Category Archives: Daytripping New Mexico

Bandelier Cliff Dwellings & Valles Caldera

Dwelling in the Cliffs — Our daytrip to Bandelier National Monument and Valles Caldera

In order to keep from moving up a weight class (or two), Team EatingNewMexico decided to take Labor Day weekend off from our culinary exploits and get in some much needed hiking. We chose to brave the crowds and drive to Bandelier National Monument, a beautiful, federally protected preserve about two hours north of Albuquerque. Bandelier is famous for the cliff dwellings, village ruins, petroglyphs, kivas, and other artifacts of the Ancestral Pueblo people, who occupied the area approximately 500-900 years ago.

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If you’ve been to Bandelier in the past, but it’s been a while, you should know that the rules have changed when it comes to driving and parking at the monument. Unless you’re an early bird (arriving before 9:00 a.m.) or a late-comer (arriving after 3:00 p.m.), you won’t be allowed to drive yourself to the park. Visitors arriving between 9:00 and 3:00 have to park in the town of White Rock and take the shuttle bus into Bandelier. White Rock is about 12 miles away from the park entrance, and the bus ride takes around 20-25 minutes.

The Visitor’s Center and shuttle bus terminal in White Rock were well marked and very easy to find. We arrived in White Rock around 10:30 AM, and in spite of the Labor Day crowds, there was ample parking available. The Visitor’s Center had a helpful and friendly staff, and clean restrooms. There was a shuttle leaving every 20 minutes, so we had plenty of time to hit the restroom, change into our hiking boots, and liberally apply sunscreen before we jumped on the bus.

Since it was Labor Day weekend, the park was crowded and the full-sized buses filled up to “standing room only” very quickly. Upon boarding the bus, the driver informed us that there would be two stops. The first stop would be at the Frey Trailhead / Juniper Campground, which would allow visitors to make a 1.5 mile hike to the Bandelier Visitor’s Center along a well-marked trail. The second stop would be at the Visitor’s Center, for those unwilling or unable to make the hike.

When we arrived at the Frey Trailhead, we expected a mass exodus from the extremely crowded bus; however, only three people chose to make the hike: me, Zia, and Zia’s eight year-old daughter. We thought that was a little odd, but at the same time enjoyed a bit of self-righteousness at being the only ones who dared to hike in rather than be bussed in…or did everyone else know something that we didn’t???

The Frey Trail

As it turns out, leaving the bus to hike in via the Frey Trail was a great idea. The trail is well marked and provides good, even footing. The only significant terrain is over the last half-mile, as the trail descends through a series of switchbacks into the valley floor where the Visitor’s Center and old Tyuonyi (Que-WEH-nee) Pueblo ruins are located. During the descent, we were rewarded with a beautiful view of the valley floor and the surrounding high ground. We felt very fortunate that we had this view and experience all to ourselves, as we were the sole hikers on the trail.

Looking down at Frijole Canyon
Looking down from Frey Trail on Frijoles Canyon and Tyuonyi (Que-weh-nee) Pueblo Ruins.

Bandelier Visitor’s Center

The hike in from the Frey Trailhead left us feeling a little hot and parched (we did pack along some water bottles, but we were ready for something a little colder, preferably something with bubbles poured over ice, like, preferably a Dr. Pepper). The Visitor’s Center at Bandelier offered us a short hiatus from the hot sun. There were restrooms, air conditioning, and a friendly staff on hand ready to answer our questions. We paid our park fee ($12 per car, or since we didn’t have a car, per “group of people that would fit in a car”) with a credit card, but in order to purchase a village map ($1), we needed cash. Neither of us had any cash, but the staff was happy to provide us with a “Loaner Map,” which we returned at the end of our visit.

Adjacent to the Visitor’s Center is a Gift Shop and Snack Bar. The snack bar offers an ok variety of pre- and post-hike fare. There are trail mixes, candy, chips, beverages (bottled and fountain), as well as some over-the-counter cooked foods like hot dogs! (They’re “Nathan’s” hot dogs, too. And yes, we shared one!) Even though we had packed along our own water and trail mixes for the hike, the Visitor’s Center Snack Bar was a nice respite from the heat, and it allowed us to recharge from the hike in.

Next, we set off on the Main Loop Trail, a paved 1.2-mile roundtrip route that leads to the Tyuonyi ruins, the cliff dwellings, the Long House, and eventually on to another trail, which leads to the Alcove House site.

The map we borrowed proved very useful. Each feature along the trail is marked with a wooden numbered marker, and you can open your map to the corresponding number and read a description and history of what you’re seeing. I highly recommending purchasing or borrowing a map for touring the area.

The Sites

Tyuonyi Pueblo Ruins, Bandelier National Monument
The first major site you come to on the Main Loop Trail is the Tyuonyi Pueblo Ruins.

The first major site along the Main Loop Trail is the Tyuonyi Pueblo Ruins. Passing through this village, it’s easy to let your mind travel back in time to the 12th and 13th century when this Ancestral Pueblo community thrived. According to the map/guidebook, these ruins were once called “Anasazi” ruins, but the name was changed to “Ancestral Pueblo” because Anasazi actually translates to “Ancient Enemy.” The Tyuonyi ruins are laid out in a circle, and once stood 2-3 stories tall. The rooms themselves are very small — each only slightly larger than a king-size bed, and were probably mostly used to store food and supplies. In the center of the circle were 3 kivas (underground pit structures used for religious ceremonies, teaching, and other community functions). One of the kivas has been excavated and maintained while the other two are only slightly visible as indentations in the ground.

Even though there were a lot of visitors while we were there, the trail system throughout the valley is large enough to keep the crowd thinned out. The only place we were near other sightseers was at the cliff dwellings themselves, where there was usually a short queue waiting to ascend one of the ladders and explore the inside of the dwellings.

Little Coyote (Zia's daughter) climbs up into a cavate.
Little Coyote (Zia’s daughter) climbs up into a cavate.

The cliffs in this area (the Pajarito Plateau) are actually hardened volcanic ash (called “tuff”) deposited over a million years ago during a massive volcanic explosion in the nearby mountains. Over time, wind and rain eroded the softer areas of the tuff, creating holes and caverns. The Pueblo people used hand tools to carve out the holes for their dwellings. These are called cavates (CAVE-eights). In some cases, small mud brick structures were built in front of the cavate openings to expand the dwelling.

Cliff Dwellings at Bandelier National Monument
Cliff Dwellings and Cave Painting at Bandelier National Monument

From the outside, we could see many of the centuries-old petroglyphs carved into walls. In the photo above, you can see a cave wall painting that was uncovered during excavation of one of the dwellings. The painting looked like a zig-zag pattern in red and brown hues. On the broad wall of the cliff, we spotted faces, turkeys, suns, and other various petroglyphs. The horizontal rows of smaller holes show where floors & ceilings were located.

Cliff Dwellings at Bandelier National Monument
Cliff Dwellings at Bandelier National Monument. Known as The Long House, this area is a long row of dwellings, some of which were multiple stories tall, and some of which showed evidence of mud brick expansions.


Bandelier Cliff Dwellings New Mexico
Bandelier Cliff Dwellings. Petroglyphs are present though hard to make out here. Horizontal lines of smaller shows show evidence of multiple floors. Stone wall ruins in foreground show evidence of expansion.


Beyond Long House is a fork in the road. You can either turn left and go back to the Visitor’s Center or turn right and walk about 1/2 mile to the Alcove House. The Alcove House is a large, open cave (aka an alcove!) in the cliff about 140 feet above the valley floor. The trail to Alcove House wanders along the Frijoles Creek basin. It’s well shaded by the trees and offers a nice break from the hot sun alongside the cliff dwellings. To enter the alcove, you ascend a series of narrow stairs carved into the cliff and four well-worn (but plenty sturdy) wooden ladders. While this is nowhere near as scary as it sounds, people with a fear of heights could experience some anxiety about the climb and the descent. However, the view from the alcove is worth the climb.

Frijoles Creek Bandelier
Frijoles Creek, small but lovely (and lots of shade) – Cliff Dwellings in the background


Alcove House notice, Bandelier
Alcove House notice, Bandelier: beware!


Alcove House Bandelier Going Up
Going Up! Stairway toward Alcove House.
Alcove House, Bandelier
Alcove House from the top of the final ladder. Shade!



Alcove House Bandelier
Alcove House. Consists of a large alcove, a refurbished (and closed-off) ceremonial Kiva, and a few small caves. Gorgeous views out to Frijoles Canyon.


Down from the Alcove
Going Down! Descending from Alcove House


Overall, we spent about three hours in the valley. After we felt like we’d seen all there was to see (without setting off on a whole new hike), we walked about a mile back to the Visitor’s Center and had another run on the Snack Bar. Here, we decided to hop a bus back to White Rock rather than hike (UP) the Frey Trail back out. We wanted to save some daylight for our next stop…the Valles Caldera!

NOTE: There are many other things to see at Bandelier — other ruins, dwellings, and cave paintings — plus many other long and short trails. See their website for a full list of trails and things to see. Bandelier National Monument – More Info

Valles Caldera

About 30 minutes west of White Rock along Highway 4 is one of the most breathtaking sights I’ve seen in New Mexico, the Valle Grande of the Valles Calder, a 13.7 mile wide volcanic caldera in the Jemez Mountains. ( The caldera was formed over a million years ago when the magma chamber of a volcano collapses in on itself after eruption, forming a bowl-shaped (or cauldron, “caldera” shaped) indention. There are areas within the caldera where magma is less than five miles below your feet.

Sadly, since this was a day trip and we still had to drive back to Albuquerque, we didn’t have a lot of time to explore the caldera. We did venture into the Valle Grande by car and we stopped by the visitor’s center to check it out. According to their website, the Valles Caldera offers an array of activities throughout the year, to include horseback riding, fly fishing, mountain biking, and cross-country skiing, just to name a few. I’m sure we will be visiting here again in the future.

Valles Caldera New Mexico
Looking out across the Valles Caldera from Hwy 4. The caldera’s resident elk herds were nowhere to be seen this day.
Valle Grande, Valles Caldera, Bandelier
Looking out across Valle Grande, Valles Caldera, from Hwy 4 pull-off.



About the Valle Grande
About the Valle Grande


Culinary Adventures…

…or lack thereof. Like I said in the beginning, this was never meant to be an eating adventure. While we entertained some great ideas about stopping for dinner in Santa Fe on the way home, in the end, the wishes of the 8-yr-old won out, and we found ourselves enjoying some chili-cheese tots at the Los Alamos Sonic. Not our best “Eating New Mexico” moment, but hey, truth be told, those things are damn good.

Click for More Info:  Bandelier National Monument – More Info

Ruidoso, NM – Flying J Ranch

The Flying J Ranch

6 Flying J Road, 1028 State Hwy 48 | Alto, NM 88312
(575) 336-4330

A big reason for our trip to Ruidoso was to go see the Flying J Ranch (caution: this site auto-plays Western music). Zia had been there many times as a young girl growing up in New Mexico. Zia’s daughter was making her second trip to the Flying J, the first one being when she was around three years old. This was my first time.

Like the rest of Ruidoso, Flying J was enjoying the benefits of tourist season, so the ranch was pretty crowded. However, they make parking pretty organized and easy. As soon as we pulled into the lot, a cowboy was there to herd us into our parking spot.

Inside the ranch, you find a mock-up of an Old West town with souvenir shops and treats. For the kids, there’s horseback riding, gold panning, and pistol shooting — not real pistols, of course, but they make a pretty loud “pop!” Again, the ranch was pretty crowded, so the lines for the activities were long. We judged the horseback line to be too long, so Zia’s daughter got to pan for gold for a few minutes, finding one decent-sized nugget of “gold” (aka iron pyrite).

The line for the pistol shooting was moving pretty good, so she jumped in line for quick three shots with an old-west style pistol! (Again, these are toys. They shoot a projectile with barely enough velocity to punch through a sheet of paper.)

After the pistol shooting, we headed over to watch the big gunfight between the town sheriff and a couple of “no-good hooligans.”

The Sheriff faces down some ne’er-do-well scoundrels, Flying J Ranch Main Street.

This “gunfight” is Rated G and appropriate for all ages. It’s wrought with enough silliness and puns to keep the young ones entertained and laughing, and some cute one-liners for the adults. I won’t give you any spoilers, but it’s a good time for the whole family. After the show, the actors were more than happy to pose for pictures with some of the kids.


You’d think that feeding a couple hundred people at one sitting would be complicated, if not downright messy. However, the Flying J Ranch has been in business for 33 years, and they know how to move people through a chow line quickly and efficiently. When I saw the number of people crowding into the dining area, I thought it would take forever – and a miracle – to get everyone fed, but we were happily filling our bellies with a delicious, chuck-wagon style meal within about 10 minutes of getting to our seats.

They file you out of the dining hall and into the kitchen by tables, after first giving you exact instructions on what to do at each food station, and even how to hold your plate! (Hold it under the spot where the applesauce goes, because it’s a metal plate and the applesauce is the only cold food you’re getting.)

You then file through the kitchen, stopping at each station for a heaping helping of each item.  The food fare is pretty simple, and the Flying J Ranch website gives you a detailed description of what the meal offers, including what is and isn’t “authentic” cowboy fare (SUPPER DETAILS). What you get is pinto beans, chunky applesauce, a baked potato, brisket or chicken, a biscuit, and spice cake. Then you choose from iced tea, lemonade, water, or coffee to drink. (Served in an authentic beat-up old tin cup, just like the cowboys used!)

Flying J Chuckwagon Supper
Chuckwagon Supper at the Flying J Ranch. All a growing cowboy or cowgirl needs!

The only food item I can’t really write about is the BBQ grilled chicken. All five of us opted for the brisket. Also, it’s kind of a waste of time to go line by line on each food item, when two words describe them all: absolutely delicious! Nonetheless, I will give you a brief rundown. The brisket was tender, smoky and tasty; you could cut it with just a fork. The beans were excellent, and surprisingly spicy. The chunky applesauce…wow. I’m not an applesauce fan, at least not of the stuff you buy in a jar at the grocery store. The Flying J’s applesauce was like a dessert, with big chunks of sweet apples. Lastly, the potato, biscuit, and spice cake were all equally good and nicely rounded out the meal. Oh, and come hungry! There were plenty of leftovers, and you were free to return to the line for more food. I’m pretty sure the crowd ran out of room before the Flying J kitchen ran out of food.

After dinner, the Flying J cast (the same people that just spooned your food onto your tin plate) gathers on stage for about an hour long western music show. Western style music may not be your thing, but if you appreciate good showmanship, incredible musical talent, bean jokes, puns, and a little musical comedy, you’ll enjoy watching the Flying J cast perform. It’s a really nice way to sit and relax after a good hearty meal. There’s music and comedy, and even a heartfelt salute to our servicemen, servicewomen, and veterans.

Good people, good food, and fine entertainment for the whole family, the Flying J Ranch is something you must do if you’re in the Ruidoso area.

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Ruidoso, NM – Fun Family Weekend Getaway

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Ruidoso Quick Trip

The first weekend in August, we made a family trip from Albuquerque to Ruidoso. Five of us (me, Zia, Zia’s daughter, & Zia’s parents) all piled into our Ford Edge for a meandering, four-hour adventure into the mountains of southern New Mexico. We traveled the back roads through a variety of terrain, ranging from flat pasture land to rolling, rocky hills. We drove through little towns like Moriarty, Estancia, Corona, Carrizozo, and Capitan. Along the way, we spotted pronghorn antelope, a herd of elk, and a whole lot of cows.

Pastureland New Mexico
New Mexico road: somewhere between Carrizozo and Estancia.

We took this trip for the change of scenery, as well as to give Zia’s folks the opportunity to visit their old stomping grounds. They were Ruidoso residents for about nine years.

Also, we had booked a trip to the Flying J Ranch, a very popular Ruidoso tourist attraction. (Note: their website auto-plays music, so be prepared. But there’s an easy “turn off music” button on the main page.)

Zia’s dad, a lifelong New Mexico resident and alumni of Hatch High School, had a story for almost every little town we drove through. Find some of his tales here: Stories | Histories

One place we stopped was the small town of Carrizozo, specifically to see if the sad rumors were true: the Outpost Bar & Grill (& Laundromat) was closed. Unfortunately, the rumors were true, and it seems this place has been closed for quite some time.

Outpost Bar & Grill, Carrizozo, NM
Outpost Bar & Grill & Laundromat. Once the best green chile cheeseburger south of North Dakota.

After some sleuthing around, we think we found out why the place is closed down. Could it have something to do with the chile?

Ho-made chili at Outpost Bar & Grill
Hey, we’re not here to judge.

Peeking through the windows, we could see that many of the animal “trophies” (aka, “stuffed animal heads” still strewn about in the booths. Kind of creepy, actually. We said our final farewells to Outpost and went on our way toward Ruidoso.

If you’re a regular reader of our EatingNewMexico blog, you know Zia and I had other motivations for going to Ruidoso…the food! This was my second trip to Ruidoso. The first time I went, Zia took me to Casa Blanca, a restaurant known for their fried green chile strips.

Casa Blanca Ruidoso, Fried Green Chile Strips
Fried Green Chile Strips, served with ranch dressing, naturally! Reason enough to come to Ruidoso.

I couldn’t wait to get back there and get another basket of those hot little strips of awesome, dipped in ranch dressing. I lobbied hard for Casa Blanca to be the first place we stopped as soon as we arrived into town. Fortunately, it’s not all that hard to get a carload of hungry New Mexicans to stop for fried green chile strips.

Click here for the review of Casa Blanca Restaurant

After lunch, we all piled back into the car to head down to Sudderth Drive. Sudderth is Ruidoso’s “downtown.” It’s about a half-mile stretch of road with shops, restaurants and bars. On this particular Saturday, it was very crowded. The sidewalks were full of pedestrians meandering in and out of the stores, and the streets were packed with cars. Almost every license plate I saw said “Texas.” I noticed quite a few Chihuahua, Mexico license plates as well. Seeing a yellow or turquoise New Mexico license plate was a rarity. Even our car was still sporting the old California tags, so even we could not be mistaken for locals! However, I don’t think anyone was mistaking us for Texans, either. We looked a little out of place without our giant belt buckles, cowboy boots, “fixed” hair, and bedazzled jeans.

Zia’s daughter is a horseback rider. So we thought she would love to go out by Ruidoso Downs and see the beautiful horse sculptures there. The statue garden, titled “Free Spirits at Noisy Water” marks the entryway to the Hubbard Museum of the American West, a museum dedicated to the horse and all things Old West. The horses are larger-than-life and extremely realistic, giving the impression of a herd of horses — Arabians, Paints, Appaloosa, Quarter, Morgan, and Standardbred all running together — charging down the mountainside toward the river.

Two horses race down the mountainside
Free Spirit at Noisy Waters, Ruidoso’s Hubbard Museum of the American West.
White Horse on the Run
Arabian Horse, Free Spirits at Noisy Water, Hubbard Museum of the American West, Ruidoso, NM

We walked around the statue garden for a while, studying the bronze statues (many a wonder of engineering, balancing on only one hoof) and reading the informational placards about each breed of horse.

After we walked off our lunch, it was time to go and rest up for the big evening at the Flying J Ranch. We had booked a couple of rooms at the Ruidoso Mountain Inn. I won’t go into a full-blown review of the Inn, other than to say the upside was a clean, comfortable room, but the downside was the inflated, tourist season price ($160/night), and the television reception was terrible, which made “Sharknado 2” even harder to watch. Regardless, after a four-hour road trip, followed by lunch and shopping, it was nice to put our feet up for a couple of hours before we all headed out to the Flying J Ranch.

Click here for the review of the Flying J Ranch

After dinner and the show at Flying J, it was back to the Ruidoso Mountain Inn for a good night’s sleep. The next morning, we passed on the Inn’s complimentary breakfast. The breakfast area was extremely crowded, and from what we could see of the pre-packaged, carbohydrate-laden foods, it wasn’t worth the wait. Instead, we drove out to the Casino Apache Travel Center for a good, but standard-fare breakfast. Pros for this little café were: food is good, price is low, and there was no wait when we got there. Cons for this little café were: it’s at the back of the casino, so you have to walk through a lot of smoke to get there.

Travel Center French Toast
Casino Apache Travel Center Cafe. Zia Jr. with her French Toast Platter. Extra sugar, please!

Afterwards, we took a quick trip back into Ruidoso for some coffee at Sacred Grounds. Good coffee, but very slow service. In their defense, it was very busy! With that, we were back on the road to Albuquerque.

Our Ruidoso weekend was a kind of a whirlwind excursion, and probably not the best time of year; but all told, it was a great little weekend getaway with the family and well worth the trip.

Rafting New Mexico

I’ll be honest. I’m not an outdoors person. The last time I went camping I brought a queen-sized air mattress on a frame with me. I also ran electricity to my tent so that I could keep my cellphone charged to order pizza in case my hot dog fell into the campfire. I’m also not particularly adventurous. My idea of a wild time is binge watching episodes of “Breaking Bad.” But I’m trying to change. There are so many outdoor activities that the Land of Enchantment has to offer. And frankly, since “Breaking Bad” is over, I’ve got some time on my hands. So when my friends suggested a rafting trip down the Rio Grande, I agreed to join their outdoor adventure.

Besides, this particular rafting trip seemed fairly safe. Run by Cottam’s Rio Grande Rafting Company, the Racecourse is their most popular option. Compared to Cottam’s other trips, including the Taos Box, which requires a helmet as you travel 16 miles through Class III and IV rapids down the Rio Grande Gorge, the Racecourse seemed like a breeze. It’s a two-to-three-hour guided trip that lets participants experience Class I to III rapids, helmet free. Since our trip was in late July towards the end of the rafting season, I figured the waters would be much calmer than those in the early spring runoff.

Our group met at the designated location site, the Rio Grande Gorge Visitor’s Center in Pilar, NM. We climbed into Cottam’s vans and were driven about 45 seconds down to the rafting launch site. Lathered in sunscreen, fully hydrated, and wearing my provided flotation device, I was feeling pretty good. Then our guides started going over the safety procedures. Like how to ensure you don’t fall out of the raft. Like describing what to do if the raft tipped over. Or if your paddle smacked you in the face and you lost all of your teeth. Okay, maybe I imagined that last one, I’m not 100% sure. As photographers took group pictures, I briefly considered the idea of just buying an 8X11 and telling everyone that I had gone rafting, when in reality I would just wait in the van for my friends. But screw it, I had already paid for the trip and I owed it to myself to try something new. So I went ahead and climbed aboard.

Can you see me up in the blue raft?

Our guide was funny and personable. He pointed out geological sites along the way (really old black rocks versus even older gray rocks is about as much as I comprehended) and shared some history of the area. The scenery was gorgeous and I felt myself relax as we floated down the Rio Grande. My only goal was not to fall out of the raft. It’s not that I’m afraid of water. No, my real fear was not being able to get back into the raft. I had watched a great number of people try to climb back into rafts over the years. And even the most graceful people somehow end up flailing around in the bottom of the raft face first in the crotch of the person that pulled them out.

As we came upon our first rapids, our guide gave us directions on how many times to paddle and in what direction. We worked as a team as we went through the white water. It was exhilarating and fantastic! The rest of the trip included periods of calm water followed by varying levels of rapids. In several locations, our guide encouraged us to get out and swim. While I did not take up this offer, my friends reported that the water was cool and refreshing. The rapids were challenging and wonderful all at once. I was amazed at how quickly the time went by on the river and was disappointed that the trip was over as we floated up to our final destination. Luckily, the chips and cookies Cottam’s provided eased my pain.

You can’t tell, but I’m laughing as we go through some rapids.

So overall, my adventure was immensely satisfying and entertaining. I would highly recommend rafting in New Mexico and Cottam’s Rio Grande Rafting Company. In fact, I enjoyed myself so much, that I plan on tackling the Taos Box next year. Just be forewarned. If you find me face first in your crotch as I’m flailing around the bottom of the raft it’s nothing personal. I’m just looking for my next big water adventure.