New Mexico Road Trip: Jemez Mountain Trail

Route Details Length: About 170 miles, plus side trips. When to go: Year-round. Higher elevations provide relief from the heat

Route Details

Length: About 170 miles, plus side trips.

When to go: Year-round. Higher elevations provide relief from the heat during the scorching days of summer.

Nearby attraction: Heron Lake State Park, 11 miles west of Tierra Amarilla via Rte. 95.

Not to be missed: Feast Day, held August 2 and November 12 at Jemez Pueblo. Visitors can observe traditional dances.

Further information: New Mexico Tourism Department, 491 Old Santa Fe Trail, Santa Fe, NM 87503; tel. 800-545-2040, www.newmexico.org.

To venture into the Jemez Mountains is to leave the modern world behind—to travel a route that is measured not only in miles but also in time. For this region—a realm of canyons, mesas, and mountains—has remained virtually undisturbed for centuries, recalling an era when ancient Indians first colonized there, then yielded to the Anasazis, a long-extinct culture that built their villages into the cliffsides and led seemingly peaceful, simple lives.

1. Jemez River Canyon
Looming like distant thunderheads, the Jemez Mountains darken the desert horizon as Rte. 44 curves northwestward past sunbaked hills. The ridges, rising as an unbroken barrier, prove impassable until the road reaches San Ysidro, where the thin ribbon of the Jemez River guides State Rte. 4 into the tree-covered mountains. In fewer than 10 miles, the landscape here undergoes a drastic change—from arid, rocky lowlands to the lush pine woodlands of Santa Fe National Forest. The transition is particularly evident at the Jemez River Canyon, where the river and the road are hemmed in on both sides by high-climbing sandstone slopes. Shrubs and ponderosa pines claim the lower elevations, then yield their dominance to thick stands of spruces, firs, and aspens that take over the landscape, providing welcome relief for the eyes.

2. Jemez Springs
The volcanic forces that forged the Jemez Mountains a million years ago remain active today—though on a far less violent scale. Hot springs, proof of the underground unrest, bubble to the surface at Jemez Springs, a peaceful town where in winter puffs of steam rise like smoke signals into the chilly air, inviting visitors to take a dip.

Two structures of historical note stand on the northern outskirts of town: a long-abandoned Indian pueblo and a church erected by Spanish missionaries in 1622. Preserved as Jemez State Monument, their walls are slowly crumbling as the ravages of time take their toll.

One of nature’s monuments, Soda Dam, in contrast, is being painstakingly enlarged. The steady accumulation, layer upon layer, of calcium carbonate formed the bizarre barrier—a process that continues to this day. Standing about 40 feet high, the marblelike monument partially blocks the flow of the Jemez River. In addition to the slow crafting of the dam, hidden volcanic forces make themselves evident in another way: sulfurous fumes escape from underground chambers, tinging the air with a pungent smell.

3. 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.

4. Bandelier National Monument
As an ancient home of Anasazi Indians, Bandelier abounds in mystery. The tribe, vanishing from history with few hints as to why, arrived in this area in the 12th century, carving dwellings into the cliffs of tuff (composed of ash and other fine volcanic particles). They were farmers who raised corn, beans, and squash among the ponderosa pines and box elders that line Frijoles Creek. The community flourished, and as the centuries rolled by, the population snowballed into the thousands. About A.D. 1550, however, the Anasazis abandoned the site, never to return. Yet their onetime presence remains indelible, and trails—some of them steep and equipped with ladders—lead through the ruins of their bygone civilization.

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.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest