Sitting upon the edge of a cliff at Tsankawi, legs dangling in space, basking in the midwinter sun, one can look out over the snow dusted valley below and perhaps understand why the ancient Indians choose to live here hundreds of years ago.
Today it offers visitors spectacular views, a great winter hike and a quiet, contemplative place in which to consider what life must have been like for the native people over 400 years ago.
High atop this mesa, ancestors of San Ildefonso Pueblo built a village and on the south facing cliff face, they carved out shallow caves in the soft volcanic rock where they cooked, slept and hid from the elements.
Their comings and goings cut deep trails into the soft rock crisscrossing the site and following them leads one into a glimpse of what their world must have been like then.
In the valley floor below they grew dry land crops such as corn, beans and squash, gathered wood and water and hunted game.
Crawling into one of the sandy floored caves, a visitor finds the roof blackened by the smoke of previous cook fires and a window carved in the wall that provides a view upon the valley and the far off Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Stepping carefully amid the rocky ruins of the mesa top village a sharp eye may see that someone has placed a couple of pottery shards atop a flat rock. They should be left them alone because this is an outdoor museum and removing them is a federal law offense.
And on the trail below, if one stops often enough to look up at the rock walls above, a visitor may see one of the many messages that the Indians left behind, like a large spiral carved in the rock or a depiction of an animal.
More clues about the life they lived arise as one rounds a corner and sees a series of steps notched into the sloping rock face.
Climbing those leads to a natural depression with a slight overhang, what appears to be a natural cistern that collects rain water runoff from the rock face above.
The rock here was formed by residue from the volcanic eruption of the nearby Jemez Mountains which also formed the massive, grassy meadows of the Valles Caldera National Preserve.
The soft rock that makes up the colorful mesas, buttes and canyons in the surrounding area is easily eroded by water and also easy to excavate.
Tsankawi is an intriguing 1.5 mile hike involving a climb up and down three sets of ladders fashioned from lodge poles, incredible scenic views and a great deal of Native American history as spelled out in a guided, numerical tour pamphlet available at the park entrance.
Tsankawi is a remote section of Bandelier National Monument which is located about 15 miles farther south on State Rd. 4 after passing through the town of White Rock.
Tsankawi in Tewa, the traditional language of San Ildefonso Pueblo means “village between two canyons at the clump of sharp, round cacti,” according to the park’s brochure.
The village ruins at Tsankawi remain unexcavated at the wishes of the San Ildefonso Puebloans but modern technology has allowed archeologists to determine the village consisted of 275 rooms alone on the mesa top.
It is believed that the ancestors of San Ildefonso Pueblo left their mesa top village sometime during the 1500s to relocate in the valley below along the banks of the Rio Grande.