Lower Frijoles Canyon


Frijoles Canyon is where the gorges get gorgeous; half hike and half secular sacrament. The tread is obvious and the navigation straightforward. Are you new to exploing the high country in New Mexico? This hike was made for you.

Driving Instructions:

  • Take Interstate-25 to exit 276 near Santa Fe and signed for NM-599S / Madrid
  • From South: after 0.3 miles, at end of ramp, go left onto NM-599N
  • From North: after 0.3 miles (having stayed to the right at a fork in the ramp) merge onto NM-599N
  • After 13.3 miles on NM-599N, at a fork, veer left onto an exit ramp signed for US-285/US-84 W Espanola
  • After 0.5 miles on the ramp merge onto US-285/US-84 W
  • After 13.5 miles on US-285 go right onto the NM-502/Los Alamos exit ramp
  • After 0.2 miles on the ramp, at a light, turn left onto Los Alamos Highway/NM-502. The exit ramp is forked near its end and you should bear right at the fork.
  • After 11.8 miles on NM-502 go right onto NM-4 ramp signed for White Rock/Bandelier Natl Monument
  • After 0.6 miles on ramp continue straight onto NM-4 W
  • After 11.5 miles on NM-4 turn left onto Bandelier Entrance Road. There is a brown Park Service sign saying “Bandelier National Monument Entrance.
  • After 3.1 miles on Entrance Road turn left at road signed for Cottonwood Picnic Area
  • After 250 feet on Cottonwood Picnic Area Road park at the trailhead.


Bandelier: Parking near Visitor Center

The Cottonwood Picnic Area has paved parking and picnic tables. Across the creek bed the Park Service runs a store, a cafe and a visitor’s center. Trash, water, and rest room services are available. The pandemic has closed the theatre and limited the hours for the store, visitor’s center and cafe, where masks are required. 

The driving instructions above lead you into the overflow parking, the best way to get directly on the trail. If you want to look over the ruins (and if there is space) you should stay Entrance Road for about 100 yards past the Cottonwood Picnic Area Road to get to the Park Service buildings. A paved trail to the ruins begins at these buildings. 

There are fees to enter Bandelier National Monument. The seven-day pass costs $25.00. The Park Service also honors numerous other passes, including military and lifetime passes. For up-to-date information go to the park’s website.

On this chilly, mid-week, mid-winter day there was no problem with parking. At some times of year you might have to park miles away and take a shuttle bus into the park. Signs along the road will alert you to this. Getting to the park early (say, around 7:00 am) might avoid this problem. 


  • lowest elevation: 6100
  • highest elevation: 6800
  • net elevation: 700 feet
  • distance: 5.5 miles (one way)

Hike Description:

The path is so well maintained and the canyon is so constricting that there is little opportunity for navigation errors. This hike, then, has little need for prose. The following is a infintesimal sample of what to expect.

Puebloan-modified tuff layer

First you must decide what you want to see. The ruins are fascinating and if that is a priority then find the paved trail behind the Park Service buildings and follow it to the Long House site (signed). The naturally occurring caves in the volcanic tuff were extensively modified by the Ancestral Puebloans, who fronted the caves with small, rock-walled rooms. It is a short but worthwhile exploration.

Icy approach to Alcove House

To get going on the Frijoles Canyon Trail follow the road in Cottonwood Picnic Area to where it ends at a paved turn-about. At the far end find the wide and elegantly maintained gravel trail. Heavy boards take you dry-footed at each crossing of the creek. As you head up-canyon study the eastern wall (to your right) and you can see some of the modified caves from the trail. One clear sign of human occupation are roof-beam holes, lines of parallel indentations in the Tuff that once supported roof beams. At 1.1 miles from the turn-about the trail arrives at ruins called The Alcove House. Ladders take you up to these rooms. In mid-winter you might find the display closed due to icy conditions. Here the wide and manicured trail changes into a more typical woods path, albeit an especially well-maintained one.

Hanging rock

At 1.8 miles from the turn-about the path crosses the last of the last of the bridges. The next few miles include numerous stream crossings on stepping stones. These are icy in midwinter. Pull on your microspikes. The slanting terrain has thrown the creek against the east wall of the canyon, leaving it perfectly sheer. Numerous “balance rocks” appear along side the trail. Backpacking? At 2.6 miles the trail drops steeply to the canyon bed and signs advise that camping is not permitted in this region. The canyon runs straighter here, so now both walls are sheer cliffs.

It can be hard to make much progress in this part of the canyon because your camera is constantly getting in the way. There is bird life, deer and elk to be seen. At around 4 miles you may notice the height of the canyon walls starting to drop. At 4.6 miles the trail rises and camping is once again allowed (for those who have permits). Just half a mile further this narrow and lush forest dramatically terminates . The trail opens to the devastation caused by the Las Conchas Fire of 2011. Valiant trail builders have dragged aside innumerable burned logs and kept the tread open. Head upstream. On this date I reached my turn-back time just a few tenths of a mile further. The canyon bed is especially wide and sunny here. A great place to soak up sunshine, have a peanut butter sandwich and plan future trips up on top of all those tall canyon walls. Return the way you came.

The late-afternoon shadow of the west rim darkens the east wall


If you are going during mild weather (spring or autumn) check the Bandelier National Monument website to see if the shuttle bus is needed to get into the park. The Park Service warns that you might be able to ride-share into the park, but limited cell-reception means that calling for a ride out of the park may not be possible.  If you intend to backpack then get camping permits before you go. During the pandemic this is done by phone. Currently you can call 505-672-3861 extension 0.

A trailside sign warns that poison ivy is found in the upper regions of the canyon. The trail is in such good shape that ordinary viligence will be enough to keep (most!) people safe from urushiol poisoning.

On a short, chilly day a 700 ml bottle of water was plenty. Summertime will change that! Filter any water taken from the stream. 

Numerous, unbridged stream-crossings characterize the trail. You will want footgear that will keep your feet dry. Some of the crossings have stepping stones and these are icy in winter. Non-slip devices are terrifically useful.

There is unmistakable evidence of flash flooding in the canyon. The Park Service recommends leaving the canyon before the afternoon during the monsoon. That would be a tragically short visit! Instead, plan to visit on a clear day outside of the rainy season.

The HikeArizona description warns that pets, open campfires and use of weapons is not allowed in the National Monument.

NewMexicoNomad has a terrific writeup of the human history side of the canyon.