Rock face with small caves and bushes
Culture & tradition,  Landscape,  Monday walks,  New Mexico

In the footsteps of the Anasazi: Tsankawi

One reason for our planning to spend several days in Santa Fe on our New Mexico road trip was to visit nearby Bandelier National Monument. I had read a lot about it and knew it was just the sort of place we would enjoy visiting.

Then a few months before our visit a wildfire swept through the area, devastating over 146,000 acres, including about 60% of Bandelier. Almost all of the monument was closed to visitors. But fortunately for us one small part remained open, and it sounded like one of the most interesting: Tsankawi.

Bare tree and large rock

We had a memorable walk here which I’m sharing with Jo for a Monday Walk.


Getting to Tsankawi is impossible without a private vehicle. It lies twelve miles from the main section of Bandelier National Monument and isn’t the easiest place to find. We followed the detailed directions on the park’s website; but we still managed to overshoot the parking area and had to turn around.

There was an honour pay post in the little hut at the start of the trail, with a permit to be displayed in your car. The only two other cars parked there when we arrived didn’t appear to have bothered, perhaps feeling it was unnecessary with most of the monument closed, but we paid; they were going to need the funds to repair the fire’s damage, after all.

We should also have been able to buy a 50c leaflet describing the trail at the honour pay post, with about 20 numbered points along it. But they had all gone, apart from a slightly tatty one which could be borrowed for free and returned to the leaflet holder after the walk. We took this, and were very pleased to have done so; it was very informative and also helped to keep us on the right path at one point where it seemed to fork.

Wide landscape view
The view back soon after we started the walk
On the trail

Armed with this leaflet we set out. The trail is advertised as being 1.5 miles in length, although it seemed a little longer than this to us. It is also advertised as easy, but that is a relative term. While it isn’t strenuous I did find a few parts tricky going; mainly because you are, quite literally, walking in the footsteps of the ancient inhabitants of this land, in the deep grooves worn in the rocks over the centuries. In places that path is worn very deep (as much as 30 or more centimetres) and is only one foot wide, by which I mean the width of your foot, not the measurement! You have to put one foot directly in front of the other, and lift each one high to clear the side ‘wall’ of the path.

Rocky landscape and bare tree
Rocky terrain

But if this trail demands any sort of effort, it is a worthwhile one; the views and the sense of history amply repay you for taking the trouble to walk where the ancients once walked. And remember; they would have done so in sandals, or even with bare feet, and I am certain would have been far more sure-footed than any of us, even the best of walkers, on this rocky trail.

The first part of the trail led up the side of the mesa, with a ladder at one point.

Ladder leaning against rock face
The only way is up!
Rocky cliff with worn holes
Some of the original footholds

The leaflet pointed out the location of the first of several petroglyphs.

Carvings on rock
The mesa top

We then followed the well-worn path of the ancient inhabitants of this land up to the mesa top. From here we had an almost 360 degree view of the surrounding landscape, including several mountain ranges. To the west lie the Jemez Mountains, with Los Alamos at their foot. To the east are the Sangre de Cristo Mountains (named for the Blood of Christ) and the Rio Grande Valley. About 70 miles south are the Sandia Mountains, which dominate the skyline above Albuquerque.

View across dry landscape to distant mountains
Looking west towards the Jemez Mountains and Los Alamos

Here the ancient Pueblo Indians (sometimes known as the Anasazi) built their village or pueblo: Tsankawi. They lived on the mesa top from some time in the 15th century until towards the end of the 16th. It is thought that the village may have been abandoned due to a severe drought in the region. The pueblo at San Ildefonso, eight miles away, have the tradition that their ancestors once lived at Tsankawi; while other pueblos also claim ancestral links.

Panorama of scrubby landscape
On the mesa top near the remains of Tsankawi
The village

The village was built out of tuff stone plastered inside and out with mud. It was roughly rectangular in shape with about 350 rooms and an enclosed central courtyard or plaza. Today almost nothing visible remains, and there has been no archaeological excavation. Consultation with San Ildefonso Pueblo has determined that the people prefer that the homes and belongings of their ancestors remain untouched.

Using new technology, a variety of information can be gathered from an archaeological site without ever uncovering it. That means however that to the uninitiated there seems to be little here; although the imaginative can discern the shape of the plaza as a clearing in the scrubby bushes that grow here. To imagine it properly though, it helps to have visited one of the still-inhabited pueblos in the area. We were glad we had been to Acoma a couple of days previously. We could imagine how the village would have been a hive of activity: women cooking or grinding corn, or maybe making pottery; men carving tools from flint or skinning animals; children playing, dogs darting underfoot and so on.

Panorama with two people on a narrow path
Starting the descent from the mesa top – you can see the only other two people we encountered here on the right

The people who lived in these houses would have descended each day to the valley floor below to farm their crops, following the same well-worn trails that brought us up here. On the way they would have passed the cavates where some of their fellow villagers lived; and that is where the trail now took us.


We had seen the cavates dotted along the face of the mesa quite early in our walk; but the trail at first had led us away from these to climb up to the village above. It is only when we descended from there that we got a close look at the other places that the ancients called home.

Rocky cliff with a ladder leaning on it
Looking back at our descent route; you can see the ancient footholds next to the ladder and (bottom left) the narrowness of the path carved into the rocks
View out of a narrow cave entrance
Looking out from one of the cavates

The inhabitants dug these caves out of the soft rock, extending the walls where needed with stones and mortar, and adding timber roofs. These have of course long since disappeared, and the caves that remain look almost natural rather than man-made. But if you peer inside (there are no restrictions on access other than your own capacity to reach them) you will see that the ceilings and walls of some are blackened by the smoke of long-extinguished fires; evidence of the human impact on this apparently natural environment. If you ignore the footprints of modern-day footwear, this is pretty much the view an ancient Pueblo resident would have had.

It’s important to take care when exploring the caves not to touch any walls; even light contact can cause damage. And of course you must never remove anything from a site as historic as this, nor from any national park or monument.


A few of the caves apparently have traces of paintings or petroglyphs inside, but we didn’t find any. However we did spot some at several points along the trail. Many have been damaged by exposure to the elements over the centuries, and no doubt by exposure to people too.

The trail leaflet explained more about them:

‘Today through consultation with San Ildefonso Pueblo descendants, we know that these marks upon the rocks have deeper meanings than mere art. They may someday even be classified as a written language. The meanings of some petroglyphs are known to many present-day Pueblo people. The exact significance of others may have been lost through time.’


But not every petroglyph here was carved by the ancestral Pueblo people who once inhabited Tsankawi; some are later additions created by Spanish settlers. Their shepherds kept their herds in small pens built under the rock outcroppings here; they are thought to have carved some of the shapes and symbols, such as arrows, during Colonial times. But just because the Spanish shepherds did so, there is of course absolutely no excuse for any of us to try to add to these carvings.

Bare tree in rocky landscape
On the way down
The return leg

Towards the end of our walk, as we were on the final stretch back towards the parking lot (but with still maybe half a mile or so to go), dark clouds started to gather to the east of us, behind our backs; they were clearly moving faster than we were, especially as we kept stopping to take photos. We remembered then the warnings we’d read about the dangers of being caught out in this exposed rocky landscape during a storm; so we quickened our pace to ensure we were safely back at the car before the clouds came directly overhead.

View of dry landscape from rocky escarpment
Dark clouds on the horizon

In the event, no storm materialised, but we thought it better to be safe than sorry in this unforgiving environment. So we drove away from Tsankawi towards a very different indoor New Mexico ‘attraction’. But that’s a story I told already, in my very first blog post, Meeting Leo.

I visited New Mexico in 2011


  • SoyBend

    That looks like a great place to take pictures, Sarah. Love your tree photos. New Mexico is once again on fire. Sorry for what will be lost.

  • Annie Berger

    I can hardly believe you so eloquently captured, 11 years later, your visit to such a special spot in New Mexico! Weren’t you lucky that a section of the national monument was open when the rest was closed from the fire? Not sure if I would feel comfortable walking on that narrow path but perhaps I would have been ok doing it 11 years ago!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I am sure I was happier with that path 11 years ago than I would be now, but I hope I would still make the effort – it’s worth it! As to capturing the visit, I confess I ‘cheated’, as with so many of my posts here about longer ago trips. I’d already documented this in a review for Virtual Tourist, written at the time, and when that site closed our New Mexico road trip was one of those I wrote up for TravellersPoint, converting my reviews to a more blog-appropriate style. That was in 2017, so ‘only’ six years after the trip. This post is largely a copy of what I wrote then but with re-edited and higher resolution photos 😉

  • photobyjohnbo

    Your post came at an opportune time, Sarah! We plan a week-long family visit to New Mexico in late June. Bandolier and the nearby Los Alamos National Laboratory are on our list of places to visit while we are there. You’ve given me an idea of what to expect there.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      You’re going to love New Mexico! I’m not sure if the main part of Bandelier is like this section as we weren’t able to go there unfortunately. I’ll be interested to see anything you post from there, or indeed anywhere on your trip.

  • rosalieann37

    Have you been to Mesa Verde? Our family was there on a trip across the US by car) and the ranger showed us how the hand and footholds were positioned so that if you didn’t know the correct foot to start with (and it was done to be deceptive), you would get to the top and be on the wrong foot. It would keep enemies or stangers from accessing the living areas.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      No we’ve not been there, or at least not yet – it’s somewhere I’ve always wanted to fit into a road trip one day! That sounds fascinating. I haven’t read that was the case here but I guess it could have been.

  • wetanddustyroads

    Wow, it must have been amazing … I love to walk where the ancients once walked. But I would rather take the ladder before I would have tried the original footholds! Love the views and petroglyphs … what a beautiful trail packed with history!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Gosh no, there’s no way you would want to use those ancient footholds, even if it were permitted! But the ladders although rustic were strong and the trail rewarded us with history and views as you say 🙂

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes – I find it fascinating to think of the hands that carved them so many centuries ago. They are long gone but their marks are still here 🙂

  • sustainabilitea

    I haven’t been to Santa Fe since I was a child and would love to go again. In fact, while driving through New Mexico on our way to and from Wyoming last summer, my husband remarked on the beauty of the state, so I know he’ll be up for more exploring once he doesn’t have to work so much. This is exactly the sort of place I’d love to visit. The last photo of the clouds is just wonderful.


  • Ju-Lyn

    I fell in love with Santa Fe years ago when I first visited (and always meant to return, but never had the chance to) but did not venture out far enough to capture these stunning sights. I particularly love the stark lines of tree against sky – it illicits a feeling of immensity and aloneness in the spaces & silence.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Those trees were amazing from a photographic point of view and their bareness echoes the starkness of the landscape. I loved Santa Fe too, although I found it perhaps a little too self-consciously arty. The food there was fantastic, as were some of the smaller galleries!

  • rkrontheroad

    This is a spot I haven’t visited in New Mexico, glad to go there with you. Fascinating history, well preserved. One can imagine the feet in those footholds and scampering up the ladders. I know San Ildefonso from their notable black pottery.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, it’s those footholds, and the worn narrow path, that bring the place to life 🙂 We didn’t come across San Ildefonso pottery but I did buy a very small piece of the distinctive pottery in Acoma

  • Gradmama2011

    Gorgeous, Sarah. Back in the day (1963 to be exact,) we lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico. We had three children by then. I recall standing at the kitchen sink when the radio interrupted with the announcement that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. I liked Albuquerque, but we didn’t live there long. We were on our way back to Ohio (our home pre-army years) from our glorious years in Arizona. The Sandia Mountains loom over the city.; as I read your post I wondered if you had written about the Sandias.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      We did visit Albuquerque on this trip, although only for one night. I really liked the city and the mountains were a lovely backdrop. We drove up through them after leaving Albuquerque and there is a post about that drive I’ve been meaning to write for ages but not yet got around to. One day!

      • Gradmama2011

        I need to get myself in gear and do some posts on some of my adventures. Most are on CDs, but others are still in slide form. Only very recent photography is in digital form. I had forgotten, my last computer that crashed a month or so ago had a faulty disc drive. I hope my new one is good. (fingers-crossed)

  • restlessjo

    The landscape couldn’t be more different than the back streets of Tavira, Sarah! This is a life that neither you nor I could easily imagine living, but it is fascinating to visit the past. We’d have had to be more nimble footed back then. Thanks a lot for sharing!

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