Saturday, July 26, 2014

Bandelier National Monument: Falls Trail (Blog Hike #477)

Trail: Falls Trail
Hike Location: Bandelier National Monument
Geographic Location: southwest of White Rock, NM
Length: 3 miles
Difficulty: 5/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: July 2014
Overview: A canyon out-and-back to 80-foot Upper Falls.

Directions to the trailhead: For most people, the Frijoles Canyon portion of Bandelier National Monument, where this hike is located, is only accessible by a free shuttle bus.  The bus departs every 20 minutes from the White Rock Visitor Center.  The Visitor Center is located on SR 4 in downtown White Rock; the address is 115 New Mexico State Road 4.

The hike: One thing leads to another.  The first people to enter Frijoles Canyon, the center of today’s Bandelier National Monument, came over 10,000 years ago as nomads following the game they were hunting.  Because Frijoles Creek was one of the few permanent water sources in the area and because the canyon’s soft rock walls were easily carved into house-like structures, the Ancestral Pueblo eventually chose to settle here around 500 B.C.  The canyon’s population peaked between 1400 and 1600 A.D. as improvements in irrigation allowed more farming on the canyon floor.
            In 1598, the Spanish arrived, and later Spanish settlers farmed and ranched in the canyon, forcing the Ancestral Pueblo people out.  The last Spanish family moved to more fertile land in 1883, and the canyon’s land reverted to public domain in 1893.  About that same time, Adolph Bandelier visited the canyon several times as a guest of the Pueblo Indians, and efforts began to preserve the canyon as a national park.  That effort bore fruit in 1916 with the establishment of Bandelier National Monument.
            The cause-effect narrative continues today.  In June 2011, the Las Conchas wildfire, the largest wildfire in New Mexico history, consumed nearly 75% of the monument, leaving exposed, bare ground.  Two months later, flash floods enhanced by extreme runoff from the bare ground swept through the canyon.  Thanks to a wall of sandbags that still remains today, the Visitor Center sustained only light damage, but the parking area and several trails sustained major damage.  The damaged parking area is the reason the monument is accessible almost exclusively by bus today.
            The archaeological sites explored on the next hike survived the flood relatively intact, but the Falls Trail described here did not.  Indeed, the Falls Trail used to explore the entire lower Frijoles Canyon all the way to the Rio Grande River, passing two waterfalls along the way.  Today the trail ends at the first waterfall.  The rest of the trail was washed out, and there are no plans to rebuild it.  The trail as currently configured still makes a nice if shorter hike.  Also, because most visitors hike only the Main Loop Trail described in the next hike, this hike offers decent solitude away from the crowds.
Falls Trail trailhead
            The trailhead for the Falls Trail is harder to find than it used to be.  From the front of the Visitor Center, walk along the right side of the parking lot to a wooden bridge that crosses Frijoles Creek.  This bridge is the park’s only remaining permanent bridge over the creek.  Cross the bridge, angle left, and walk down what remains of the washed-out portion of the parking area.  The trailhead sign for the Falls Trail is located at the end of the washed-out parking area.
            The dirt trail climbs slightly to reach an information board that sits in the sun just outside the shade of tall ponderosa pines.  About half of the Falls Trail passes through the shaded area along Frijoles Creek while the other half is exposed to the sun.  Also, weather changes quickly in the New Mexico mountains: I started this hike in a cool rain shower and finished it in bright, hot sunshine.  Make sure you wear a hat and sunscreen in the summer and come prepared for changing weather.
            The trail descends through the canyon on a gradual and then a more moderate grade.  Numbered posts correspond to a trail guide that is available at the Visitor Center for a small price.  Two types of rock are found in Frijoles Canyon: pink-colored and easily eroded tuff rock and harder black-colored basalt rock.  At the top of the steepest section of trail, you pass post #5, which marks a couple of large blocks of tuff called tent rocks.
Tent Rocks
            At the bottom of the hill, Frijoles Creek (or perhaps a nearly dry creekbed) comes into view on the left.  It is hard to believe a creek this small caused the damage in the 2011 flash floods, but such is the nature of desert waterways.  At 0.8 miles, you cross the creek on a pair of wooden planks.  The planks bent greatly under my substantial weight, but they got me across.
Plank crossing of Frijoles Creek
            Now on the east side of the creek, you soon see why the creek crossing was necessary: a large outcrop of tuff appears across the creek to your right.  The gradual descent continues as black basalt boulders appear beside the trail.  Large patches of scarlet trumpet grow along the trail here in season.
Scarlet trumpet
Just over 1 mile into the hike, you cross the creek again, this time with no bridge.  Both of these creek crossings used to have permanent bridges, but the flash floods ensured that such is no longer the case.  The trail climbs for a short distance to top a final hill, where a full view of the lower canyon opens up.  The Rio Grande River comes into view at the canyon’s mouth.
The final segment of trail clings to the hillside, which rises to the right and falls to the left.  At some points a vertical cliff nearly 100 feet high falls away to the left of the trail, so take care where you step.  After descending a single switchback, you arrive at the unsigned viewpoint for Upper Falls.  On my visit near the beginning of New Mexico’s monsoon season, the waterfall was more of a trickle, and I felt like renaming this trail the Drips Trail.  The sheer black basalt rock walls around the waterfall make a nice setting, as does the view further down the canyon.
Upper Falls
View down canyon
As mentioned earlier, the Falls Trail used to continue down the canyon all of the way to the Rio Grande River, but a sign indicates that the lower part of the trail is now closed, and a wooden barricade bars your way.  Thus, after viewing Upper Falls you must turn around and retrace your steps 1.5 miles to the Visitor Center to complete the hike.

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