In the course of research for my new book Ghostwalker: Tracking a Mountain Lion’s Soul through Science and Story I learned of an unusual site in New Mexico’s Bandelier National Monument named Shrine of the Stone Lions.
There are few examples of cougar rock art throughout the Western states, although more exist in the Southwest. But Bandlier’s Lion Shrine is not really rock art at all, but two recumbent lions carved out of individual pieces of volcanic tuff.
The carvings lie side by side and are close to life sized figures with a crude wall of boulders encircling them. To keep them off the grid of people’s attention, the National Monument doesn’t even refer to the lions on their website.
Local tribes consider The Stone Lions a sacred site. Pilgrimages are made even today by Cochiti and Zunis, who leave offerings around the shrine. Although it’s not known exactly what these unique carvings represent, speculation is this was a hunting shrine for ancient Puebloan peoples.
Not too far from this site, another single lion shrine lies outside the Park, its location on an obscure mesa kept highly secret. Like the Shrine of the two Stone Lions, this is also a recumbent lion surrounded by a stone circle.
Several years ago, the University of New Mexico used a helicopter to remove the lion and deliver it to the Maxwell Museum. Amid loud protests, the carving was returned to its original site, although the tail is now missing.
With finalization of Ghostwalker’s manuscript, I had a strong impulse to make the pilgrimage myself to the carvings. The hike seemed to embody the completion of my journey with the lion’s tale, but also a spiritual celebration of the animal. A final and fitting end to the book’s story.
I was in SW New Mexico last March for several weeks exploring the Gila, so on my return to Wyoming I traveled to the town of Los Alamos which is near Bandelier.
Since the exact location of the Shrine is not on the Park’s website, I went to their visitor center the day before to inquire as to how to get there. The Park employee told me they no longer reveal anything about the location because the Puebloan peoples do not want others making non-traditional offerings or desecrating the site.
Since I had a rough idea of where to go, I boarded the dog in Los Alamos and took off for the rugged 13-mile hike. In the process, one has to descend through several canyons and no water along the way.
I took several quarts of water and stashed them for the return trip. I’m not a strong hiker, so I considered this a long arduous hike and prepared some minimal items in case I had to stay overnight.
The Shrine sits about a mile from a ruin named Yapashi Pueblo, considered at minimum over 1000 years old. Anyone visiting this site must approach it as you would any ancient temple or church–with respect, honoring, and never take anything from the site.
A wall of large stones set upright ring the carvings with a door facing east. The carvings themselves are so old and weathered that one can barely make out the lions. In fact, I read one account that believes one is a lion and the other might be a jaguar.
At the time of the carvings, both animals lived in the area. Offerings of turquoise chips laid over the carvings are the visible sign of native pilgrimages.
The visit to the Shrine of the Stone Lions felt like the final chapter of all my efforts in writing Ghostwalker. I spoke with dozens of individuals, conducted over fifty interviews, and read mounds of newspaper clippings and scientific articles.
Yet the hike and visit to the Shrine captured my initial impulse–the respect and love for this magnificent, powerful animal.
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