“We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls ride over the river, we know not. Ah, well! we may conjecture many things.” John Wesley Powell
The canyons of the Southwest contain many of the most intriguing running routes I’ve encountered. Along the riparian canyon bottom, awaits an oasis of willows, mesquite, moss, and seeps as water echoes off red walls. Rivers snake through the hard rock, bringing fresh perspectives around each muddy bend. Yet just a short distance away, on the top rim of the canyon lies a landscape seemingly a continent away. Ponderosa pine, pinyon trees, and sagebrush fringe the dusty moon-like trails that clutch footprints from weeks gone by for future visitors to see. The opportunities for water are few, specially noted on the map with a big blue circle. Run long enough out here and you can visit the top of the canyon world and the bottom of the canyon world all in one run.
Our original plan was to make our first trip to New Mexico and I’d run the Jemez Mountain Run 15 mile race. Then the race sold out before I entered. Despite this, we stuck to our plan of going to Los Alamos, Santa Fe, and Taos with some smaller side trips in between. Thus we rolled our adventure van into Bandelier National Monument, just outside of Los Alamos, on a Friday afternoon in May. Despite being the busy season with the weather inviting, only half the campsites in the park were taken.
Bandelier has intrigued me since I read “The Lost Worlds of the Old Ones” by David Roberts. I had long heard of the ruins at the ultra popular Mesa Verde National Park but not some of the lesser popular areas like Bandelier, Chaco Canyon, Canyon de Chelly, and Hovenweep. These sounded like interesting areas where I could avoid huge crowds, see some ruins, and get some icing on the cake in the form of running some long and lonesome trails.
I tiptoed out of our van, quietly closing the door in slow motion with a hard shove at the end to make it latch. I wanted to let Amy get some rest and keep out 9 month old and 3 year old fast asleep. It was 7am, chilly with the sun rising fast. Two minutes out of the campground and I was on the Frey Trail on the northeast side of the canyon, my shadow looming over the canyon below in the early light.
A mile on the rim then I descended to the bottom of the canyon, the peace broken as I clanged on the makeshift bridge’s planks over the creek. On the other side I hit my one major ascent for the day, climbing up the soutwest side of the canyon. A mile later I had summited and started my trek on the Frijoles Canyon Rim Trail. From here it was 5 slightly uphill miles, moving north as I followed the path of the river below.
This trail along the mesa with Valle Caldera’s 11253 foot peak in the background was spectacular. The smooth winding narrow gravel path had 360 degree views that were only momentarily broken by a tree or tall schrub. Mull deer sprinted away, startled by my sudden presence. An old axiom of the National Park Service, that only 1% of park visitors stray more than a quarter mile from developed areas, seemed especially true here. My personal axiom that National Parks are overvisited while lesser parks like National Monuments undervisited also seemed especially true here. Combine those and I was now 8 miles into the run on a Sunday in the “busy season” and hadn’t seen another person. Desert grass grew up in the middle of the trail, too few feet to strike it away.
I met another trail, turned right, and started descending a steep switchbacking path with consequential dropoffs to the canyon floor below. Once at the bottom, the contrast was suddenly turned up with bright green leafs fluttering in the breeze that swept north along the bright red rock walls. The dull smell of Junipers was now replaced with bright flowery tones. For the first time, the trail disappeared into the creek, reappearing seven feet away on the other side. I leaped across, not knowing that there would be 50 more such crossings by the end that would defeat my jumping legs, leaving me stomping through the water.
I thought I’d descend the canyon faster than I ascended the mesa, but the trail was a touch more technical with a few more zags and little ups and downs. I slowed to 9 minute pace as I navigated the course and tried to take my eyes off the trail enough to take in the scenery. My favorite spot on the run came here as the canyon narrowed and I felt like I was running through a tunnel. The trail started smoothing out and at last some other people appeared, coming from the Visitors Center.
I was 15 miles deep now and not wanting to be too smashed for a day with two young boys, I finished at the Visitors Center and caught the bus back to the campground to shave off a couple of miles. Now, back in Colorado, I’m left already wanting to get back to Bandelier to explore some new trail running routes.
If you want to try this loop, my route is here on Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/1585240469