Another result of New Mexico’s hidden volcanic past, the Pajarito Plateau was formed 1.6 and 1.4 million years ago by two eruptions of the Valles Caldera. The plateau is home to New Mexico’s most famous national monument: Bandelier National Monument. If you are coming to Santa Fe and are hoping to take an unforgettable day trip, this place should be first on your list. Bandelier is one of the most naturally diverse and historically rich places to visit in New Mexico. Banelier’s elevation ranges from just above five thousand feet to just over ten thousand, resulting in a fantastic diversity of ecosystems that can be explored in a relatively small area. The volcanic geology of the plateau and proximity for the river created a perfect home for the Ancestral Pueblo People, and when you take your day trip in New Mexico, you will be able to walk amid their ruins. Bandelier’s eiversity lends itself to many different animal species as well. Mule deer, Abert’s squirrels, lizards, Tarantulas and a number of bird species are common sightings. It is extremely important to note that these animals call Bandelier home, and that many of them will retaliate if they feel threatened. Taking pictures is usually fine, but distance and discretion are advised when interacting with the wildlife.
First, a little history: over ten-thousand years ago, many nomadic hunter-gatherer cultures inhabited New Mexico, and they would often follow migrating game throughout the state. Paleoindians used the famous Clovis points (you can probably find one if you look hard enough) to hunt many large mammal species. The now extinct bison and mammoth species were the primary source of sustenance for these people. However, around three-thousand years ago, Ancestral Pueblo people began to build semi-permanent settlements due to the fact that they became so good at hunting, that many of these food sources were completely depleted. These first Archaic peoples were significantly less nomadic than the Paleoindians, however they did still gather and hunt in relation to the changing seasons and availability of vegetation and game. While pottery would not come along for quite some time, they became excellent basket weavers, and used their baskets to store the food they had collected. They continued to settle, and eventually began to carve their homes into the volcanic rock that the Plateau is comprised of. These settlements can still be visited today, which is a testament to the longevity of these simple structures.
With the increase in permanent structures came farming. Corn, beans and squash were the primary crops for the Ancestral Pueblo People, though they still continued to feed off of naturally occurring vegetation. Deer, rabbits, and squirrels were still hunted, but turkeys were domesticated. Dogs were also domesticated to aid with hunting and to provide companionship. This lifestyle remained more or less the same until the mid-1500’s when the Ancestral Pueblo people moved closer to the Rio Grande due to its natural advantages for farming and sustenance. The plateau could not sustain the growing population, and an extreme drought was the final straw.
President Woodrow Wilson signed legislation to turn Bandelier into a national monument. As part of the Civilian Conservation Corps, many workers build roads into the monument, a visitor center, a lodge, and miles of trails that would aid in exploration of these ancient lands. These structures are all still in heavy usage. During World War II, the entire park was closed in order to house the people who worked on building the first atomic bomb.
Visiting Bandelier truly allows you to walk through this history. You can go right into the caves that the Ancestral Pueblo people called home and see the artwork that they painted on the wall over a thousand years ago. You can walk in the same foot trails that they left after thousands of journeys along the same path. You can see the same wildlife that they depended on for so long, and it’s not a stretch of the imagination to truly understand their lifestyle. It was barren, yet beautiful, and it typifies ancient New Mexican culture like few other places can. My favorite thing about all of New Mexico is that it seems to be very much like a time machine. Depending on where you are, you can feel like you’re living like people did long ago, and Bandelier is perhaps the best example of this.