BANDELIER NATIONAL MONUMENT — The nearly full parking lot was a dead giveaway.
Adventure-seekers are making a beeline to spectacular outdoor spaces like Bandelier National Monument, which is seeing a renewed rush of interest from visitors tethered to their homes by the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s our first trip since COVID,” Cristi Johson of Maryland said as she laced up her hiking boots. “I can’t wait to explore more of the state.”
Evidence that normalcy is quickly returning to New Mexico could easily be found at Bandelier, where even the reopening of the visitors center — some trails within the monument have been open for months — brought smiles and excitement to hundreds who’d streamed there Wednesday from across the country.
“It’s great to be back at full operation,” volunteer Fred Minshall said near a picnic area outside the visitors center. “Everybody is happy and relaxed. They’re excited to be here.”
“It’s been busy,” added David Graveline, a permit coordinator for the National Park Service. “People are ready to get out there and experience their national parks.”
Pent up by the pandemic, Americans are traveling in huge numbers to national parks as health and safety restrictions ease. In May, Yellowstone National Park recorded a record number of visitors in a single month.
“People are rediscovering their national parks,” Graveline said.
Bandelier is no exception. Graveline said the number of visitors to the monument near Los Alamos this year has outpaced the count recorded in 2019, the year before the pandemic struck. Over Memorial Day weekend, Bandelier had more than 2,000 visitors.
“We expect the same over the Fourth of July weekend,” Graveline said.
The visitor center, which includes a museum and a theater, is now open to the public from 9 a.m to 4:30 p.m. daily. Beginning July 1, Bandelier will offer free, ranger-guided hikes of the popular Pueblo Loop Trail.
“There are so many hidden gems at Bandelier,” said Graveline, who has worked for the park service since 2012. “A wealth of human history to see and experience.”
The ability to see anything, including history, is the undeniable draw to many who trek to the monument from near and far.
Cam Duncan, a volunteer for the Santa Fe youth program Heritage Hands, said the COVID-19 shutdown forced many kids inside, denying them the chance to be outdoors and experience areas like Bandelier.
“In 2020, we had to cancel everything,” said Duncan, 75, as kids in the program ate lunch. “They missed out on experiencing this history and heritage.”
Atieno Ouma, the field trip coordinator for the group, said the trip represented a way to make up for what so many missed in 2020.
“They are tired of looking at screens,” said Ouma, 29, glancing over the table filled with fourth through eighth graders. “Kids just want to be kids.”
That’s true of adults as well. As the parking lot at Bandelier’s visitors center filled and hikers set out on an ooh-and-ah adventure, the excitement was palpable.
“It was definitely worth the trip,” said Harper Clark, who drove to New Mexico with her husband from their home in Seattle. “It’s been a year of isolation.”
Clark said she hopes to visit other national parks throughout the Southwest this year.
“We’re going to take full advantage,” she said, “of this summer.”