View of the Tsankawi Ruins Trail, Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico

Tsankawi Ruins Trail: A Hidden Gem in Northern New Mexico

The Tsankawi Ruins Trail in New Mexico is a real gem. And that, my friends, is an understatement. This hike is technically part of Bandelier National Monument, but don’t bother trying to find it in the main section of Bandelier. This unique hike is located in a detached part of the park called Tsankawi (some 11 miles away from the park entrance), in a location that’s inconspicuous enough to make a lot of people zoom by and miss this treasure.

I’ll tell you WHY you need to put this one-of-a-kind New Mexico hike on your bucket list, and exactly WHERE to find it. Get ready to get excited!

Why Tsankawi?

Tsankawi is an undeveloped, largely unexcavated mesa top Ancestral Pueblo where you’ll see ancient ruins complete with genuine artifacts, and where a good portion of your hike will be spent on a centuries-old path made by the Ancestral Puebloans!

The Ancestral Pueblo village of Tsankawi

  • Between 1400s and late 1500s A.D., Tsankawi was home to the Ancestral Tewa Pueblo people. That’s Pueblo people that spoke TEWA. In contrast, the Ancestral Puebloans that lived in Frijoles Canyon, the main section of Bandelier National Monument, spoke KERES. Both Tewa and Keres people co-existed on the Pajarito Plateau. Apart from speaking different languages, their day-to-day lives actually weren’t all that different.
  • The population of Tsankawi is thought to have never exceeded 300-400 residents, but if you were to include the overall population including the south-facing cliff of the mesa and the surrounding areas, the numbers would have increased significantly.
  • By approximately 1600 A.D., Tsankawi was inexplicably abandoned, much like other pueblos in the area.
  • Today, Tsankawi may be unoccupied, but it is not forgotten. To this day it remains a sacred place to the descendants of the Tewa-speaking Pueblos. Please, tread with respect.

Tsankawi Ruins Trail – Bandelier National Monument

Type: Loop
Distance: 1.5 miles
Difficulty: Easy/Moderate
Trailhead: Tsankawi
Trail map: View map

Though this is a relatively easy hike without a significant elevation gain, it’s not for anyone with limited mobility. Some minor rock scrambling is involved here, areas with narrow footing, and a fair amount of uneven terrain. You’ll also need to climb two ladders on this trail (third ladder optional).

TSANKAWI WITH KIDS? You’ll encounter areas with steep drop-offs, and in some spots your kids may require assistance. Other than that, the Tsankawi Ruins Trail is suitable for children.

Narrow portion of the Tsankawi Ruins Trail in Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico.
Tsankawi Ruins Trail, Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico

The trail brings you to the remains of Tsankawi, an ancient pueblo, centered on a long narrow mesa.

Once you arrive at the village ruins, you may be a little unimpressed at first.

In its heyday, the Tsankawi Pueblo consisted of underground kivas and around 275 ground-floor rooms, each 1-2 stories high. The rooms were laid out in a circular shape, much like Tyuonyi on the Pueblo Loop Trail in Bandelier.

Sadly, what was once a bustling Ancestral Pueblo is now largely buried under a pile of rocks.

A rocky pile at Tsankawi.
What’s left of an ancient pueblo over 600 years old.

Besides a few wall remnants, mounds of rubble is all the eyes can see far and wide…

Still standing walls at the ancient village of Tsankawi, New Mexico.
Tsankawi – a glimpse into the past, left to peacefully crumble away.

One good look around though, and you’ll start noticing subtle signs of previous life. Pottery shards, obsidian flakes, some lining the trail, many piled on the rocks, placed by earlier visitors.

Imagine all that remains uncovered underneath the ground you walk on.

Take lots of pictures, but it goes without saying that you should not remove any artifacts from the site.

Pottery shards, scattered around on the ground among native grasses.
Ancient artifacts at Tsankawi, New Mexico
Pottery shards and obsidian chips at Tsankawi.
Pottery shards and obsidian chips
A piece of pottery found in Tsankawi, decorated with black glaze.
This pottery piece caught my eye… @Tsankawi Ruins Trail

Below the mesa-top village ruins, the trail passes by several cavates (cliff dwellings), some of which can be entered. They are less elaborate than those in Frijoles Canyon (the main section of Bandelier National Monument) but feel no less amazing. Points for the views, though. I think they had better views here at Tsankawi.

The cliff dwellings are linked by a network of pathways and staircases, many worn deep into the soft volcanic rock. These are actual paths formed by the Ancestral Puebloans going about their daily lives some hundreds of years ago. Imagine that!

The Tsankawi Ruins Trail follows one such path.

An ancient path in Tsankawi, worn a foot or two into the soft volcanic rock.
Following an ancient path on the Tsankawi Ruins Trail (more seen in the upper left corner). (Don’t mind the little acrobat in the seafoam shade of green that’s doing something you’re NOT supposed to be doing on the trail…)

Related: Best Hikes in Bandelier National Monument

Related: El Santuario de Chimayó – The Secret to Healing in New Mexico?

Tourism and modern hiking shoes cause further erosion of the path, so parts of the trail following the ancient path are now several feet deep (despite regular maintenance).

Shuffling our way through the deep narrow trenches was probably the most physically challenging part of the Tsankawi Ruins Trail. It looks easier than it actually is!

Deep narrow ancient path on the Tsankawi Ruins Trail, New Mexico.
This was a way out for the Ancestral Pueblo people of Tsankawi, now several feet deep.
The ancient path at Tsankawi, several feet deep.
The challenging ancient path on the Tsankawi Ruins Trail, New Mexico… almost finished!

Know before you go:

  • Fees apply (being part of a national monument). If you don’t have a park pass, you’ll be able to pay at the kiosk on site.
  • Don’t forget to pick up a trail guide at the trailhead. For only a small donation it will tell you about a number of place markers the Tsankawi Ruins Trail covers.
  • This is an exposed trail – time your hike well. Also, due to its temperament, you don’t want to be stuck on this hike in the dark or during a thunderstorm.
  • The Tsankawi Ruins Trail is a fairly lightly trafficked trail.
  • Numerous petroglyphs can be seen along the trail, made by the Ancestral Pueblo people and later on by Spanish explorers. Keep your eyes peeled – some are faint and barely visible, a few out of the way and easy to miss. (Guess who missed EVERY SINGLE ONE of them.)

Don’t get lost in Tsankawi

I’m being dead serious. The Tsankawi Ruins Trail is supposed to be a pretty straightforward and well defined trail. Yet, we got lost here.

TWICE.

Once right at the beginning, and then I don’t know how one gets lost at the top of a narrow mesa but we managed to. This was the first time ever that we had gotten lost on a trail in a US national park.

You have the option to tackle the loop clockwise or counter-clockwise. I would suggest going counter-clockwise, because that would have made things a lot easier for us. For example, for quite a while we couldn’t locate the ladder that brings you down from the mesa top, but we wouldn’t have run into this problem had we hiked in the opposite direction. SEE BELOW:

If you hike counter-clockwise, the trail dead ends right at the ladder (look towards the upper right-hand corner). There is no way you could lose the trail when going in this direction.

View of the Tsankawi Ruin Trail.
A long ladder at Tsankawi.
The ladder on the Tsankawi Ruins Trail that connect the mesa top with the lower level of the cliff.

Whereas if you go clockwise on the Tsankawi Ruins Trail like we did (which the trail suggests), this is what it looks like on the mesa top: (500 bucks if you can spot the ladder)

A mesa top portion of the Tsankawi Ruins Trail in Bandelier National Monument with lots of shrubs and small trees and an undefined trail.

It didn’t help that the mesa top trail suddenly disappeared, too. And all of a sudden it started to drizzle. And thunder began to rumble. And there is nowhere to hide up there.

This is where the ladder was hiding:

A hard-to-spot steep ladder down from the mesa top at Tsankawi.
You can barely see the ladder, even from up close and standing right at the edge of the cliff.

Directions to Tsankawi:

There are NO SIGNS on the road for Tsankawi from either direction. The only signs you’ll find are on the parking lot fence. (FYI: toilets are located just a few steps into the trail.)

Coming from Santa Fe (from the NORTH):

Turn from State Highway 502 to State Highway 4 (it only goes south). Less than ¼ of a mile later, you’ll see a long gravel parking lot on your left-hand side. If you pass a traffic light, you’ve gone too far.

Coming from Bandelier National Monument / White Rock:

Driving north on Highway 4, the trailhead is located right after you pass a traffic light at the junction with Jemez Road (I believe it’s the third traffic light from Bandelier National Monument). There will be a long pull-out on the right side of the highway. If you get all the way to State Highway 502, you’ve already passed Tsankawi.

View of the Tsankawi Ruins Trail. Text overlay - The one-of-a-kind Tsankawi, Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico.

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4 Comments

  1. What time of year were you in New Mexico? We are going in the middle of April. From what I have read it would not be as warm as when you were there.

    1. Hi Sandy! It would depend on which areas of New Mexico you want to visit. For Bandelier National Monument specifically, there might be snow during the month of April. Have you checked the park’s website? Here is what they have to say about April. Hope that helps and that you have a wonderful trip no matter what the weather ends up being like! 🙂

  2. We’re heading to Santa Fe next week and I was so interested to go there after your post. Super disappointed its close until fall 🙁

    1. Oh no that’s a bummer! 🙁 It seems they’ve postponed the original open date. They mention the need to re-route the path as well due to many social trails sprouting up – no wonder since it’s so easy to lose the trail in the first place if going clockwise. 😉 That might actually help, but also better signage would. Hope you have fun nonetheless, Tish, exploring other parts of the monument!

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