Dealing With And Enjoying Winter At Bandelier

New snow on the mesa tops and San Miguel Mountains at Bandelier. Courtesy/NPS

Snow falling on the canyon walls and Ponderosa Pines in Frijoles Canyon at Bandelier. Courtesy/NPS


With the steep entrance road, stairs among the cavates, and other potential hazards for visitors, sometimes on wintry days the Frijoles Canyon area of Bandelier National Monument around the Visitor Center just cannot avoid being closed to allow the staff to clear away the snow.

Just like school districts, Bandelier has to decide very early in the morning whether there must be a delay or closure, so the information can go out to employees and potential visitors. The objective is to make the decision by 6 a.m., but it often happens that the snow begins to fall after that, or unexpectedly becomes so intense that the snowplow can’t keep up with it. Then, changes may be necessary. 

For example, on a recent day the early decision was to open at 10 a.m., but by 8 a.m. it was obvious that 1 p.m. was much more realistic. Sometimes there is no choice but to close for the whole day.

When a time is set, or re-set, the information goes out as quickly as possible on the park Facebook page, Twitter, local media and “rawlers” on the local television stations. In addition, the recording on the Visitor Center phone 505.672.3861 x 517 is kept up to date for callers. Visitors may also find it worthwhile to keep an eye on weather websites set to the 87544 zip code for detailed weather forecasts for the area.  

Bandelier has less than four miles of road, but the park’s snowplow driver is sometimes hard put to keep them plowed and sanded. In the effort to protect drivers and also the native plants and wildlife, sand or cinders are used, but no salt. At the same time, the small snowplow clears the flat sections of the main  trail to the archeological sites, and staff members with shovels work the trail up the stairs to the cavates and Long House. 

Even if the Frijoles Canyon portion of the monument is closed for snow, visitors are welcome to use trails in other parts of the park. The Tsankawi section, north of White Rock, is one possibility, and offers beautiful views once the clouds move on by. Depending on road conditions and whether it is possible to pull off the road to park, hikers might try the Burnt Mesa trail, while the route up Cerro Grande, at over 9,000 feet, would be more challenging.

When there is enough snow, cross-country skiers or snowshoers could try the Bandelier ski trails near the Cerro Grande trailhead. Birdwatchers and photographers might enjoy any of these trails. In addition, birdwatchers might consider an easy walk around the loops in Juniper Campground to look for species that make their homes in the piñon-juniper woodland.

When the canyon is open, or when it is not, winter presents special conditions that require some preparation to enjoy safely. Warm clothes in layers, and warm shoes that don’t have slick soles, come to mind right away, along with water, food, sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat. For longer or more difficult trips, a map might be essential since many trails look different and are hard to find when covered with snow. Emergency supplies like matches, a knife, and a flashlight can sometimes make all the difference if plans go awry, and it is always a good idea to let someone know the planned route and expected time of return.

“We try very hard to be open as much as possible,” Bandelier Superintendent Jason Lott said. “But with our limited staff, it takes awhile to clear things off to the point where it is reasonably safe to enjoy the park. We are grateful to our visitors for their patience on snowy days when delays or closures become necessary. On those days we hope they will consider exploring some of the other areas of the park, and come back when the canyon has reopened.”

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