Route 66 Series: Bandelier and the Big Climb

I’m afraid.

Two words a lot of us don’t like to mention, at least not out loud. And certainly not in front of people we’re trying to impress. Honestly, I think that’s what a lot of the madness boils down to these days. We’re all very afraid. And while some of us can hide our fears, lay them away, or at least pretend they don’t exist, sometimes, it’s not so easy. Sometimes, we have to face them in all their terrifying glory.

Vacation isn’t necessarily the time or place we expect to have to do that, but life does have a way of surprising us. When my husband and I traveled the Route 66 in the summer of 2019, I had the opportunity to face down a fear that has plagued me for far too long. I guess that’s one of the best parts about road trips. You never know where the day will lead you.

It all started with a side trip to Bandolier National Monument in New Mexico. In addition to some of the best canyon and red rock scenery around, the American Southwest is an absolute treasure trove of history from the ancient Pueblo. Rooted in tribes inhabiting the area tens of thousands of years ago, the Pueblos are one of the oldest Indigenous cultures in America.


The Pueblo moved into Bandelier around 1150 AD, and they flourished there for well over two centuries. Wild game provided ample food sources. Nearby rivers and their tributaries gave them fresh water for both drinking and irrigating crops grown on the upper mesa – corn, squash, and beans for the most part. Art was a big part of this culture too. Pueblo pottery has some of the most striking and bold color patterns, and the more ancient Pueblo tribes left behind a plethora of Petroglyphs. Many of them almost perfectly preserved thanks to the dry climate (learn more about that here).  

But the adobe structures of the Pueblo are one of the biggest (literally!) parts of their legacy. Astounding works of engineering for their time, these desert dwellings did an amazing and space-efficient job sheltering inhabitants from the harsh climate. Many were multi-storied, housing dozens of families at once. Multiple openings and shafts kept fresh air moving through the many rooms, creating a cool, very livable retreat from the hot sun. Even today, stepping inside these old building or cave systems is a welcome relief from the merciless heat.


It’s also proof that these structures were built to last. Hundreds of years after the Pueblo moved out of the area and closer to the Rio Grande, the remains of their homes are still scattered all over the Southwest. And Bandelier provides ample examples of these most impressive ruins. One of their star attractions is Tyuonyi Village. Located on the valley floor of nearby Frijoles Canyon, these ruins almost look like an ancient stadium or amphitheater. Once up to three stories in height, the entire place encircles a big open circle which probably served as a communal meeting place. It’s remarkably like a modern apartment complex. Standing there among the ruins, one can easily see back in time to the village’s height, when countless families went about their normal lives in this busy, thriving village.

But another charming part of Bandelier National Monument are the cave dwellings. Tucked away in Frijoles Canyon, you can actually hike right among these old homes and squeeze inside of them at will. If you can overcome claustrophobia (another nagging fear of mine), these old cave homes provide a stunning view of a different time period, as well as the gorgeous valley below.

And finally, there are the Kivas. The Pueblo and Hopi tribes used Kivas for important meetings, religious rites, and ceremonial rituals. Most were round or key-hole shaped (like a big table almost), with an opening on the Northern end symbolizing a spirit’s emergence from the underworld. In large villages, multiple Kivas were constructed to accommodate the many families, sometimes one for every five or six rooms. While the earliest Kivas were almost exclusively dug as pits underground, the later-era Kivas were brick or adobe structures built on a flat surface.


Tribes in Bandolier definitely favored the higher up Kivas. And I do mean higher up. On the outskirts of Tyuonyi Village, down a twisting, winding trail through evergreen woods, tourists can visit Alcove House. A former Pueblo dwelling about 150 feet above the canyon floor, I would say Alcove House (or Ceremonial Cave) is the prime piece of real estate in Bandelier. A sweeping, open cave that housed a little over two dozen people, the site now holds a reconstructed Kiva in addition to its old ruins. Built using historical and archaeological evidence, this Kiva sits inside the wide open cave mouth, with an absolutely jaw-dropping view of the gorgeous red rock formations and lush, green valley down below.

A tourist selfie hot spot if I’ve ever heard of one, but with one small caveat. To reach Alcove House, one has to make a perilous climb up four wooden Pueblo ladders, slap-dashed together with wooden logs and leather. Then, you have to climb over rough stone stairs and wonder down a narrow pathway, where one slip could result in serious injury if not ultimate (and untimely) death. It’s probably quite enticing for the wild, adventurous types that love toying with their adrenaline like that. But for people suffering from vertigo and a paralyzing fear of heights, it’s a lot to ask.

At first, I had no intention of climbing up there. “Have at it,” I said to my husband when he tore off towards those ladders. “Be careful, because I won’t be coming up after you.” I watched him climb up the first ladder, then up an enormous pile of gigantic rocks. Then he scaled the second ladder, up, up, and still further up. He started looking quite tiny from the ground below. By the time he started on the third ladder, he disappeared from view. I could only pray he was being safe up there.


I took a seat on a bench nearby and started fiddling with my camera. I was quite content at first, but then something happened. It started as a dull whisper in the back of my head. An urging or longing for something more. I craned my head back, just making out the walls of the impressive cave. I couldn’t see inside, but I imagined what it must be like in there. I also imagined my husband having all that historical fun without me, enjoying a view that no Los Angeles high rise could rival. “Think of the pictures you could get…” that voice buzzed in my head.

I waited a few minutes for my husband to come down. Then I waited a few more. But he didn’t come. Why would he? It was probably far too interesting up there. I began to get restless. Envious. I started pacing back and forth, feeling like a caged tiger. Perhaps one of the biggest motivators for me to overcome a fear is a historical artifact. Especially one others can partake in it while I stand useless on the ground. With a determined stomp of my foot, I decided I was done playing spectator. I strapped on my backpack, tied my shoes tight, and cautiously approached that first ladder.

It wasn’t a big deal at first. I just moved my legs faster than my brain wheels could spin. Faster than that troubling voice asking me if I was crazy. When I was almost at the top of the first ladder, it happened. The same old thing that happens every time I do something reckless involving heights. I looked down.


Big mistake. I gasped and pressed my face against the ladder, which I might add was searing hot because of the desert sun. I squeezed my hands around its edges. My breathing picked up. I felt dizzy. And even though people were climbing up behind me, I froze solid. I was afraid if I put one toenail out of place, or even breathed too hard, I would fall. Down… down… down. As I heard the people coming up closer behind me, I only got more agitated. “They’ll get impatient,” said that annoying voice in my head. “They’ll start yelling at you, and they’d be right to. You’re holding up their whole day. Ruining their trip to a gorgeous National Monument.”

All good points, but I still couldn’t move. I got so scared and upset I felt tears sting my eyes. My whole body began to shake. I couldn’t look up, I couldn’t look down. I could only squeeze my face against that burning hot ladder, keeping my eyes firmly shut, while my brain spun fifty thousand miles per hour.

“Excuse me,” said one of the people behind me. “Are you going up?”

Oh, God. Here we go. The yelling was about to begin. But fear had utterly and completely paralyzed me.

I heard whispers behind me. Some scuffling feet. I braced for the impact of their anger, but then I felt someone tap me on the shoulder. “Miss.”

Trembling from head to toe, I dared myself to open my eyes and look up. At the top of the first ladder stood a pretty avid-looking rock climber type. Ropes slung over his shoulder, a very impressive waist pack, and shoes that could stick to the side of a glacier. I thought he would laugh at me for my predicament. Maybe he would even yell at me, bursting with impatience on behalf of the people behind me. Instead, he knelt down and leaned over the top of the ladder. He reached out his hand.  

“Come on now,” he said gently. “Take my hand. Just a few more steps.”

Then the people behind me chimed in. “You can do it, girl,” one of the ladies said. “Hell yeah,” another one chimed in. “It’s okay to be afraid,” said a third.


Such encouragement from total strangers. Strangers who I thought would have no patience for a silly girl who had let her fears get the best of her. It was just what I needed. With a bit more confidence, I reached my hand out, and I allowed the man to pull me to safety up the rest of the first ladder. As I brushed myself off with embarrassment, I thought he, and the people behind me, might abandon me to either tackle the remaining three ladders on my own, or somehow get down without any assistance. But my little group of cheerleaders were in it to win it. They nudged me towards the second ladder, and they helped me step up, up, up. One squeaky step at a time, inch by terrifying inch, cheering me the whole way.

“You can do it!”

“Gosh, you’re doing amazing!”

“Look at her go!”

Then came the final ladder. My little rock climber friend carved out a path in front of me, urging me to latch onto his shoes if I ever got afraid. The people behind me patted my ankles, whistled in encouragement, and told jokes to break the tension. Before I even knew what had happened, I stood inside Alcove House, in total shock at what I had done. The people behind me broke out into applause. The rock climber laughed and called out to the crowd of meandering tourists inside the cave.

“Anyone want to claim this lady? She said her husband was up here.”

One of the biggest rewards of that perilous climb was the look of total shock on my lovely husband’s face. He absolutely couldn’t believe I had climbed those ladders. He rushed over to reward me with a hug and a kiss, then he turned me around.


The Kiva was neat. The Pueblo history was solid, well worth the effort to get to it. I could easily see why the tribe chose this spot for such a big home and sacred meeting place. But I tell you, nothing beat that tremendous view. We could see for miles, the entire valley floor sprawled out before us in all its splendor, the sunset bathing it in a golden, bubblegum glow. And it taught me two extremely valuable lessons. The first is that people can and will surprise you, giving you support when you least expect it. And second, if you want the best view, you have to conquer your fears.

Just hold on tight, especially on the way down.


I did it!


Bandolier National Monument Visit


Photos by M.B. Henry and Joel Henry. For more from Route 66, click here. 

116 Comments on “Route 66 Series: Bandelier and the Big Climb

  1. Brava! I can imagine what it took to climb that height, MB. I’m terrified of heights and am impressed that you did it – well done!

  2. Wowww! I like you, and that led me to read of your unforgettable day, me imaging myself there, too. Impressed I am, much. I’m hoping (is that fair of me?) that you have add’l images to share, of more of what you saw, of what I shall never get to see. Having read William Bartram’s Travels of William Bartram, he exploring Florida, Georgia & the Carolinas in the 1770’s, I am ever more fascinating with the lives and culture of Native Americans. MB, you did it again, and we all benefited.

    • Hey Jeff! I’m so glad and happy that you enjoyed the post so much! I have LOTS more photos of our travels, both of the 66 and other places, which you may view with this link: Thank you again for your very nice compliments, they made my day!

    • Yes – without my little group of cheerleaders I don’t think it would have ended well! So glad you enjoyed the post

  3. I cannot tell you how much I love this post. We visited Bandolier last February, only a few months before you! The Alcove House was closed at the time of our visit, so we did not even get to make a choice! But, with us, it is my husband who is afraid of heights! So, I am not sure what we would have done! Bandolier is a fascinating place….so worth the time to visit and understand the history there. I am so glad you had warm, supportive people behind you to get you up those ladders! Congratulations on a job well done. I can only imagine the satisfaction and the views!

    • Oh I’m so sorry Alcove was closed! It truly is a wonderful part of the park, if you ever go back again I hope you get a chance to see it – the view is definitely worth the semi-heart attack I had on the way up. And yes I’m so thankful people chose to have a little patience instead of bite my head off. It would have been ten times worse if they had gotten mad! I’m so glad you enjoyed the post and that it could bring back some happy memories for you.

  4. Bravo! To you, your husband and your band of cheerleaders!
    An Amazing Story – I have seen the caves from a distance but we never made a climb. The thought of those native peoples here thousands of years ago – and their efforts to communicate through their etchings in the rocks – takes my breath away.
    Route 66 has been a favorite of mine.

    • 🙂 Yeah it’s hard not to love that old highway! And yes, the history going back thousands of years is always fascinating and deserves respect. Glad you enjoyed the post!

    • 🙂 So glad you enjoyed this post and the other 66 ones too. I do think you would like that road!

  5. Phew you made it, I could never do it they would have to have a helicopter come rescue me.. glad it was worth it though

    • Haha I thought they would have to helicopter me out of there for a second. Might have been the case if people got mad at me instead of helping out! 🙂 So glad you enjoyed the post.

  6. Good for you! So grateful that the right group of people came along to encourage you along. 😊❤️

  7. Thank you for that inspiring story of your adventures. Like you I share a very strong fear of heights. I always joke that I am not afraid of the height, just falling off.

    What a positive message you sent to us. We need that now. Thank you, and thank you for the beautiful photographs.

    • Good point about the heights haha. I never feel afraid until I look down, yet I can’t help but look down! Silly human nature 🙂 Glad you enjoyed the post.

      • I really did enjoy it. I think adding that more personal touch really made your story more personal and compelling. When I was reading about you holding on tight to that ladder with your face pressed into it, I was actually feeling that fear with you. And then the stress of wondering if the other folks would become hostile. Wow!

        I love that we can learn and share with each other. That is one of the best things about our WordPress community. Keep up the cool posts and stay safe out there. And thank you again!

      • Well thanks so much! Yes it is fun to share pieces of ourselves, especially stories that might help or impact others! 🙂 Same to you as well

    • Sometimes I still can’t believe I did that haha. Who knows what I will charge ahead through next?! 🙂

  8. It gives you hope for the human race when total strangers stand there cheering you on. I have got to get out on Route 66!!

  9. Excellent post! I read that the Mohawk workers who built many New York skyscrapers said they also feared height but knew how to deal with it. Looking at some photos of them atop the last beam a few hundred feet above ground, I know I could never do what they did.

    • Oh gosh I can’t even IMAGINE building those sky scrapers. Eeeek. Just the pictures give me the shakes!

  10. What a wonderful, inspiring story! It’s so refreshing to hear how total strangers can come together to help each other out. I’m sure that’s a day you will never forget.

    • It was a neat experience with the kindness of strangers, especially since it so easily could have gone the other way! 🙂 Glad you enjoyed the post

  11. What a neat story, MB. You had me rooting for you as well. Having led wilderness trips for 30 years of my life, I had my share of talking people over hazardous terrain. Always worth it. Good for you. –Curt

    • Oh I bet you have had to talk people through some rough stuff alright! Some of the adventures you’ve been on I can certainly imagine 🙂 🙂 Glad you liked the post!

  12. What an inspirational story, M.B. You, tackling your fears, and the wonderful people who helped you succeed.

    Though it’s not far from where I live, I have not made the trek to Bandolier. Given your description, I’m definitely going to go there sometime soon.

    • Oh you should go check it out when you can. It really is a neat park with gorgeous scenery in addition to great history! 🙂 I think you would love it.

    • Thanks much! 🙂 Glad you enjoyed it. It was quite an adventure for sure

  13. M.B., I love this post! Wow! You’re writing has me hooked from your first lines. I was cheering you on through the entire read. You did it! I’m so proud of you. And the dwellings are simply astounding. I love them. I visited Mesa Verde and as a child, we visited some, and I think it’s the same one as this. How sad I can’t remember. Thank you for sharing! Congratulations ❤️🙌🏻

    • Awww, I’m so glad you enjoyed it so much! I actually haven’t visited Mesa Verde yet but would really love to sometime. Thanks so much for the encouragement 🙂 <3

    • 🙂 🙂 Not sure which I was more impressed by, the height achievement or the help!

  14. That is such a great story, MB. Brava! I am not sure I could do that. In fact, on a trip to Lisbon I had to go down backwards on a similar set of stairs to the annoyance of all the other tourists…☹️ Great photos – I would love to go there but may leave the stairs.

    • Oh I’ve been there a time or two haha. Not in Lisbon, but having to take a trail or stairway back and against the wave of tourists haha. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  15. Fantastic story. I was riveted and cheered along with your companions. I guess there really are friendly people out in the world willing to step in and help someone who needs a little nudge. Congratulations. May you conquer many more fears in the future.

    • Thanks so much! I hope I can conquer many more fears in the future – and I hope I encounter many more nice people along the way too 🙂

  16. “Think of the pictures you could get…” Ah, the siren song of photography!
    But you did it!
    People can be lovely. They can also be braver than they knew.
    Great job!

    • Haha yep exactly. It’s hard to resist when we know good pictures are hiding out there! Glad you liked the post 🙂

    • I was afraid someone was going to ask about the trip down hahaha. It was scarier than the way up! But I had my husband with me on the way down in addition to a handful of the people that helped me on the way up, so all’s well that ends well 🙂 🙂

  17. Great story! When I was growing up my grandparents lived just off Route 66 further west in Kingman, AZ. I love that area and miss it! I haven’t been to that monument but it sounds like fun!

    • We drove through Kingman! 🙂 I remember it quite well. I’d say Arizona was probably one of our favorite states on the 66, there were certainly a lot of quirky and adventurous stops along the route there. While Bandelier is a bit of a detour from 66, I think you would very much enjoy it!

  18. I could feel every bit of your anxiety as you climbed those ladders. I’m not fond of heights, but once upon a time I had a similar experience. With perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime chance to climb the rigging of a tall ship, I decided to dare it. I didn’t get many photos — only two — but my sense was the same as yours. The view was fantastic, and well worth the pounding heart. Of course, your Alcove House had one great advantage over the rigging; it didn’t sway back and forth while you were up there!

    I think stories like yours are so important just now. Everyone is being tempted or encouraged or lured into seeing the people around them as enemies, and it just isn’t true. In the real world, there are a lot of good people, ready to encourage or reach out a hand. We need to remember that.

    • Um… um… um… how did you do that?!?! I could NEVER, because yes as you said, at least my ladders didn’t sway back and forth. You are very brave! And I’m so glad you enjoyed this story – I totally agree, we need to remember that there are a lot of good people out there trying their best to do what’s right <3

  19. Congrats, you, on doing this! I admire that you went ahead despite your fear – and so glad to hear others around you were so supportive.

    Your photos are so beautiful. Thanks for sharing all of this with us.

  20. That’s a great story, MB. I think in your shoes, I’d have been more scared to come back down – I’ve always have had trouble coming down a ladder, but none going up.
    And the history behind it all! I’m glad you chose to tackle your fear and climb those ladders. At the end, it’s better to look back and remember a crazy deed, than look back and wish you’d done it (there’s a quote out there with that sentiment, I think 😉

    • The way down was definitely scarier haha. At least that time I had my husband’s help too! And totally agreed – I think the “I don’t want any regrets” mindset drives me to do a lot of crazy deeds 🙂

  21. Well done M.B. very courageous, and I’m glad you were rewarded with a grand view! I had a similar situation when for some strange reason I joined an underground tour of tiny tunnels under the city of Exeter UK, I have no idea why as I suffer from claustrophobia! fortunately, like yourself they were prepared for people like me and had a plan to get us out if we had an attack!! At least you got a view all I saw was bricks and darkness!!oh the fear of looking silly in front of the kids with the group got me through.

    • I did an underground tour of the city of Seattle once – I could understand why that would be rough for a claustrophobic! Hats off to you for making it all the way through! 🙂

    • Yes – it was the best part to get such help from strangers 🙂 Restored my faith in humans a little bit!

  22. I feel your fear – I absolutely hate ladders!, probably because one slid away from me one time. My Wife could tell you about the times I’ve forced myself up the ladder to clean the gutter or to put up an antenna ( I was a Ham Radio operator). I’d freeze and it could take me 30 mins to get my confidence to do anything back. I still venture up ladders but… Lovely post and images 🙂

    • I hear ya! 🙂 🙂 I’d like to say this episode made me less afraid of ladders, but it’s still pretty hit or miss. Although I did use one at the book store recently to reach something on a very high shelf 🙂 Apparently I just need a little enticing to get over my fears haha. So glad you enjoyed the post and thanks for stopping by!

    • Sorry this comment wound up in my pending folder and I somehow missed it! I’m very glad you enjoyed the post, and yes confined spaces are another big one for me haha. We did a cave tour once in Missouri and I definitely had a couple panic/freak out moments in there.

  23. Hi. Congrats on the climb. I was in NM, visiting relatives, in 2018. We went to Bandolier. I went up and down those steep ladders. Not sure I ever would do it again! Neil Scheinin

    • So sorry I missed this comment – I agree! Once was enough for me! 🙂 But I wouldn’t mind exploring more of NM, it’s a lovely state.

      • 🙂 I definitely want to go back again, so thanks for the tip! 🙂

  24. Congratulations on getting to the top. Kudos to the folks who helped you
    I have such fear of heights, too, that I would not have dared go up those ladders. One time, my family decided we’d hike a mountain, just a small one. Everything was going fine until my companions decided to go to the summit. It required clambering up steep rock walls – there were rails and handholds- but I could see far far down below. Fear overcame me and I chickened. Midway on the climb, I sought a rather safe corner and sat there like a beggar while sun and wind battered me and people passed me by. I sure did look silly there.

    • Awww 🙁 Sounds scary! I would have been very scared too! I don’t think I could have climbed those ladders without help from strangers. Sometimes I’m still surprised I managed it haha. I got a little Pueblo ladder as a souvenir to commemorate it.

  25. Congrats on overcoming your fears, our confidence grows each time coz we know intellectually that they are unfounded but our minds make the hurdles … the power we give them!

    Enjoyed the history of how this ancient culture lived, reminds me of Goreme Valley in Turkey … that was amazing too!

    • You are so right! Especially when we have such vast imaginations we sure feed those fears 🙂 I’m so glad you enjoyed the post and the history, we LOVED walking around those ruins and learning all about it.

  26. Ever so good MB. Getting to the top and getting a hug from your man made tears form. Fabuolous read, every….word!!!

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed it!! 🙂 It was quite a feat, maybe if I keep practicing I can conquer the fear once and for all

    • Oh, I’d love to visit there! I might brave some of the long climbs there too 🙂 Thanks for stopping by, glad you enjoyed the post

    • The hike to reach the main village area and the lower-level cave dwellings is actually quite easy! If that helps 🙂 It was only the brush-with-death ladders that were difficult hahaha!

  27. I remember that climb and the view very well without having to struggle with the fears that you carried, M.B. I don’t know if I could have done what you did had I had the same fears. Well done!

    • I’m glad you’ve been there so you know it was worth it to tackle the fears! 🙂 (But yes sometimes I’m stunned I actually did that and didn’t plummet to my death hahaha). So glad you enjoyed the post and it brought back memories for you!

      • I’m also glad you didn’t plummet, M.B.! I love Bandelier. My husband and I have visited it twice and would love to go back. It has a very nice campground and in the spring or fall, when it’s not overrun, it’s a lovely place to hang out for a few days.

  28. What an encouraging story for all of us who may be as afraid of other things as heights are for you. Heights never used to bother me, but the older I get the less I like them. What a tremendous view!

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