Explore Bandelier National Monument as a Natural Playground
I’m not sure at what age humans develop the skill to stand still and appreciate scenery, but based on a scientific survey of kids who live in my house, it’s not age seven. (On a trip to the Canadian Rockies, as my wife and I snapped photos of the relentlessly picturesque mountains, my son, Luke, investigated how quickly he could break his toy helicopter.) Luke expects Mother Nature to be his playmate. At Bandelier National Monument, about an hour’s drive from Santa Fe, New Mexico, she is.
The visitor center offers kids a booklet of activities that, when completed, earn them a Junior Ranger patch. (You could call it a bribe. We prefer the term incentive.) The scavenger hunt sent us off on the Main Loop Trail in search of birds, trees, and bugs, as well as the feature that sets Bandelier apart and makes it perfect for kids: cave dwellings.
Ladders of salvaged wood lead to rooms that the Pueblo people carved out of the cliffs here over 800 years ago. “I don’t want to go up, Daddy,” Luke said. “It’s too steep.”
“You’ve got this, buddy,” I said. “Just take it slow.”
There were no lines of impatient parents pushing their children to race up the ladder. (We saw no more than 20 people on the trail.) Luke could climb the rungs at his own pace. He paused in triumph at the top, then set off to wander the caves. While Mom and Dad squatted—“Watch out for your bald head, Daddy”—Luke could explore without even hunching.
After about 45 minutes, we were walking back toward the visitor center. We crossed a nearly dry creek by hopping hand in hand from one downed log to another and were back in time for lunch, before hunger, fatigue, or boredom could set in. It was a parent’s—and child’s—dream hike.
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Hiking in Los Alamos, NM
After a visit to Bandelier National Monument, where you can climb up ladders into ancient cave homes, you find yourself spotting yet more cave homes all along the walls of canyons in the area. This photo, taken in Lower Water Canyon, is typical of the cavates used by the ancient Puebloan people who lived in northern New Mexico over 800 years ago. The scooped-out walls on either side of the triangular cave were once the back walls of homes. The trail in Water Canyon leads up to the top of a ridge over volcanic rock called tuff. In spite of its name, it's quite soft, and centuries of foot travel has caused the path to become a deep groove. From the ridge, the Sangre de Cristo mountain range and the Rio Grande Valley can be seen in a magnificent view.
Bandelier National Monument offers many hiking trails - from a few hours to a few days - as well as the opportunity to walk around ruins and climb into cliff dwellings and Kivas (round structures for spiritual rituals).