BANDELIER FROM ABOVE: THE FREY TRAIL

Looking down on the Tyuonyi ruins from the Frey Trail

Looking down on the Tyuonyi ruins from the Frey Trail

You would think, after all the hiking I’ve done around Santa Fe and northern New Mexico over the years, that I would have discovered this overlooked gem long ago. But it took a last-minute change of plans, leading me to an unpromising trailhead on the arid uplands of the Pajarito Plateau, to put me on its track.

On a recent Sunday, with splendid weather, I decided it was a perfect day for a drive to Bandelier National Monument and a walk along the Rito de Frijoles under the Ponderosas. Unsurprisingly, I was not the only person to have this idea, and while the drive to the park entrance was swift and uneventful, a little sign at the ranger’s booth let me know there would be at least a 20-minute wait in the canyon below, to find a place to park. This is extremely unusual. Plan B formed swiftly in my mind. I knew there was a little-used trail that leaves from the campground above Frijoles Canyon, called the Frey Trail, that winds its way to the canyon rim, but I’d never walked it. Now was an as good opportunity as any.

As I suspected, there was almost nobody parked at the trailhead. A dusty and unpromising path led off to the south:

The Frey Trail winding across the arid Pajarito Plateau

The Frey Trail winding across the arid Pajarito Plateau

Although the temperatures were mild today, the sunlight was intense, and I could imagine calling this the “Fry” Trail in June. But there were promising vistas above the pinyon and juniper:

The San Miguel Mountains and Boundary Peak from the Frey Trail

The San Miguel Mountains and Boundary Peak from the Frey Trail

It was certainly an easy walk. From time to time the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s was evident:

Old sign

Old sign

And then I reached the rim of Frijoles Canyon, and discovered what I’d been missing all these years:

Switchbacking down the walls of Frijoles Canyon

Switchbacking down the walls of Frijoles Canyon

Amazing views of the ruins on the floor of the canyon, which I’d only walked past before, opened up from a raven’s eye perspective:

Tyuonyi ruins from above

Tyuonyi ruins from above

I could survey the heart of the canyon from my perch:

Looking west into Frijoles Canyon from the Frey Trail

Looking west into Frijoles Canyon from the Frey Trail

And looking east

And looking east

Below me a few other hikers traversed the lower switchbacks, pausing along the monumental stonework built by the CCC to take in the view:

Switchbacks along the Frey Trail, descending into the heart of the park

Switchbacks along the Frey Trail, descending into the heart of the park

I walked down as far as that clump of Ponderosa pines you can see above, and had a light lunch in their shade, gazing happily out over the canyon floor and the visitors walking along the paved paths to the cliff dwellings. Afterward, I wound my way back up the switchbacks and walked back to my car, meeting no one else along the way. Which is remarkable in itself in such a popular place, on a beautiful weekend.

I can’t recommend this walk highly enough. It’s only about a mile and a half hike from the trailhead at the Amphitheater in Juniper Campground down to the ruins at the floor of the canyon, and the switchbacks have been carefully constructed to make the descent – or should I say, ascent – relatively painless. Perhaps there’s a reason for the unusual beauty of this trail. Up until 1934, this was the only way into Frijoles Canyon and its wonders. And that’s reason enough, in my mind, to make the walk and relive the adventures of those early travelers, seeing the canyon as they saw it, back when the first parks and monuments – America’s Best Idea – were being conceived.

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