Hiking Below Lower Falls

I only had the privilege of visiting Bandelier National Monument once before the floods of 2013. If I didn’t have the photos from that trip, I wouldn’t realize how different Frijoles Canyon looks today. After moving to Los Alamos, one of the first hikes I took was in Bandelier. I heard people rave about the waterfalls of Frijoles Creek and wanted to see them for myself. However, I encountered large signs warning me about the landslide that washed out the trail to the Lower Falls. I remained determined to see the Lower Falls, and heard one could access them from another direction. Today, rather than a relatively easy hike down Frijoles Canyon, you must take the “scenic” route to visit the Lower Falls!

Another intrepid traveler and I began at the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Powerline Mesa Trail just as the sun peeked over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the distance. We connected with the Ancho Springs Trail, and a little over an hour later we made it to the Rio Grande. A merganser floated by us heading in the same direction—downstream to Frijoles Canyon. It was a frigid morning, but the sun finally crept into canyon bottom when we were about halfway to our destination.

By the time we made it to Frijoles Canyon, all thoughts of being cold vanished with the mid-day sun. We shed layers as we began hopping from boulder to boulder. Lower Frijoles Canyon is littered with rocks of all sizes, forming barriers and obstacles for the creek’s journey to the Rio Grande. The evidence from the flood is everywhere. Sticks, trees, and brush formed piles along with the rocks. We picked our way through the debris and finally heard the crashing of falling water. After rounding a bend, we stood in an amphitheater with the Lower Falls in front of us. My hiking partner pointed out the place where the trail once stood, now a sheer rock face scoured away by the floodwaters.

After a quick lunch sitting atop a boulder at the base of the falls, we began our long journey back to our vehicle. At the end of the day, we hiked close to 15 miles, but I am finally able to say that I’ve seen the Lower Falls of Bandelier! While this hike is much different than before, it made for a sensational journey and the natural landscape restoration is evident.  Along the way we passed through some of the most beautiful portions of White Rock Canyon, touched the colorful geology of Frijoles Canyon, and witnessed a Golden Eagle soar overhead. Bandelier is such an amazing place for new discoveries and exciting adventures.

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