Red Rocks, Waterfalls, Lush Forests, and Hot Springs... All in an Ancient Volcanic Caldera! If you are visiting New Mexico (or are local) you MUST visit Jemez Springs and the Valles Caldera.
A bit over a million years ago a series of small volcanic eruptions in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico covered the Southwest in ash. A magma chamber in these mountains collapsed creating a caldera about 12 miles in diameter. To my slight horror, as I researched this, I discovered this volcanic area is still considered active. Fortunately, geologists estimate that the last eruption was about 40,000 years ago.
What these eruptions left behind thousands of years later, is a gorgeous landscape; red rocks rise into dramatic rock faces as you climb higher into the Jemez Mountains. Lush (by New Mexico standards) forests, waterfalls, plentiful streams and hot springs, and alien rock structures greet you at every turn.
There are many great camping spots in the Jemez and it is a lot of fun to camp there. Once you get there it's easy to drive around until you find your perfect campground. It is also a fabulous day trip, one that I try to make at least once a year.
To get there take I-25 to Bernalillo, then exit west onto 550. I always love to stop in Bernalillo for some java at one of my favorite coffee shops in NM, Bad Ass Coffee. Once you reach San Ysidro, turn north on highway 4. This takes you all the way through Jemez Pueblo, the village of Jemez Springs, and into the Caldera. If you want to veer off and explore a small lake, Fenton Lake, take 126 about 10 miles past Jemez Springs. There are countless hiking trails, picnic areas, campgrounds, and cool places to stop along the route into the Caldera.
In Jemez Pueblo you will see some vibrant red rocks, and tucked up into the red rocks some little stalls where you can buy some yummy traditional pueblo oven bread. This delicious, flaky bread is great to take farther along your journey for a picnic. I think it is especially scrummy with butter and local honey.
In Jemez Springs, there are a couple little restaurants, an Inn, and the Bodhi Mandala Zen Center. My favorite restaurant is the Stage Stop Cafe. They serve some delectable blue corn pancakes. There are great picnic spots leading up to Jemez Springs snuggled in close to the river and cliffs. These can be quite hot in the summer, so I tend to explore these picnic spots in the spring and fall.
Beyond Jemez Springs right by the side of the road is Soda Dam. A waterfall has carved a ragged drop through the middle of these rocks creating this lumpy, mushroom shaped structure. I've even slid down this waterfall, which is exhilarating, cold, and a bit painful on the rump.
A couple miles after that you will come upon Battleship Rock picnic area. You can't miss it: it is a giant battleship-shaped rock formation plowing out of the cliff side. This is my favorite picnic area but unfortunately it is crowded on the weekends. If you happen upon it during a non-busy time, explore up the east side of the stream, going north along some little trails, and you will come to a little waterfall about a half-mile walk from the picnic area.
Hiking: There is a lot of fabulous hiking and that is one of the only ways to get to the best hot springs. The easiest hike is Jemez Falls, about a mile, to one of New Mexico's bigger waterfalls. Las Conchas is my current favorite hike. It is 19 miles from Jemez Springs just off the side of the road. The first part of the trail is a rock climber hot spot, but if you continue on it becomes a peaceful walk following a little stream though lush meadows for about 2 miles.
There are many hot springs you can hike to dotting the Jemez mountains. McCauley Hot Springs, San Antonio Hot Springs, and Spence (which is not as beautiful now due to over use and lack of respect by people) are some of the better known. Many people enjoy the hot springs in the nude, so if nudity makes you uncomfortable, I don't recommend going to these hot springs. My only Jemez hot spring experience was from the Jemez Falls trailhead. I went west on the East Fork Trail and stumbled upon some hot springs. To this day I can't figure out which hot springs those were. All I know is we hiked about 10 very challenging miles that day, so I don't think I'll be trying to rediscover those hot springs.
One of my first memories, from when I was two years old, is of my father taking my family 4-wheel driving in the Caldera for a fun day adventure. My dad, being the explorer that he was, tried to ford one of small rivers in the caldera with our Isuzu trooper. The trooper trucked along to the middle of the river and then promptly began to flood and float down the river. We had to quickly evacuate and make our way to shore. For the rest of the night, in my two year old mind we were playing survival by searching for firewood and sleeping on the ground under the stars, cuddled up for warmth. We were found by some local kids exploring late into the night. They informed the police and we were rescued early the next morning. This is my earliest, fun adventure story, though my parents remember it being much more stressful than I do.
As long as you don't sink your car, Jemez is a wonderful area to visit and an absolute must if you are traveling in New Mexico, with its diverse scenery, dramatic history, and wilderness adventuring.
Did this inspire your marvelous wanderings? Let me know!