Saturday, April 26, 2008

Shrine of the Stone Lions

See more photographs of this hike at my gallery on this hike.

I have lived here for more than 20 years and have never hiked out to the fairly well known Stone Lions in Bandelier National Monument. I don't know why. However, last Friday (4/26/2008) was my day to change that.

I have hiked many times in various places in Bandelier, and I plan to have several blog entries as I go along about those hikes. So this won't be my only Bandelier National Monument (abbreviated BNM from now on) entry, that's for sure, since it is just minutes from my backyard.

The Hike
The round trip distance for this hike from the visitor center is about 13 miles. I did this as a day hike, as many do. However, some also do an overnighter in the back country which makes this an easier hike and also allows for exploration of other areas past Alamo Canyon. Some of the information out there in books or the web will warn you that is is a hard day hike, a real grind, and so on. It is strenuous due to the traverse of Alamo Canyon, but doable. Below is the full map of the hike I did.

The hike profile (one way, from the visitor center to the stone lions) is below. I will talk more about the ascents and descents as I get there. As with most of my descriptions, it will be a running narrative with photos from the beginning of the hike.
I started off at about 8:30am. I did not note the temperature, but it was chilly and I wore a fleece jacket which I did not discard until I got to the stone lions. As usual, I carried my camera backpack with lenses, tripod, water, and so on. As I often do in BNM, I started this hike climbing immediately out of Frijoles Canyon near the visitor center (GPS: N35 46.739 W106 16.326). This section climbs approximately 467 ft in about 0.63 miles. So it is a nice warm up. Frijoles (Spanish for beans) Canyon is the main canyon in BNM where most everyone goes. This is where the visitor center is, and easy walks on paved trails to various archaeological sites. There are two trails that lead to the south rim of the canyon in this area. One is the direct ascent route and the other is a more gradual pack trail ascent west of the direct route. I prefer the direct ascent. It climbs away from the other visitors quickly and the views from the rim are nice. I did use the pack trail on the return, however. Easier on the feet and knees after long hike.

The sign at the trailhead stated that Yapashi Pueblo was 5.2 miles ahead. Yapashi is en route to the stone lions from this direction. None of the newer signs in BNM even mention the stone lions. Only the older very weathered signs do and, even then, don't tell you where they are. They just give general directional information.

Once on top of Frijoles Canyon, there are some nice and unique views of the ruins below that few that visit Bandelier enjoy.

There are several places along the rim to view the ruins and canyon walls below along this section of the hike.

After about 0.3 miles after ascending to the south rim of Frijoles, you encounter Frijolito ruins (GPS: N35 46.779 W106 16.607). This is an unexcavated area that looks like little more than out of place mounts of dirt.
Once past these ruins, the trail shys away from the canyon edge, so you lose sight down into the canyon at this point. As I continued along, I noticed that the NPS is doing a lot of clearing of bug kill pine and pinon trees in this area. As I have mentioned before, the desert southwest went through several years of drought and that, combined with a serious infestation of bark beetles, killed 90-98% of the pinon and pine trees in this entire area. I live on a little over 4 acres of land which used to be filled with pine, juniper, and pinon. The only trees left living in my yard are juniper trees. The only surviving pine and pinon trees are the ones right next to my house that I kept watered. I could not water the hundreds elsewhere on my property. This >90% mortality rate was seen all over the southwest. Juniper is about the only thing that survived, and is certainly the only living tree type along this portion of the trail.

Boundary peak as seen from the south rim of Frijoles Canyon.

About 0.7 miles after Frijolito ruins, you come to the pack trail back to the visitor's center (GPS: N35 47.143 W106 17.191). This is the other way you can get to the top of Frijoles in this area, but it misses the views I mentioned above. I took this trail back to the visitor's center on my return, however. It is a more gradual descent. Just beyond this point (GPS: N35 47.170 W106 17.215, labeled "trail fork" on the map above), you come to a fork in the trail. Here, you can continue along the rim of Frjoles to upper crossing, or head to mid-Alamo Canyon and Yapashi Pueblo (and the Stone Lions).

Lumis Canyon

About 1.2 miles past the fork in the trail and the above sign, you encounter Lumis canyon, one of the 4 canyons you must traverse en route to the lions. Lumis, at least at this upper end, is a small canyon as can be seen in the map detail. Although small, it is a pretty canyon. I have never seen water in this canyon, but there are clear signs that water is found there in the right conditions. I suspect only after significant rainfall during the monsoonal season or in early spring during snow melt.

Here are a couple of pictures of Lumis.

In the Lumis area, I also encountered a small group of female mule deer, a common sight in these parts.

Finally, while hiking out of Lumis, I heard the most remarkable bird singing. It sounded like a plaintive cry. It started high and crescendoed down in pitch and volume, and would start over again. Almost like an echo.

Alamo Canyon
Leaving Lumis Canyon, you break out into a meadow. This shows signs of beetle infestation, but not all of the pine trees have died as seen below. Boundary Peak can be seen in this image, and Alamo Canyon lies dead ahead.
As you approach the north rim of Alamo Canyon, the view opens up. In the image below, you can clearly see the expansive valley beyond Pajarito Plateau, to Sandia Peak to the south. Sharp eyes will be able to see Cochiti Pueblo on the right side of the image, and Cochiti lake and dam in the center.
The image above was taken near the beginning of the ascent into Alamo Canyon from the north side (GPS: N35 45.974 W106 18.180). Alamo is the hardest part of this hike. The map shows the segment of the hike from rim to rim. Alamo is a beautiful and deep canyon. Even if you don't want to descend into and then out of it to see the sights beyond, it is worth the approximate 4 mile journey from the visitor center to the north rim just to see it.

This image was taken on the north rim, looking toward lower Alamo Canyon (approximately south east). If you look closely, you can see the trail leading to the south rim of the canyon in the image below. This is a slightly more gradual ascent than the one to the north rim.

This image was taken from the same spot, but looking north west, toward upper Alamo Canyon.

This is partway down the descent from the north rim.

The bottom of Alamo is not dry until later in the spring or early summer, depending on snowpack conditions. At this time of year, there is running water in the bottom. However, later on in the year, don't count on it. Be sure to bring plenty of your own water with you.

As you can see, Alamo also has tent rock formations in several places, although they are not as large and impressive as those at Tent Rocks National Monument, which is near the Cochiti Pueblo.

After descending from the north rim, you walk through the bottom of the canyon, crossing the stream twice, then you ascend to the south rim (GPS: N35 45.517 W106 17.990). This ascent is an elevation gain of about 458 ft in about 0.43 miles. From there, you hike toward Yapashi Pueblo, crossing one more small canyon en route.

The south side of Alamo is noticeably more desert like. There are no pine trees to speak of (except for the occasional small pine tree that was beetle killed), more cactus, and not much grass. It made me wonder why anyone would have settled here given the lack of natural resources, including water.

Before reaching Yapashi, another fork in the trail is encountered (labeled "Trail Fork 2" in the above map, GPS: N35 45.489 W106 18.481). Here you will find a newer sign that points the direction for Yapashi, or back to the visitor's center. However, another trail leads to the south east and an older sign reads "lower alamo trail." This takes you to lower Alamo and eventually back to Frijoles, emerging near the rim of that canyon near the
Frijolito ruins.

Yapashi Pueblo
Yapashi Pueblo (GPS: N35 45.686 W106 18.932) is another unexcavated site, this time of an entire pueblo with fallen walls covered in dirt and, interestingly enough, Cane Cholla Cacti. You see these cactus plants periodically along the way, but this is the largest concentration that I saw. I don't know why this was so prevalent in this particular area. Perhaps these people gathered them to use them for various things, thus leaving more seeds in this area to grow once the walls fell. I arrived at the Yapishi site at about 11:30am.

As I stood there among the ruins of this long gone pueblo, I could not help but view the Cane Cholla cactus as ghosts of the past inhabitants. Silent guardians of a civilization past.

I am looking forward to an overnighter in this area some time so I can get dawn and dusk images, with perhaps some clouds in the sky for an even greater effect.

Just a short jaunt (about 0.5 miles) west of Yapashi are the stone lions.

The Shrine of the Stone Lions
There seems to be little information out there about this shrine (GPS: N35 45.921 W106 19.310), its origin, or even its precise location. I don't know why, but I suspect this is a mechanism for protecting it to a certain degree. This is a shrine still in use by some local Native Americans, and nothing should be disturbed at this site. Please respect it and the people that use it.
I would speculate that the stone lions were carved by the original inhabitants of the area as part of a hunting ritual. Evidence of some use is present today. I found pottery shards, obsidian pieces, turquoise pieces, and even a piece of sea shell someone had left on or near the lions when I visited.
The shell (on top of the right lion) looked like part of a common mussel shell. Since New Mexico is over 1,000 miles from the nearest ocean, I don't know what the story is with that "artifact." It obviously meant something to someone.

As can be seen in the photograph opening this entire blog entry, the stone lions are surrounded by a ring of rocks with one entrance. I don't know if these rocks were added by the carvers of the lions or not. It is quite a striking shrine, however.

The lions point about 120 degrees to the east/south east. The lions are of course quite eroded, but you can still make them out fairly well. The lion on the left has a more defined face than the one on the right. From behind, you can see their tails quite well.
I sat here for a while in the silence and had a snack, and thought about the long-dead civilization that had created this site. I wondered if someday someone would wander around the remains of our civilization and ponder the people that used to live there. Nothing is permanent, no matter how permanent it may seem. Surely these inhabitants thought their civilization would endure forever too, right? What about looking at this in the small? What to the ruins of our own little civilizations say about us? Past relationships, jobs, organizations, teams, projects, and so on. What lessons do we learn from them?

The Return

The shrine itself is right at the "triangle," a confluence of the trails in the area. This sign points out one can hike to the painted cave, dome lookout to the south, upper crossing to the north. These hikes will have to wait for another day.

Obviously, the main feature of the return hike is the descent and ascent of Alamo Canyon. The ascent to the north rim of Alamo is a steep climb, rising 578 ft in 0.67 miles. The steepest portion rises 515 ft in 0.35 miles. This is a very hot hike in the summer. At the time of year I went, it was comfortable. But be sure to take plenty of water.

I arrived at the north rim of Alamo at about 1:50pm, and I stopped there for a quiet rest, enjoying the view of the canyon. I particularly enjoyed the sound of rushing air as the canyon swallows would whoosh by at high speed. They would dart by me, rapidly changing direction before impact with me or the canyon walls. Amazing. After a while, it seemed that they were playing a game of chicken with me. At times, they sounded like rubber bands flying past my ears. If you can imagine that.

I sat there for a while. I noticed that I started thinking about heading back and making "good time" getting back and so on. Why? That is not the point. This is not a race. I forced myself to sit quietly for a while longer. It was nice to hear the sound of the wind whistling through the canyon, and the sound of the bubbling stream some 580 ft below me. I looked down on a raven flying high about the canyon floor. I am home.

I reluctantly left the north canyon rim. I retraced my steps all the way back to the pack trail on the south Frijoles Canyon rim (GPS:
N35 47.143 W106 17.191) where I descended into Frijoles and returned to the visitor center. I got back to my car at about 3:30pm. So with the photography, note taking and so on, it was a 7 hour day hike.

Normally I see no one on this hike. At least not to Alamo, which is as far as I had gone in the past. This time I passed someone ascending to the north rim as I was descending it (a solo male, like me). Then I passed a couple descending the south rim as I was ascending. Finally, on my way back, I passed another couple heading back to toward the visitor center after Lumis. This is by far the most people I have seen on this hike. I also passed more mule deer on my way back, again past Lumis. Probably the same group I saw in the morning, just more of them.

This was a very enjoyable way to spend a day. For more photographs of this hike, see my gallery.


Trapezoidal said...

Thank you blogger! This information is very hard to come by online and you did a wonderful job documenting this hike. I hope to tackle this this spring.

Stephen R. Lee said...

Excellent. Glad you liked it. Let me know how it goes when you do the hike.

- Stephen

Rena <3 said...

In the Book Mysteries and Miracles of New Mexico there is a story that talks about the Stone Lions and how the Mormons had them removed believing they were a part of their history. They as you saw for yourself were returned...

Stephen R. Lee said...

Really? They looked pretty permanent to me. Interesting.

Anonymous said...

This was excellent information and I'm motivated to make the hike. Were the trails well-marked and paths wide enough to follow? Did you have to pay an entrance fee? Any suggestions for women wanting to make the trek?

Stephen R. Lee said...

Glad this was useful information. As to your questions:

"Were the trails well-marked and paths wide enough to follow?"

The trails are in excellent condition. Easy to follow, wide, and so on. As I mentioned in the original blog post, there are no signs for the Stone Lions. Follow the signs to Yapashi and my instructions from there. But the trails themselves are in good shape.

"Do you have to pay an entrance fee?"

Yes. I have a National Parks Pass, so I do not pay an entrance fee at any National Park. However, like all National Parks, there is an entrance fee. I don't know what it is at Bandelier, though, since I have not paid the fee directly for years.

"Any suggestions for women wanting to make the trek?"

Not really. It is a high-altitude desert environment and there is no reliable water along the route (bottom of Alamo usually has water). So you need to carry plenty of water. This is true for anyone, not just women.

If you are a strong hiker, man or woman, you can do this trip as a day hike as I did. However, note the maps. There are significant elevation gains and losses and, if you come from a lower altitude, these can be challenging. You can get a back country backpack permit and make a short backpack out of the trip if you wish.

If you do go, post back and let me know what you thought!

Trapezoidal said...

My friend and I managed this hike over the summer in mid August. It was quite an amazing experience.

On anonymous' question of whether women can do this hike, on our way in we passed a girl coming out in the early afternoon dayhike status that put us entirely to shame.

We knew that we weren't in good enough shape to do the hike in all one sitting so we camped backcountry past Yapashi, so that's always an option for you. Additionally, there is an alternate route in and out which is technically less strenuous than tackling the main part of Alamo canyon. The downside is that it's a few miles longer and less well maintained (the maintainance issues mainly being fallen trees). However, it is still easy to follow with the exception of the end near Yapashi and the Stone Lions shrine, where the grass gets kind of thick. Very pretty hike though, and upper Alamo canyon is very beautiful.

For comparisson, if my memory finds me the main trail is rated as "Very Strenuous" whereas the alt. route is "moderate." As long as you're in moderately good shape it should be very doable.

Anonymous said...

I am reading 'True Tales of the American South West' by Howard Bryan ISBN 0-940666-96-0 pbk where I came across an account by Marietta Wetherill (b.1876)of being as child shown the stone lions of Cochiti Pueblo. This led me to Google them and find your blog. I think you would enjoy the book if you do not already know it. MW spoke Navajo and was not kidnapped by Geronimo as a result of this. There is too much of interest to recount here but thank you for these photos.

Stephen R. Lee said...

Thanks. I've not read that book but I believe I will get it and read it. Sounds interesting!

Anonymous said...

I love the maps and elevation side views you have on your website. Where do they come from? What kind of GPS do you have?

Stephen R. Lee said...

I have a Garmin GPSMap 60CSX. The map images are made on the computer after I return, where I upload the track into the Garmin Basemap software to display my track and waypoints on the topo map. I then capture that as am image and post that to my blog.

Although not necessary for the process above, I have all of the National Parks topo maps which I load into my GPS so I see the same topo map information hiking as you see on the website when I make the images as described above.

Tom Delaney said...

Your photographs brought back a lot of good memories for me. My uncle lived in Los Alamos, and besides hiking aorund Frijoles Canyon every day on my own, I made the hike to the Stone Lions with my uncle. It is one of the best memories I have in my lifetime. Profound gratitude from me to you Stephen.

Tom Delaney

Stephen R. Lee said...

That's great, Tom! I love hearing about memories like that!

Anonymous said...

Six of us (3 women, 3 men) from the Santa Fe -Abiquiu area did the day hike to the Stone Lions from the Visitor Center last Sunday, May 9th. It was fabulous, challenging, wonderful and terrifying (for those of us with heights-issues!). Everyone made it and said it was perhaps the most memorable hike of their lives. (Two in our party are more than 70 years of age. We are all long term NM residents.) For people thinking about doing this hike: yes! but take a LOT of water, be in good physical shape, and be forewarned that Alamo Canyon is as difficult to traverse as it is beautiful. The Stone Lions are a half mile beyond Yapashi with no signage and the trail is a bit faint. Just keep going!

Stephen R. Lee said...

I hope if I make it to 70, I can still do a hike like this.

Anonymous said...

It must have been the early eighties that I saw them twice about a year or so apart. The only person I saw was a Ranger that lived in a cabin west of the lions . He did trail repair he said. The first time there were many offerings. Crystals, feathers, beads, shells and very interesting rocks. I had brought along some gemstones and some of my favorite crystals and left them there. When I came back, sadly they had been taken. Like you say, the hike really isn't hard. Your picture does not have the antlers around the lions? and I see no offerings. When was it taken? Thank you very much for the info and photos. It has brought back very fond memories. I believe I'll have to go back with my ten year old Daughter. Thanks again. Peace, Keith

Stephen R. Lee said...

Not much when I was there. Some shells and what not as noted in the original post. Glad you enjoyed reading about it.

Beth Surdut said...

The Stone Lions have been rumbling at me from different sources recently,including Scott Thybony's book Burntwater. I've been thinking this would be a beautiful autumn hike.