The Jemez Mountains are a source of solace for me. It doesn’t take long to get there from my front door and there are numerous activities and sights to choose from. I typically stay fairly close to Highway 4 when showing out of town visitors around. The terrain changes dramatically every few miles and the loop from Albuquerque, back through Santa Fe, can be completed in a day. Regardless of interests, there are numerous things to see and do along the way. For adventures originating in Santa Fe or Albuquerque, it is the ideal day trip.
Highway 4 Highlights
Driving from Albuquerque towards Cuba, take a right on Highway 4 in San Ysidro. San Ysidro is a farming community, established in 1699. Slow down and anticipate losing cell phone reception as you leave town.
If you are interested in roadside peculiarities, stop at C&W Feed Store to see their taxidermy collection. They have most of the fauna of New Mexico…stuffed. It is disturbing, a bit macabre, but impressive. The San Ysidro church, with vibrant blue doors and the mountains in the background, provides a preliminary photo opportunity against the red and white hills and mesas in the backdrop.
About a mile after Jemez Pueblo, you will see the Walatowa Visitor Center and the Red Rocks. The Red Rocks provide a fantastic study of contrasts, with the brilliant red, iron laden, stone set against an electric blue sky (usually). The visitor center provides information about the culture and history of Jemez Pueblo, with a small interpretive museum and onsite staff available to answer questions. They sell passes to hike the Red Rocks, which are otherwise off limits.
The gas station at Walatowa provides one of the last opportunities to get gas until you get to Los Alamos, White Rock, or Cuba and it is the last cell phone reception until Jemez Springs.
If you haven’t had fry bread or a Navajo taco, the food vendors lining the base of the cliffs can rectify that, providing carb rich fuel for your Jemez adventure. There are several picnic tables available.
Gilman Tunnels are a few miles beyond the Red Rocks on State Road 485. Take a left if you are heading north. The tunnels, in the Guadalupe River Box canyon, were blasted in the 1920s for a logging train. The road continues beyond the tunnels, becoming Forest Road 385 (unpaved but usually in good condition). There are numerous opportunities for roadside camping along the route, including some outsandings campsites next to the river. Wild turkeys, deer and elk sightings are normal. Bigfoot sightings are also remarkably normal. The road eventually intersects State Road 126 with access to Fenton Lake (left) or La Cueva (right).
Alternately, by skipping Gilman tunnels and staying on highway 4, Jemez Springs is the next town beyond Walatowa. This tiny community has a lot to offer, including several good food options, multiple hot springs, and numerous small art galleries. Los Ojos Saloon, the Highway 4 café, the Jemez Stage Stop, and Giggling Springs are a few of the local businesses worth checking out.
Los Ojos bar is a long time favorite of mine, with logs rather than stools at the bar. It is a dive, but a fun dive, with a lot of character. A set designer wouldn’t have to do anything for this place to work as the backdrop for a western. Furthermore, the food is tasty, the beer selection includes several local craft beers, the patio is a fantastic place to hang out with friends, and the weather is typically cooler than Albuquerque.
Jemez Monument | The ruins of Giusewa and a Spanish Mission, San Jose de los Jemez, are less than a mile from Los Ojos. The site is well worth the $5 admission. Sundays are free for locals.
Approximately 700 years ago, the ancestors of Jémez (Walatowa) Pueblo migrated from the Chaco Canyon/Mesa Verde area. They established several communities on the western flank of the Jemez mountain range in the 1300s, including a large pueblo in San Diego Canyon called Giusewa, established ca. 1350 AD. “Giusewa” means “place of boiling waters” in Towa, which is a reference to the hot springs nearby. The pueblo consisted of several multistory structures, with as many as 1,000 rooms.
San José de Giusewa as an extremely large structure compared to other missions in the region, with an unusual, rare octagonal bell tower. The Spanish built the San José de los Jemez church in the 1620s. The church, and the priest, didn’t fare well in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, but the ruins of the church are impressive. The church was 111 feet long and almost 34 feet wide. They built it with sandstone from the area, set in an adobe mortar. The walls are as thick as 6 feet on the west and 8 feet on the east.
Soda Dam is a few miles north of Jemez Springs. It is one of the most photographed features in the Jemez. Water has been flowing from underground hot springs for centuries and the buildup of mineral deposits formed a spectacular natural dam that blocks the Jemez River. On the side of the road opposite the dam there is hot mineral water seeping out of the rocks, forming deep pools of warm water that many people don’t notice. Also, there is a small cave in the arch where the water seeps from the ceiling, pooling in a mineral bowl that has been created over the centuries. In the winter the water emits enough heat to create steam, which kind of makes it look like a breathing dragon. I may have an active imagination.
Battleship Rock is a sheer cliff that rises above the Jemez River like the prow of a ship. The cliff is peppered with obsidian created from volcanic eruptions five million years ago. The trailhead at the base of the cliff leads to beautiful, large mineral springs about three miles in. A knowledge of first aid basics and a snake bite kit are good to include in your pack. There are rattlesnakes in many of the prime hiking areas.
A few miles beyond Battleship Rock is parking for Spence Hot Springs, a more accessible and popular place for a soak, though my least favorite…possibly due to the popularity. Friends and I referred to it as “Herpes Springs” due to the traffic and potential for bacteria rich cooties. Furthermore, the strange encounters at Spence Hot Springs would serve as fodder for dozens of blogs…human, not wildlife. There are so many hot springs to choose from in the Jemez. The more you are willing to sweat to get to them, the more likely you will have privacy for your moment of zen.
When you get to the stop sign at La Cueva, left on 126 heads to Fenton Lake, right continues on Highway 4.
Fenton Lake | Fishing, camping, hiking at this popular little mountain lake.
San Gregorio Reservoir | Between Fenton Lake and Cuba San Gregorio is a small reservoir in a beautiful alpine setting. Gorgeous hiking trails that aren’t challenging. Primitive camping. A walk is involved. Be prepared to pack out trash. The dirt road continues to Cuba.
Jemez Falls is about 3 miles beyond La Cueva, off Highway 4. At an altitude of 7,880 ft above sea level, the Jemez river drops 70 feet through a spectacular series of falls. There is camping available and numerous trails both at the falls and nearby. Porta potties available.
Las Conchas Trail
The Cattle Wall, with a parking area on highway 4, usually has climbers scrambling up the face. It isn’t the only option in the area. There are 9 different crags strewn across a mile along the East Fork of the Jemez River, offering a variety of sport routes for climbers. The cliffs in the area are volcanic rhyolite. Most of the climbing routes are bolted, with a few traditional climbs available, ranging from 30 to 60 feet in height.
Valle Caldera National Preserve
A few miles beyond Las Conchas campground is the turnoff to the Valle Caldera National Preserve. This area has always been one of my favorite places in the Jemez, though exploring wasn’t possible until recently, because it was part of the 89,000 acre Baca ranch.
New Mexico’s resident super volcano is a 13 mile expanse of meadows and forest covered hills. There are hot springs, streams, fumaroles, natural gas seeps and volcanic domes throughout the area. Evidence of the different types of volcanic activity is visible in all directions; one valley scattered with fossil remnants from an ancient volcanic lake, the next valley littered with obsidian.
The park allows sixteen cars a day to book access to the back roads and they allow an additional sixteen cars in per day on a first come, first serve basis. This does not apply during elk season when the back country is utilized by over enthusiastic hunters.
Be warned that storms occur daily, usually in the afternoon. The back roads don’t always remain intact when it rains, with flash flooding common. 4 wheel drive is advisable for exploring roads within the caldera. The views, the solitude, the lack of power lines, the lack of humans make this area both magnificent and intimidating, especially when you consider that the adventure is in occuring in New Mexico’s answer to Yellowstone.
18161 Highway 4
Jemez Springs, NM 87025
Bandelier National Monument
The drive from the Valles Caldera towards Los Alamos is beautiful, descending rapidly at the end, with several incredible photo opportunities, but limited options to pull over. It is common to see wildlife, including deer, elk, and bear, along this route. The vast meadows of the Caldera give way to rocky crags as you descend towards Los Alamos. At the junction of Highway 4 and 501, stay on Highway 4 unless you need amenities, snacks, gas, or a visit to Los Alamos Labs. Bandelier National Monument is on Highway 4, a few miles beyond the 501 junction.
Bandelier National Monument consists of 33,000 acres of beautiful canyon and mesa country as well as ruins of an 11,000 year old civilization. Petroglyphs, cliff dwellings, and masonry walls pay tribute to the early days of a culture that continues to thrive in the surrounding communities. With numerous trails, a fantastic visitor center, picnic areas and cliff dwellings to explore, Bandelier is a good destination unto itself. They have a large campground at Bandelier, including group camping.
White Rock Overlook
Highway 4 from Bandelier to White Rock descends through canyons with interesting rock formations and less vegetation. White Rock is a bedroom community to Los Alamos, where research becomes an idea and ideas become reality. The town exists due to the Manhattan Project.
White Rock Overlook is easy to miss. The overlook is at the end of a road that goes through a sport complex in a suburban area. There is a painted boulder and small sign marking the turn.
The view from the overlook is amazing, with waterfalls cascading into the canyon on the left, the Jemez in the background, the flat topped mesas to the north, the mountains of Taos and Santa Fe to the right, the Rio Grande below and the mountains of Albuquerque to the south. It is a truly spectacular view, with opportunity to walk out to the precipice for stalwart individuals.
The fastest way back to Albuquerque is to continue on Highway 4 back to State Road 84 north of Santa Fe, heading south to I-25. Of course there is an enormous number of things to do on this route as well, but that’s another trip. Drive safe.
Once you take the turn off on Highway 4 at San Ysidro cell phone reception tends to be spotty until you get to Jemez Springs, at which point you can occasionally get a signal if you pray, assume awkward yoga stances to find the reception and don’t move while talking. The best signal that I have gotten is at the ranger station in the middle of Valle Grande at the Caldera Visitor Center.
- Jemez Falls Campground | Located in a stunning Ponderosa Pine and forest meadow environment in proximity to the East Fork Jemez River.
- San Antonio Campground | San Antonio Campground is adjacent to the San Antonio River, tucked into a forest of ponderosa pine at 7,600 feet above sea level.
- Vista Linda Campground | Located in the scenic San Diego Canyon, with spectacular red rock canyon and mesa views.
- Redondo Campground | Ponderosa Pine meadow environment within the Jemez National Recreation Area. Convenient to the Valles Caldera and Bandelier.
Bradbury Science Museum | Explore the science that created the community, from the early days of Atomic research and the Manhattan Project to the premiere research facility that exists today.