful of the shrine which is still in use. 

There wasn’t much remaining to see at Yapashi Pueblo; however, I read that this site has not been excavated.

Although the general LNT philosophy is to leave everything in place, in some areas it’s become acceptable practice to display findings. 

Expect to walk a wash and follow cairns on the Capulin Canyon Trail. The washes splits into a few side canyons so be wary of wandering into the wrong one. There are long stretches where finding a flat safe campsite is challenging. The water in this creek does not continue all the way to the West Alamo Rim Trail so I recommend being alert to the terminus  (around mile 16 into this trip) as there won’t be any water until you drop back into Alamo Canyon 8-10 miles from this point. I needed enough water for the night, morning until I’d reach the next source.

By far the highlight of my trip was Painted Cave. 

I was told by an unofficial source the artwork is repainted regularly by the local indians as part of a ritual thus the reason they are in much better condition than most rock art I’ve seen. 

Once a large population inhabited this canyon of Capulin Creek, but most of the evidences of habitation have vanished except for the extensive pictographs on the weatherproof back wall of the Painted Cave. The arch of the cave is shallow but wide, so that a smooth area over 50 feet long was available to the artists; several dozen drawings in a variety of reds and blacks adorn this surface. It is probable that many generations of artists used the cave, since space finally ran out and later drawings are superimposed on their faded predecessors. Moreover, evidence of historic, or post-Spanish, artistry is here—a sketch of a conquistador on horseback, another of a mission church complete with cross. Source: NPS

Wind continued to be an issue. Finding an appropriate campsite was challenging. Gale force winds in an exposed area or near burned trees is not my idea of living to hike another day. I’m always grateful I can check the weather report on my InReach. Wind was due to decrease significantly in the evening, making my campsite selection a little less worrisome.

I was even able to get enough cell signal to confirm the forecast. 

From my campsite I had a great view of the Rio Grande River. 

Crossing the Alamo Canyon was my biggest challenge of this trip. The switchbacks were technical and relentless. It took me 1.5 hours to descend into and out of this canyon.

But oh what a view. Look carefully in middle right of photo and you’ll see the switchback trail. 

The volcanic tuff in this area was an incredible geologic sight. Look at those formations! 

Gotta love the work that goes into trail building. 

Did I say steep? 

This section is shown as the dip around mile 26 or so on the graph below. 

I was so excited to reach trail again after hiking miles through the sandy wash, then navigating across the rim, and finally tackling the technical trail through the canyon. 

I liked finishing the trail looking down at the archaeological sites I’d visited a couple days previous. 

Hike Details:

  • Date(s) Hiked: April 16-18, 2018
  • Mileage (per Gaia): 30
  • Elevation Gain/Loss (per Gaia, tends to underreport): 4,004’/3,920′
  • Elevation Low/High (per Gaia): 5,353’/7,314
  • Trail Conditions:
    • Tree obstacles: some due to recent fire damage
    • Overgrowth: some including poison ivy
    • Signage: adequate on the maintained trails
    • Terrain: varied between smooth freeway to rocky to steps to lumpy
  • Navigation Skills: Minimal for all except Capulin and the Alamo Rim trails which I’d consider moderate
  • Water availability: Only two reliable sources but both run for quite a distance
  • Camping availability: Minimal! It was challenging to find appropriate camping especially in wind gust conditions
  • Solitude: High! Saw a group of 5 day hikers on day 1, a couple of backpackers on day 2, and no one on day 3
  • Bugs: A few gnats and mosquitoes; however, I was told ticks can be a problem
  • Wildlife: The rare, Albert’s squirrel, lots of lizards, a couple deer, old bear scat, a dead elk, cat prints
  • Precip: None, very dry
  • Temp: One night it dropped to 28F. Days were probably in the 50’s and 60’s.
  • LNT: No problems
  • Jan’s Cherry Picker Delight Scale: 3+ cherries (out of 5)


  • NPS maps, National Geographic maps and trail sign names do not match.
  • Be bear aware 
  • Be cat aware 
  • Lots of areas around Bandelier marked red indicating high security. You have to drive through a security checkpoint to reach Bandelier where they run your driver’s license. 



Thoughts? Questions? Comments? Broken Links? I'd love to hear from you!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s