Descending into a canyon in Bandelier National Monument

In spite of having a week off with splendid weather – except for today with its blowing dust – I chose to do spring cleaning and intensive yard work instead of hiking, and consequently I don’t have an up-to-the-minute entry to make. But a glance into the archives reminds me that it was almost exactly this time last year that I made a unique hike at Bandelier National Monument, west of Santa Fe, and that reminded me of an earlier, more challenging hike I made a couple of years ago in the backcountry of Bandelier, to the intriguing Stone Lions Shrine.

Bandelier National Monument preserves hundreds of archeological sites within its boundaries, and while some of them are accessible from paths in Frijoles Canyon, where there is automobile access and easy trails, by far the bulk of them are hidden deep within the park, guarded by distance, arid plateaus, and steep walled canyons that repeat themselves with exhausting regularity.  Right in the middle of the park is one with a name that just calls out to you to investigate: the Stone Lions Shrine at the edge of the Yapashi Pueblo Ruins. You can live out here for years, however, before you muster up the time and energy to make the trek.

Event map in the nature journal of Scott J covering the hike from the south

This site perches on a plateau of volcanic tuff between Alamo Canyon on the north, and Capulin Canyon on the south. If you choose to hike from the Visitors Center in Frijoles Canyon, you face a 13 mile round-trip up the wall of Frijoles Canyon, over a plateau, and then up and down Alamo Canyon, to reach the shrine. If you choose – like we did – to make the difficult backcountry drive to a high trailhead in the Dome Wilderness, southwest of the park, you get to enjoy an 11 mile round-trip with a descent and ascent of Capulin Canyon to reach the shrine, and you have a major uphill grind to get back to your car, just when you least appreciate it. Either way is a major undertaking for a day hike.

The San Miguel Mountains and Boundary Peak where our hike began

You can see, in the photograph above, the sharp spire of Boundary Peak which marks the southwestern edge of Bandelier National Monument. Our hike skirted down behind the ridge that is capped by this peak. The “level” areas in the foreground mark the top of the Pajarito Plateau, which is riven by the canyons I mentioned earlier, among others.

A hike like this is always filled with adventure. My journal notes “first hail”, and, along the walls of Capulin Canyon, “shelter from second hail”, and also, “bobcat tracks”, so you get the idea. There is splendid natural detail along the way:

An elk antler bleaching against volcanic tuff

Eventually you reach your goal, shortly after the intersection of the two trails coming from the north and south:

The Stone Lions Shrine, enclosed in a circle of stones

This is a place still important to the modern Puebloan people, so it is important to keep this in mind as you investigate the site. You’ll want to take up the same attitude you might, say, having a look inside the St. Francis Basilica downtown in Santa Fe.

The stone carvings of two mountain lions are unique in Bandelier:

The Stone Lions

Did they guard the nearby Yapashi Pueblo? No one knows. You are likely to see evidence of modern ceremony near the Lions, so please treat the circle as the Shrine that it is.

Not far from the Shrine are the sprawling and undisturbed ruins of Yapashi Pueblo, which you’ll want to see. Artifacts litter the ground; the caver’s motto of “take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints” applies here.

A page from my journal

You’ll find plenty of beautiful polychrome pottery fragments scattered everywhere.

After having a look around, and a big drink of water (of which you need to bring plenty), you’ll now face the return trip back to whichever trailhead you picked. I recall this as a very long day.

If you are making a short visit to Santa Fe, it’s unlikely that you’ll have the time or resources to make this hike. But there’s no reason to leave out a visit to Frijoles Canyon at Bandelier, which is an easy and beautiful hour’s drive west of town. The 1930’s Visitor’s Center, built by the Civilian Conservation Corp with remarkable sensitivity to the spirit of the Monument, has been renovated, and there are easy trails from there to pueblo ruins, cliff dwellings, and a restored kiva reachable with the aid of 140 feet of ladders. So please be sure to include Bandelier on your visit out our way!