The crunch of my boots punching through the thin blanket of snow is the only sound in the quiet of early morning at Bandelier National Monument, and I'm reminded again of why I enjoy this place so much.

It's easy to pretend it's mine, and at no time more so than winter -- or what passes for it here in the mountains of northern New Mexico -- or early spring.

Bandelier National Monument is a federal park about 40 miles northwest of Santa Fe. It sprawls over about 50 square miles of canyons and mesas of an 800-square-mile, water-eroded volcanic plain -- the Pajarito (or Littlebird) Plateau. The Rio Grande marks the park's southern boundary, and the remains of the volcano that created park and plain are 15 miles northwest -- the Valle Grande, a pine-covered bowl in the mountains that is one of the nation's biggest calderas. Like Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, Bandelier's chief claim to fame is a collection of well-preserved Anasazi Indian ruins -- remnants of an aboriginal culture that flourished in the Bandelier area between 1075 and 1550 A.D. -- and which existed as early as 600 B.C. elsewhere in the West.

But Bandelier is more than its sister parks.

At Mesa Verde (and at Chaco Culture National Historical Park and Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument in New Mexico and Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona) visitors are necessarily restricted to well-groomed promenades, marked at appropriate intervals for mandatory oohing and ahing. Each marker matches an entry in the battered guidebooks -- and regularly, reading an entry means tripping over the signs that say "Stay on Trail."

But at Bandelier you can meet the Anasazi on their own ground. This 33,000-acre collection of mesas, canyons, ponderosa pines, eagles, bears, elk and Indian ruins (nearly 8,000 archeological sites) is unique in that roughly two-thirds of the acreage is officially designated wilderness. At any other similar park, meeting the Anasazi means company: the Boy Scouts, tourists and vacationing preppies asking, "How long's it take?" But at Bandelier you can do it alone. And all it requires is a willingness to walk and a back with a pack on it. (No roads cross this country, and the only other way to see it is to enter on horseback -- the Park Service has the name of an outfitter.)

I often think of the park as a 33,000-page primer on Anasazi life. Frijoles (Bean) Canyon is the book's introduction: Paved trails lead through the Park Service's carefully orchestrated tours of Frijoles Creek, Tyuonyi (the remains of a three-story, 400-room communal residence), Long House -- the series of cliff-side cave dwellings that first drew academic attention to the park -- and Ceremonial Cave, which once contained several dwellings and now has a restored kiva (ceremonial chamber) cut into a natural rock shelf an exhausting 150 feet above the canyon floor.

Orchestration has its points. One's first Nightwalk in the main canyon (an interpretive Park Service program conducted by reservation only) is an experience never to be forgotten: drums echoing through the dark canyon, candles coloring caves in the distance a shadowy gold, the voice of an Indian singer chanting ancient Tewa prayers. Heart and mind begin to sing.

But the back country is where one comes closest to life as the Anasazi lived it. Consider, for example, the Shrine of the Stone Lions. Adolph Bandelier, the archeologist-ethnologist who gave the park his name, first approached Stone Lions in 1880. Today, more than a century later, it is unchanged: two stone mountain lions carved from gray volcanic tuff, circled by sun-scored white antlers and shards of pottery -- a site that for centuries has been a place of worship.

I had walked out of the west, coming down the Dome Road Trail and climbing down into Capulin Canyon -- a long, thin, north-south valley that eventually turns west to climb into the high ridges that mark the rim of the Valle Grande. Time and erosion have created canyons that carve the Pajarito into a collection of finger mesas that twist and curl around old waterways. It is blanketed with pines. I walked along the stream, past the empty cabins and corrals of base camp for Park Service work crews, and then back up the switchbacks that lead to the unnamed mesa with the Stone Lions.sw sk

Hot, sweaty and half-lost despite the marked trail, I almost walked past the shrine before the organized presence of stacked rock, circled antlers and brushed earth littered with shards made itself felt. The life-size lions, carved in the bedrock, measure about five feet in length.

Stone Lions is maintained today by Keres Indians from Cochiti Pueblo to the south, who consider the ruin of Yapashi Pueblo a half-mile down-canyon one of their ancestral homes. Yapashi in the Keres language means "sacred enclosure," and the Cochiti still conduct religious ceremonies at Stone Lions.sw sk

It is an awe-inspiring scene, and my solitary visit seemed so much more appropriate than an intrusive tour. Anasazi life was and timed by the seasons -- a flavor that can be captured today only in the back country. Consider: Last year 239,155 people visited the park. But out of that number, only 5,630 entered the back country -- almost all in the summer.

For their efforts, they were rewarded with a distinctively different park experience.

Visitors to the main canyon, for example, can observe one rock painting -- a single example of Anasazi art in its place of creation. Trekkers enjoy Painted Cave -- a stellar collection of primitive paintings and petroglyphs deep within the park. Hands, heads, animals and the peculiar spirals found wherever the Anasazi resided are arranged in a multicolored semicircle on a rock face beneath a protective overhang 30 feet above the trail. The colors are still vivid, especially in morning light.sw sk

Bandelier is a uniquely beautiful place, and walking the back country you have time to appreciate it: smoky-red ponderosa pines somnolent in the cool air, the occasional hawk circling overhead and all of it bathed in that special light that's drawn generations of world-class artists to northern New Mexico. People simply don't believe in New Mexican sunsets until they've seen one. They're just too grandiosely . . . well, Biblical.

If you're fortunate, you might encounter one of the elk that winter in the park. Sandhill cranes like it, too. And if you're very lucky, you might see the park's prize rarity: one of its resident American bald eagles. Recent estimates put the eagle population in and around Bandelier at about 25. Park biologists are very reluctant to discuss the endangered eagles and refuse to pinpoint their locations.

The Anasazi are omnipresent: piles of brick-shaped rocks, sunken pits where old kivas once rang with prayer chants and complete structures like Stone Lions. Pottery shards are everywhere -- brilliant reds, solemn blacks and the occasional whites. Every back-country hiker ends up asking how they broke so many cooking pots and water jugs.

But one question presses even more strongly: Why did they leave? Some paleoanthropologists believe the loss of food crops due to drought forced them to move on, but no one really knows. Bandelier himself may have sensed the reason when he made the following entry in his Final Report in 1892: "The whole country is a wilderness and will scarcely become anything else."

Though friendly to the hiker and hunter, the land can be hostile to the farmer -- water often is in short supply and the rocky, thin soil is easily exhausted. Perhaps, in the end, it proved too harsh even for the Anasazi.