Set high on a plateau, the village of Tsankawi was once home to prehistoric Pueblo people. In the 1400s, homes made from stone covered the mesa top and dwellings known as cavates were carved into the soft volcanic tuff of the mesa. In the valley below, the people grew beans, squash and corn and gathered water from a stream that may have run all year-round in the past.
Today, the site is part of the Bandelier National Monument in the Jemez Mountains, not far from Los Alamos National Laboratory. It is located about 12 miles away from the main loop trail and monument visitor center at Frijoles Canyon, but the style of dwellings are similar to the ruins seen there.
Tsankawi (pronounced sank-ah-WEE) means "village between two canyons at the clump of sharp round cacti" in the Tewa language. It is the ancestral home to the people of the nearby San Ildefonso Pueblo. Today at Tsankawi, ravens soar on the wind and the imprints of the past are still present in the petroglyphs on the cliff sides and the remains of pottery at the village site.
Hike to Tsankawi
A loop trail of a bit more than 1.5 miles brings you to the mesa top village site and back. The trailhead is located at an elevation of about 6,500 feet, and the climb up the cliff gains 200 feet. Although this is not a long hike, it does require climbing three ladders, following narrow stone passageways and walking along a rock shelf. This is a less well-known site, and fewer visitors are here than on the trails near the visitor center.
A trail guide is available for $1 at the trailhead and contains a map and helpful information about the trail. According to the guide, the juniper, piñon pine, rabbit bush, yucca, four-winged saltbush and mountain mahogany plants that are found here today were used for food, medicine, dyes, spices and tools by the ancient people. The landscape shows the impacts of recent drought and pine bark beetles although tree ring analysis provides evidence that such conditions also occurred in the past.
A picnic shelter and a place to pay the entry fee are near the trailhead. Bathroom facilities are found just beyond.
As you start up the trail, look for markers that will help keep you on the right track. Trail marker four is missing but you will see the ladder to the left. Climb up the ladder and you will be atop the first level of the cliff.
This plateau was formed by volcanic action of the nearby Jemez Mountains. Eruptions covered the area in a thick layer of volcanic ash.
As it was compacted, it formed the volcanic tuff. The land was carved by water and then by humans as they made shelters for themselves and cut paths across the soft rock as they crossed.
Following the trail up higher, you will see petroglyphs of human figures and spirals. Although some of the symbols are known to modern Native peoples, many of the meanings have been lost. The trail continues to climb up a second ladder to a narrow stone passage worn in the rock.
The trailheads east along the top of the plateau have views of the Jemez Mountains behind you and the Sangre de Cristos ahead. The ruin of the village is at the point of the plateau.
At its peak, the village was thought to contain about 275 ground-floor rooms with an additional story on top. The stone and adobe walls have fallen over time.
According to the trail guide, Bandelier contains thousands of documented cultural sites, but few have been excavated. Tsankawi has been left unexcavated at the request of the San Ildefonso Pueblo.
The homes surrounded a central plaza. Evidence remains of the pottery made here. Artifacts found in the village such as copper bells and seashells from the west coast of North American show that there was trade across a wide region.
It is thought that the village was located here due to the good defensive position it provided with a commanding view of the surrounding land. Signs show that low-walled reservoirs were built here to collect rainwater.
For the return trip, the loop trail descends on the south side of the mesa. The trail takes you by the cavates carved in the soft tuff. These caves had low masonry walls in front of them to capture and radiate heat into the living spaces.
In addition to the smooth walkways, there are frequent handholds and steps cut into the rock that formed the passageways people used to descend from the mesa top to the valley below to farm and collect water.
On the return loop, look up to the right to spot many petroglyphs, including some thought to be left by Spanish sheepherders during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The trail rejoins the rock shelf that took you to the mesa top and leads back to the trailhead.
Bandelier National Monument
The remains at Tsankawi are similar to the excavated village at Frijoles Canyon, known as Tyuonyi. Bandelier National Monument was established in 1916 and covers almost 34,000 acres. It is named for archeologist Adolph Bandelier, who first visited Frijoles Canyon in 1880, and was established through the efforts of archeologist Edgar Lee Hewett, who surveyed sites on the Pajarito Plateau in the 1890s.
Weather, wildlife, and respect
Now is a good time to visit Tsankawi before the weather gets too hot. The plateau is exposed to the elements, so be aware of the possibility for thunderstorms in the summer months. Remember to bring sunscreen, a hat and water.
Short-horned lizards live here and rattlesnakes may be present. Be aware of the wildlife, stay on the trails and use caution when entering cavates to avoid encounters with rattlesnakes.
Tsankawi is an important part of the cultural history of the San Ildefonso Pueblo people, so show respect by not taking any artifacts and staying on trails to preserve the site for the future.
From Taos Plaza, go south on Paseo del Pueblo (State Road 68) for 45 miles to Española. Turn right on Santa Clara Bridge Road and then left onto State Road 30. After 8.4 miles keep right to access State Road 502 toward Los Alamos. Turn onto State Road 4 toward Bandelier National Monument. After about two miles, just before the intersection with East Jemez Road, look for the trailhead parking lot to the left. Read the information about fees and passes in the picnic pavilion. No pets are allowed on the trails at Bandelier. After mid-May, access is provided by shuttle service.
For more information, visit nps.gov/band/index.htm or call (505) 672-3861 x517.
Cindy Brown is the author of the Taos Hiking Guide available at local retailers and at www.nighthwakpress.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.