The Jemez Mountain Trail twists through time and terrain, contrasting vermilion desert cliffs and snowy alpine peaks, 13 th century stone dwellings and the birth of the Atomic Age in nearly the same breath. Travelers may fish canyon waters at dawn, don snowshoes for a woodland trek, explore ancient Pueblo ruins and view elk crossing an immense volcanic caldera– all in the same day.
The trail begins at the junction of U.S. 550 and N.M. 4 in the pastoral village of San Ysidro, named for the patron saint of farmers. Passing a restored church of the same name, N.M. 4 slowly winds past Jemez Pueblo, home to more than 3,000 tribal members who call the village “Walatowa” in their native language, Towa. Jemez Pueblo sits at the gateway to the spectacular Canon de San Diego, where the road bisects reddish-orange cliffs as it enters the Red Rocks of the Jemez. The Walatowa Visitor Center (877-733-5687) is wedged in these rocks, along with roadside stands selling crafts, fry bread and red and green chile stew. Jointly operated by Jemez Pueblo and the Santa Fe National Forest, the visitor center houses a museum and gift shop and provides information about the area.
A side trip three miles east on N.M. 290 offers a winery tour, several artisan galleries and an RV park. Past Red Rocks, another side trip on narrow N.M. 485 leads to the Gilman Tunnels, blasted through rock during the 1920s for logging train passage along the Guadalupe River gorge.
At N.M. 4 and N.M. 485, Virgin Mesa towers above the junction of the Jemez and Guadalupe rivers. The canyon narrows as N.M. 4 passes several developed picnic and fishing access areas and campgrounds along the Jemez River, part of the Jemez National Recreation Area (877-733-5687).
N.M. 4 cuts through quaint Jemez Springs, dwarfed by high volcanic cliffs that echo the rushing waters of the Jemez River. The village has numerous restaurants, B&Bs, galleries, a country store and a saloon resplendent with swinging doors, a massive stone fireplace and antlers from every ilk of wild critter found in these parts. Weary travelers may wash the dust off with a dip in the past at the Jemez Springs Bath House (866-204-8303), built between 1870 and 1878 and now a State Historical Site run by the village. The natural hot spring is enclosed by a well structure built in the 1920s as a WPA project and is so rich in minerals it must be drilled out on occasion.
Jemez State Monument protects the stone ruins of Giusewa, one of numerous villages built 600 years ago in the canyon and mesa tops by the Jemez people, who numbered around 30,000 at the time of contact with the Spanish Conquistadors in 1541. The Spaniards established a Catholic mission at Giusewa and the massive stone walls of San Jose de Los Jemez were built about the same time Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. The church ruins sit beside those of Giusewa, meaning “Place of the Boiling Waters” in Towa.
Boiling waters steam up the canyon at Soda Dam – a unique formation of colorful “petrified” water shaped like a domed falls, where the Jemez River bubbles into the hot springs rising along a deep fault. A few miles north, Battleship Rock rises sharply from the riverbed like a lost ghost ship run aground while cone-shaped “tent” rocks poke out from the opposite cliffs. A few miles north, a short, steep climb to Spence Hot Springs rewards the hiker with a choice of hot and warm pools and sweeping views of the canyon below.
At La Cueva, travelers may continue east on N.M. 4 to Los Alamos or turn northwest on N.M.126 to Cuba. N.M. 4 loops through the Santa Fe National Forest, a rolling woodland of spruce and fir dotted with campgrounds and trailheads for access to hiking, fishing and snow sports. One short trail leads to Jemez Falls, where the river drops 70 feet in a series of waterfalls. Adventurous hikers may hop the trail spur to McCauley Warm Springs for a backcountry soak.
The 89,000-acre Valles Caldera National Preserve (877-851-8946) contains one of the largest young volcanic calderas in the world – now a breathtaking expanse of mountain meadow and forest. The Preserve offers premium fishing, hunting, hiking, wildlife viewing and snow sports by advance reservation.
N.M. 4 descends sharply in a series of switchbacks to meet N.M. 501, a detour into a futurist world of science at Los Alamos National Laboratory. One of the major scientific institutions in the world, its core mission is national security. Although the Lab is not open to the public, it operates Bradbury Science Museum (505- 667-4444) to provide a peek into the recent past of Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project as well as current, cutting-edge technologies.
For a peek into the remote past, continue east on N.M. 4 to Bandelier National Monument (505-672-0343), housing several thousand ancestral Pueblo dwellings within almost 33,000 acres of steep-walled canyons, mesas and wilderness. Just past the town of White Rock, a short trail leads to the “sky-city” ruin of Tsankawi, perched atop a cliff-ringed island mesa.
Returning to La Cueva and heading west on N.M. 126, Fenton Lake State Park (505-829-3630) offers fishing, camping, cross-country skiing and ice fishing on a 35-acre lake beneath tall ponderosas. N.M. 126 curves north past Seven Springs Hatchery (505-829-3535), recently remodeled as a breeding facility for Rio Grande cutthroat trout. Rainbow trout are stocked in a pond open only to anglers 12 and under and over 65. The road winds through the Santa Fe National Forest (505-289-3264) to the town of Cuba, gateway to the 41,000-acre San Pedro Parks Wilderness and Chaco Culture National Historical Park (505-786-7061). At the intersection of N.M. 126 and U.S. 550, the Cuba Regional Visitor Center features arts and crafts and provides area information. Heading south on U.S. 550, watch for the volcanic plug called Cabezon Peak, rising 2,000 feet from the valley floor and thought to be the head of a creature slain by “Monster Slayer” in Navajo myth. U.S. 550 soon crosses the starting point at San Ysidro as the terrain gradually flattens, gently returning travelers to I-25 and the 21 st century.
Note: N.M. 126 is unpaved between mile marker 33 to mile marker 13.5 and is closed for winter from late January until the beginning of March.