Exploring Tsankawi, a short drive from Santa Fe

This guest post is from Karen Denison.

Tsankawi (san-KAW-we) is quiet now. Except for the wind in junipers, a raven flying overhead, and the occasional hint of highway noise, there are no sounds to show that this was once a bustling place.

Ancient pathway worn into the soft volcanic rock, Tsankawi, photo/Karen Denison

This former pueblo village site is part of Bandelier National Monument located about 12 miles east of that site on State Route 502. If coming from Santa Fe, it’s on the left and easy to miss if no cars are parked there. If you don’t have a Bandelier permit or a National Park Pass, you can pay at a kiosk on-site and put the receipt in the window. This will also admit you to the main part of Bandelier and is good for seven days.

One of the mesa’s petroglyph panels, photo/Karen Denison

A short (1.5 mile) trail leads visitors to the unexcavated mesa-top pueblo and petroglyphs, but guests must traverse ladders and uneven terrain to see any ruins or get the finest landscape views. There are few signs to explain what one is seeing, but a well-written interpretive trail guide is available at the main visitor center or online. Printing this from the website is a good idea as the trail guide is often not available at the trailhead..

One of the ladders to reach the ruins, photo/Karen Denison

Despite its proximity to the highway, many fewer folk visit Tsankawi mesa and fewer still appreciate what it was like in its heyday during the 1400’s.

View from the top of the mesa, photo/Karen Denison

Tsankawi had an estimated 275 ground-floor rooms arranged in a roughly circular pattern, one and two-stories high arranged around a central plaza with multiple underground kivas. Corn and squash were cultivated in small patches on the valley floor below, and water was carried up from a nearby stream or trapped as summer rainfall. Additional homes were built off the mesa against the mesa’s south-facing cliffs to take advantage of the warming sun in winter. Pottery, obsidian, turquoise and other trade goods were exchanged with other villages nearby passing hand to hand from sources near and far. This was not a leisurely existence, but the people flourished here for a time.

All that remains of cliff-side homes, photo/Karen Denison

By the mid 1500’s, the people at Tsankawi had left for homes in another place perhaps because of drought or difficulties with agriculture. However, this home is remembered by their living descendants at San Ildefonso Pueblo who still treasure this quiet place.

For more information including directions, entrance fees, hours and other practical information visit the Bandelier National Monument website

Karen Denison is the former owner of Outspire Hiking and Snowshoeing.o The company, now under the ownership of former employee, Scott Renbarger, specializes in private, interpretive hiking tours in Santa Fe, NM. Karen has been sharing her knowledge and love of the New Mexico outdoors with visitors since 1997.


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8 Responses to “Exploring Tsankawi, a short drive from Santa Fe”

  1. Vera Marie Badertscher
    April 21, 2019 at 7:01 pm #

    What a gorgeous, evocative place. I visited Bandolier long ago, but I need to go back again. Thanks for this guide and the great pictures.

    • Billie Frank
      April 22, 2019 at 7:43 am #

      It it a wonderful place and blissfully uncrowded. Very few people know about it. We hiked there one day and saw a ranger and a lone hiker.

  2. jade
    April 21, 2019 at 8:53 pm #

    Wow- this place looks amazing and totally something I would love to do. Exploring the open land. Great photos, too.

    • Billie Frank
      April 22, 2019 at 7:45 am #

      Glad you enjoyed the post. If you come out this way, plan a visit. If you want a guide for the experience- Tsankawi’s a little difficult, the woman who wrote the post, Karen Denison, is the person to talk to.

  3. Sigrid Freese
    October 23, 2019 at 8:29 am #

    I have been here often; one of my favorite places in the Santa Fe area if not the whole world. This summer I brought my 3 grandnephews, ages 4, 6 and 9 and they loved it. Unless you really have vertigo, the ladders are manageable (I’m 72)and walking in the footsteps of the many moccasins which wore down the sandstone paths is transporting. If you have read the wonderful book, Daniel Martin by John Fowles, you may recognize Tsankawi as the setting for the first section.

    • Billie Frank
      October 23, 2019 at 5:10 pm #

      Haven’t read that book- will put it on my reading list. It is a special place.

  4. Gina LaRoche
    January 1, 2019 at 6:53 am #

    I trekked Tsankawi with my 2 teen boys in October along with Bandelier. It was a trip I shall never forget. I think about it almost daily & look forward to returning back to that very spiritually powerful mesa! As a matter of fact, I fell asleep last night looking at pictures of this special place. Thank you for the article

    • Billie Frank
      January 1, 2019 at 7:38 am #

      Tsankawi is a special place. I love being on that mesa. The Santa Clara ancestral Pueblo at Puye Cliffs in another place with a very powerful spirituality. Sitting at the top, I felt I’d come home. It’s one of the reasons I moved here. If you visit again, it’s a great addition to your itinerary.

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