Friday, September 26From Santa Fe to Bandelier National Monument is only about 45 miles, so we had another short driving day. We haven’t been here in quite a few years, but it has been a longtime favorite for hiking and scenery. We noticed as we got close that changes had occurred. Several miles before we arrived, we started seeing the Shuttle Only warning signs for getting into the canyon – that no cars were allowed in anymore. At 6 miles before the entrance was a big new visitor center, complete with a large concrete parking lot/RV park.
Talking with a volunteer inside, we learned about the flood of 2013. Because of a devastating fire that burned 75% of the upper canyon watershed, there was nothing to slow down and absorb the thunderstorm waters that were dumped on the area one afternoon. As a result, the rather diminutive Frijoles river that runs down the canyon to the Rio Grande, became a thundering torrent taking out much of the parking and picnicking areas that lined the stream around the visitor center. It also took out the bridges that led to those areas.We were dismayed, but not deterred. We also learned that it was still possible to drive in before 9 AM and 3 PM. Another option is to hike down to the canyon – about 700’ – from the Juniper campground on the canyon rim near the entrance to the park, then take the shuttle out. I like that option for times when we would stay for more than 2 days. We motored on to the campground and felt lucky to find a nice space to stay. There is water and a dump station and the sites are not too close together. There are quite a few sites in the 3 loops of spaces, but only a small number of larger level sites that would accommodate us. Most were already taken. This campground has usually been empty when we’ve been here before.
On Saturday, we loaded up the car with hiking gear and lunches and headed down to the canyon. It’s a short but scenic drive with a couple of turnouts to stop for views. Our goal was to hike the Main Loop trail that passes the cliff dwellings, then on to the Alcove House trail. We’ve done this hike many times, and always enjoy it. This portion of the trail was unaffected by the flood. The damage was really evident along the river trail up to the kiva. What was once a nice meandering shady tree-lined stream with lovely oak, elm and pine, was now a scoured muddy mess. There is so much stream damage and debris, I don’t think the park service will ever be able to clear it all out. Because of the long period the burn scar will take to repair itself, I don’t think they even plan on much in the way of repairs for quite some time. The area is now too prone to repeat floods. We hiked on to the Alcove Kiva, about another 1/2 mile up the canyon. To reach the kiva, you must climb a series on wood ladders up a steep cliff. Two of the ladders are quite long, but as long as you don’t look down, it’s really not scary. Upon reaching the top, we discovered even more changes. It used to be possible to climb down into the kiva. There really wasn’t much in there, but it made for a nice photograph of sun beaming into the space from the rooftop entrance. Not anymore. A sign warns about walking on the roof of the kiva. It is still a wonderful view from the alcove, so we sat and enjoyed the quiet of this special place.
After climbing down again, we though we’d continue up the canyon trail a while to see how the upper canyon faired during the flood. What we saw was not encouraging. In place of an pleasant meandering path, we now had to negotiate around huge tree snags – some as high as 10’. The path is overgrown in many places and now requires quite a few stream crossings and scrambling. Maybe at some point the park service will get around to repairing this as well, but I tend to doubt it.So our stay was a little disappointing. It is still very nice here, but options for hiking have been impacted. The Falls trail that goes from the visitor center down the canyon to the Rio Grande, has be halved by the flood. It used to pass two waterfalls, but now ends at Upper Falls. At about that point, the trails moved closer to the river, and so it was also scoured from existence. I’m sure we will return in the future, and it will be interesting to see if the park comes back or continues to suffer damage from future storms.
It’s off to Durango and Colorado now for us. We look forward to several weeks of fall color in the mountains of southwestern portion of the state.