But the biggest wonders came with our descent along the southwest side of the cliff: cave dwelling after cave dwelling, into which we clambered like children, calling to one another in excitement and staring at the soot-blackened ceilings. Narrow runnels worn eight to 12 inches deep in the rock by generations of use as footpaths connect the caves, and remnants of some toehold trails are still visible in the rock. Petroglyphs adorn some rock faces; we liked the stick figures with arms extended to the elbow and forearms raised to the sky.
Lore: The so-called mystery about why the inhabitants abandoned their agricultural settlement sometime in the late 1500s has been overplayed. A drought, depleted soil and exhaustion of natural resources such as wood all appear to have played a role, and the villagers interspersed with other groups in the area.
On the Tsankawi Trail by Santa Fe, take the 12-foot ladder one step at a time.
Bragging rights: There's that 12-foot ladder, occasionally narrow footing and a trail that flirts with a crumbly cliff edge on the way back.
Uh-ohs: The trail's position relative to the drop-offs wouldn't faze most adults (the cliff isn't much more than 20 to 30 feet high, but it's on a rim of rock 1,000 feet above the snaking Rio Grande so it feels more dramatic) except for the fact that you can see where portions of the cliff have collapsed. How long ago? How suddenly? There's no telling.
Getting there: If you're not looking for it -- and even if you are -- you could easily miss it. A few miles past the highway turnoff from Route 502 onto Route 4 for Bandelier, and just before the north fork veers off to Los Alamos, keep your eye out for a nondescript gated fence on the left and space along the shoulder for several parked cars. There's a sign saying Tsankawi, but you have to get out of the car to read it. Info: 505-672-0343, www.nps.gov/band. Fees, notes: To park, you're supposed to display your national park visitor's tag, available for $10 per car at the visitors center, or just feed $10 to a fee-processing machine at the gate. We took a chance, hiking first and paying the fee later. General elevation: 6,600 feet.
Devisadero Loop Trail
This steep five-mile loop overlooking the 1,000-year-old Taos Pueblo and the Rio Grande Gorge offers view upon eye-popping view of snow-capped Wheeler Peak and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Plus it boasts an evocative bit of history. Devisadero is Spanish for "lookout point." The Taos Pueblos used to send scouts up to the peak along this trail to watch for Apache raiding parties coming down from Taos Canyon.
Highlights: Heading north from the access trail, we took the trail's steeper right fork to Devisadero Peak, choosing to exert ourselves first and reap the reward later. There was gratification almost from the start in mountain views, through the pinons, juniper and gambel oak, of a drama and number rarely afforded by Eastern trails. On the darker, cooler north side of the mountain, these continued, this time through taller Douglas and white firs.
We set no time records on the hike. We spent nearly 3 1/2 hours all told, allowing for breaks to: eat a cookie, scout for arrowheads (no luck), examine quartz and volcanic rock, and dissect the flat arm of a small cactus after scrubbing off the needles with a rock. (John Wayne movies notwithstanding, don't bet your life on quenching your thirst this way. The plant's innards proved a moist lurid green, but nothing oozed when cut.)
Lore: Local detective writer Tony Hillerman tells, in a short story, how in 1994 a man's sudden illness and death after hiking in the region triggered an epidemiological mystery. The cause of death: the Plague. As in Bubonic. The virus still lurks in several Western states, including New Mexico, where it breaks out in isolated occasions from rodents to humans. Antibiotics defeat it these days, as long as the diagnosis is made in time.
Bragging rights: There's a 1,125-foot elevation gain in the first mile and a half or so to 8,304 feet.