New Mexico hiking

A New Mexico Must-Visit: Jemez Springs

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.

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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. 

Mural on the side of Bad Ass Coffee

Mural on the side of Bad Ass Coffee

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. 

Soda Dam

Soda Dam

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. 

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In the distance, you can see the scars left from a massive forest fire that occurred several years ago. Another reminder, to be respectful and cautious while camping and adventuring in the wilderness.

In the distance, you can see the scars left from a massive forest fire that occurred several years ago. Another reminder, to be respectful and cautious while camping and adventuring in the wilderness.

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.


Our puppy prefers to swim this hike instead of walking.

Our puppy prefers to swim this hike instead of walking.

Small waterfall at the end of Las Conchas trail

Small waterfall at the end of Las Conchas trail

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!



New Mexico Day Trip: Up La Luz Trail and Down the Sandia Tram

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This past weekend I hiked New Mexico'a famous La Luz Trail for the first time. Now if you are unfamiliar with New Mexico, you probably don't hear the Darth Vader theme song in your head when you think of this trail like I do. Not that the trail has anything to do with Star Wars, it just happens to ominously traverse the front of the Sandia Mountains. 

pup on the mountain

The Sandias are named for the Spanish word for watermelon. This is because when the sun sets in New Mexico there is an astonishing array of colors that spread through the sky: pink, gold, purple, orange, deep red, and sometimes even green and blue mixing in with the epic summer thunder clouds. This phenomenon usually turns the front face of the Sandias a glorious watermelon pink. Through the years I've grown to really love my home town, and the Sandias are the face of that. These mountains hold a deep and ancient expression as the result of a massive fault line colliding millions of years ago. Ever since I was a little wee kid, I would look up at the massive cliffs that make up the expressive and dramatic west side of the Sandias and see a family of giant faces. So finally, the husband, puppy and I headed off for a New Mexico adventure on La Luz Trail, which scales this dramatic mountain face. (Once again daunting music fills my head). A great half-day trip is to hike up the trail and ride down on the Sandia tram. This is the longest tram in the world by the way. We got to the trail head around eight. (In mid-summer I'd advise to start even earlier). The trailhead temperature was surprisingly lovely, and the air got even cooler as we traversed drastically changing elevation. (You climb over 5,000 feet in elevation.)

I was surprised: I have climbed much steeper trails leading to much shorter mountains. This trail is well-maintained and has many switchbacks. Before we knew it, less than a mile up, we started to experience the glorious views overlooking Albuquerque.

About two miles up there is the option to take a trail that goes off to the right leading out to the edge of one of the points of the mountain, which offers a gorgeous view. It is unmarked, but the adventurous side of me instantly wanted to go stand at the edge of the point. At five miles up, you hit the rock-slides. The trail is still clearly marked, but this is where it gets a bit more challenging. A fork in the trail offers two choices: go to the crest or the tram. If you go to the crest and you don't have a car waiting there to get you back to Albuquerque, you'll need hike back down. If you want it all, go to the crest and then take a short trail on the backside of the mountain to the tram. 

I highly recommend standing by a window on the tram to look out at the gorgeous cliff faces. Don't want to do the hiking part? Riding up and down the tram is a lovely and unique experience in itself, one that should not be missed when visiting Albuquerque.






Here are some things to know before you go:

  • If you park your car at the base of the tram there is a trail that connects to La Luz from there, so you don't end up with you in one place and your car at another. 
  • To park at the trailhead, from Tramway Rd. take service road 333 and watch for the sign to La Luz Trail to find the trailhead. Remember to bring $3 cash for parking.
  • While the trail is not the hardest trail in New Mexico, it still has its dangers. The conditions can change quickly and dramatically. Make sure you watch what the weather is doing and if a weather system seems to be moving in, get off the mountain as fast as possible. I've gotten stuck up there during a lightening storm and it was terrifying. 
  • Several people have fallen to their deaths by getting too close to cliff edges that then crumbled beneath them, so please be aware! 
  • Albuquerque is a mile high and the crest is about 10,679 ft. high. If you are from out of town, let your body acclimate to the elevation before attempting this trail. 

For up to date info go to the Sandia peak website.

Let me know if this inspires your marvelous wanderings!