Alamo Canyon

Overview:

The Yapashi Ancestral Pueblo site lies on the Pajarito plateau, a gigantic mass of tuff that arose from eruptions of the Valles Caldera. The resulting territory is pretty flat save for erosion-carved, steep-sided canyons. These cleave the plateau into skinny protreros. It’s a southwestern archetype: sun-dominated by day, cold at night and fire swept in season. The narrow and pine-dominated canyons contrast with the broad and juniper-dominated mesas. The flat Pajarito plateau opens to the soaring Jemez mountains. There are easy ambles on the protreros and arduous ascents from the canyons. The Tyuonyi Ancestral Pueblo at the beginning includes reconstructions and is much visited.  The Yapashi Ancestral Pueblo at the end is untouched and utterly lonesome. Grab your gear and go.

This isn’t a good hike for very young hikers or those with strong acrophobia. You’ll need water.

Driving Directions:

  • From Interstate-25 (I-25) take exit 276 for NM-599 Santa Fe Relief Route (also signed for Madrid, Los Alamos, Espanola).
  • After 0.1 miles, at the end of the ramp, turn left onto NM-599
  • After 13.3 miles, at a fork, go left onto the ramp for US-84 N/US-285 N Espanola
  • After 0.5 miles merge onto US-84/US-285
  • After 13.5 miles take the exit for NM-502 West (signed for Los Alamos)
  • After 0.1 miles, at the end of the ramp, turn left onto NM-502
  • After 11.4 miles, at a fork, stay right to go onto NM-4 signed for Bandelier National Monument
  • After 12.7 miles (see note) turn left onto Entrance Road into Bandelier National Park.
  • After 3.0 miles (within sight of the Visitor Center parking) turn left onto a road signed for Cottonwood Picnic Area
  • After 0.2 miles, park at the trailhead (look for a trailhead sign near to a water fountain).

The National Monument is popular and there is limited parking in the bottom of Frijole Canyon. The Park has a shuttle service on NM-4 in White Rock, eight miles from the park’s entrance. The shuttle is currently running from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m and during those hours it’s mandatory. (There are a few exceptions, such as for backpackers). During off-shuttle hours you can drive straight to the park – an unusually reasonable parking solution!

Trailhead:

The mighty Camry facing down the southwest wall of Frijoles canyon.

Entrance to the park costs $20.00 per car. There are numerous allowances for people arriving by motorcycle, bike or in organized groups, as well as for the various passes (e.g. military or senior passes). See the park’s Basic Info page for up-to-date information. This is a super high-service trailhead: rest rooms, potable water and trash receptacles are available. There is a Visitor Center and a gift shop/snack bar as well.

Data:

  • lowest elevation: 5895 feet
  • highest elevation: 6670 feet
  • net elevation: 775 feet (but see note, below)
  • distance: 6.1 miles (one way)
  • maps: USGS Frijoles quadrangle

“Net elevation” is just the difference between the highest point and the lowest point. The total elevation gain is well over 3000 feet, due to repeated drops into several canyons.

Hike Description:

View from Frijoles Canyon rim to the Tyuonyi talus houses

From the trailhead ascend past the trail sign and come to a signed junction. To your right is a gently rising traverse up the southwestern wall of Frijoles Canyon. Straight ahead is a steep and heavily switch-backed ascent of the wall. For reasons unknown I chose the direct ascent. It has advantages, the view down to the large circular pueblo of Tyuonyi on the canyon floor is impressive. Against that you have to balance the wear on your reserves – there is much and more too see ahead of you.

Pinyon pine, juniper and the San Miguel Mountains

The direct ascent will bring you to a junction with the Frijoles Canyon Rim Trail, turn right to travel northwest. More than 60% of Bandelier National Monument was burned during the colossal Las Conchas fire in 2011. That fire did not seem to reach this area, which is grassy terrain,  populated with stands of single-seed juniper, pinyon pine and the occasional alligator juniper. The trail stays close to the rim until, at 1.3 miles from the trailhead, you come to a junction where the “gently ascending” tread from the canyon bottom comes in from your right. Turn left onto the Middle Alamo Trail (signed for Yapashi) and begin traversing the first mesa.

At rim of the first canyon on the Middle Alamo Trail

At 1.5 miles from the trailhead begin your first descent into a small canyon. Tall pines appear in this protected niche. The tread is an exemplar of trail construction. Heavy rocks have been lugged, levered and shoved into staircase formation. Trail workers dealt with steep and exposed bedrock by carving steps into the rock. In some spots the teams constructed huge rock walls so they could throw stair steps through the air! During the Great Depression the Civilian Conservation Corps was busy here at the park, it may be that the numerous rock steps and well-worn wooden water bars are their enduring work.

Terrain recovering from the Las Conchas fire with San Miguel Mountains on the horizon.

As you depart this canyon signs of fire become unmistakable. The burned snags have almost all toppled so there is relatively small danger of windfall on the hike. Much of the scorched earth has transformed into a pleasant grassland. Some of the waterways in the mesa-top bowls look like engineered canals – flooding has carved unnaturally straight stream beds going directly down the fall line. Looking west across this open terrain you will see the San Miguel mountains in the adjacent Dome Wilderness. Rabbit Hill is the small, bell-shaped outlier to the north (to your right, not in the photo above). At the south end is a long ridge reaching to the high, flat-topped summit of St. Peter’s Dome. In the center is the sharp, cone-shaped Boundary Peak. Just north of the Boundary Peak is a broad summit that may be Peralta Ridge.

Entrance to Lommis Canyon

Enjoy the easy rambling as you contour around a small height of land, Corral Hill. At 2.5 miles from the trailhead you will come to the rim of Lummis Canyon (signed). Drop 120 brisk feet into the canyon, turn downstream (to your left) for about 300 feet while watching for cairns, then enjoy a couple relatively long switchbacks up and out, back onto the mesa. Allow a moment of regret for having to leave those shady pines behind. The aligator juniper on the canyon rim do not provide much shade.  Be grateful for the persistent good work of the CCC – the trail is everywhere obvious and beautifully maintained.

Rock ribbed rollercoaster trail straight down to the bed of Alamo Canyon

Here the trail heads southwest and then south seeking to follow the contour of a broad, open and shallow bowl set into the plateau. A single stream runs gun-barrel straight down the center. At 3.6 miles come to the rim of Alamo Canyon and consider the etymology for the word “precipitous“. At another canyon in Arizona the Park Service is famous for reminding people that “down is optional, up is mandatory”. Is your party OK with a 500 foot drop  in less than a third of a mile and an equal rise on return? If so then you can launch yourself into the recent geological past. The dark upper layer of crumbly tuff is from the Valle Caldera’s most recent eruption, about 1.2 million years ago. The trail doesn’t switchback so much as writhe down this rock. Fortunately, every inch is covered with rock steps – trail building from the age of heroes. Eventually you will get down to the top of the white band of crumbly rock – tuff from an eruption 1.6 million years ago. You’re not done yet, but at least the eagles are mostly flying above you. Down, down, down and reach the tops of tall Ponderosa. Down a little more and, finally, canyon bottom!

Ponderosa bole in front of the southwest wall of Alamo Canyon

It is just plain gorgeous in the canyon. The pines offer shade. The numerous boulders offer generous seating. The bed is generally sandy, with occasional rocky stretches and there may be log jams to negotiate. Obsidian gleams darkly in the stream bed. The white tuff rises spectacularly on all sides. Have a bite to eat and get those photos taken. Also, take careful note of where the trail entered. On this date it was marked by a tall cairn, but you want to be sure to recognize the spot on return. Head downstream for 0.4 miles looking for the tread departing to the west (to your right). The departure point is on a clear path currently marked with cairns. It  leaves the sandy canyon bed to cross a grassy inside-bend and dives into brush. The angle is very shallow at first  but stay with it and the angle will increase dramatically in just 100 more feet.

Final approach to the Yapashi site along the rim of a small canyon.

Up you go. You will need to stop, often, but only because you need to take photographs. The stops have nothing to do with the sweat soaking your shirt or the way you seem to be panting for breath. Up past the ponderosa, above the white tuff, above the darker tuff, and seemingly by magic the rim appears. Easy. The Miguel Mountains come back into sight as the tread bends due west.

Yapashi ruins – possibly a pit house

There is one last, small canyon to traverse but as a now-experienced canyoneer the hundred foot drop and rise will seem barely worth noticing. On the far rim come to a signed junction with the West Alamo Trail. Turn northwest (to your right) where the Middle Alamo Trail follows the western rim of this last canyon. The trail rises steadily to a point 5.5 miles from the trailhead where it levels markedly. Here you will find the Yapashi Ancestral Pueblo. The site is a mosaic of frost-toppled stone walls and the ground is a matrix of tiny pot shards and obsidian flakes. This is a national treasure, so please take nothing but photos and leave nothing but footprints (and go as light on the footprints as you can).

Shrine of the Stone Lions

Push on just a little further, to the signed junction with the Stone Lions Trail at 6.1 miles from the trailhead. Here you will find an ancient building with partial walls that enclose two engraved boulders, much eroded. These are the trail’s namesake lions.  This is an active shrine, treat it as you would any place considered sacred.  There is no sign of water. Have a bite to eat and try to work out why those busy builders of the fourteenth century would chose this particular canyon rim for their work. Return the way you came. As you near the trailhead consider taking the gentler descent into Frijoles Canyon. It is kinder on the knees and deposits you in the canyon close to the Long House, which is worth exploring.

Recommendations:

Closeup of the impressive Tyuonyi circular pueblo

On a mild, late-June day I went through three liters and really wished I had more. The sun can be pretty ferocious here. Hat, sunscreen and high-SPF lip balm are in order and you may want to hike in a long-sleeved shirt. This hike might be best reserved for a cold season expedition.

A real concern is the potential for flash flooding. The Alamo Canyon has its headwaters on the very rim of Valle Caldera; room to develop a large head of water. The log jams in the canyon bottom testify to the terrific power of such floods. The Park Service counsels hikers not to try to cross high waters, which seems like good advice.

Despite the park’s well known popularity and despite the fact that this jaunt took place on a Saturday I did not see one other person from the time I left the bottom of Frijole Canyon. Be aware that the tread can be a lonely one.

Links:

The National Park Service site is a trove of information about Bandelier National Monument. In addition to current fees it has alerts, introductions to the Monument’s archeology and geology as well as services information.

The My Backyard site has a detailed trip report with numerous photos  that include exceptional detail for the Stone Lions site. The report is from 2008, before the Las Conchas fire. It is interesting to see how desert-like and open much of the terrain was even before the fire. Evidence of stress in the pines was noted but the dead trees were being attributed to drought and beetle infestation at that time.

Paul Mags has a 2014 report of a backpacking trip up Frijoles Canyon and the back by way of the Stone Lions and Yapashi sites. The photography is excellent and reveals the terrible damage done by the fire and subsequent flooding at the upper end of Frijoles Canyon.

 

 

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