New Mexico Road Trip: Jemez Mountain Trail

from The Most Scenic Drives in America | 217

5. White Rock Overlook
Up ahead lies the Pajarito Plateau, an arid realm spotted with piñon pines and junipers—hardy survivors that often grow side by side. The drive slowly descends as it follows State Rte. 4, passing several small canyons, each cut into the plateau’s eastern slope by the steams that tumble down to the Rio Grande. Inviting as the area may seem, parts of it are off-limits for good cause. Much of the land here is controlled by the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where scientists working in utmost haste and secrecy developed the atomic bomb during World War II.

The White Rock Overlook, perched on the crest of a mesa, offers a panorama from above the steep-sided Rio Grande Valley. A dizzying 700 feet below, the river runs through a gauntlet of rocky rapids, its furious white water contrasting dramatically with the dark slopes of the valley.

6. Puye Cliff Dwellings
After traveling through open country above the Rio Grande, the drive switches onto State Rte. 502 east, then follows State Rte. 30 north to the turnoff for the Puye Cliff Dwellings, another ancient home of the Anasazis. The narrow road to the ruins leads through red hills cloaked with patches of shrubs and forest. Farther on, the drive encounters a mesa with two rows of caves carved into the cliffs. On the mesa’s flat summit, the Indians built a pueblo—a large structure that contained about 740 rooms. Although Bandelier was even more extensive, Puye’s site is more accessible, with roads rambling through the area. The caves can be explored by those willing to climb ladders and inch along narrow ledges. Peering into the openings, visitors glimpse ceilings blackened by long-vanished fires and walls with faded petroglyphs.

7. Scenic Route 84

The drive continues to Española, a hub for the region, then heads northwest on Rte. 84. As your odometer slowly counts the miles, you’ll notice the land becoming more and more colorful, especially near the town of Abiquiu. This region was made famous by Georgia O’Keeffe, an artist who used bold hues and forms to capture the essence of the local landscape, an area she penned as “a beautiful, untouched lonely-feeling place—part of what I call the Far Away.” One does not need to be an painter, though, to appreciate hills and cliffs decorated with a kaleidoscope of maroons, oranges, golds, and bands of white.

Farther along, pause at Ghost Ranch, once a dude ranch with a name derived from an Indian legend that a canyon hereabouts was home to spirits. Sample the ranch’s museums and zoo, then head for Echo Amphitheater. Shaped like a band shell, this natural chamber was carved by wind and water into the sandstone. The drive’s final leg, a gradual climb, leads to Rte. 64 and Tierra Amarilla, where green fields meet rolling foothills.

8. Valle Grande
You’ll soon catch your first glimpse of Battleship Rock, a massive monolith of basalt that seems to navigate the confluence of the Jemez River’s forks. Farther on, State Rte. 4 leads to the Jemez Falls Campground, where a short trail twists to graceful Jemez Falls. An overlook amid the wooded countryside offers a clear view of the cascade, which fans out as it splashes down a jagged cliff.

The foliage thickens along the next leg of the drive, a climb that approaches the 9,000-foot mark, where groves of towering firs and spruces cover the mountainsides.

Then, stunningly, the forest floor falls away, with views of a vast meadowland. This is the heart of the Jemez Mountains: a great valley spreading across an area that was once a massive volcanic peak is called Valle Grande. Its energy spent, the fiery giant collapsed into itself, forming a caldera that covers about 175 square miles.