Jemez Mountain Trail National Scenic Byway
- DesignationNational Scenic Byway (1998)
- Intrinsic QualitiesRecreation
- Length163 miles
Jemez Mountain Trail takes you through time and past amazing geological formations, ancient Indian ruins, and an Indian pueblo. The area is rich in logging, mining, and ranching heritage. Sites include Jemez State Monument, Bandelier National Monument, Soda Dam, Cabezon, Battleship Rock, and the Spence and Jemez Mountain Hot Springs.
Story of the Byway
The Jemez Mountain Trail twists through time and terrain. Bubbling hot springs, vermillion desert cliffs, and snowy alpine peaks surround visitors driving from a million-year-old volcano caldera to 13th century Native dwellings to a museum showcasing the birth of the atomic age. The 66-mile byway begins at the junction of U.S. 550 and N.M. 4 northwest of Bernalillo in the pastoral village of San Ysidro, named for the patron saint of farmers. Make the whole loop, or head off from Los Alamos toward Española or Santa Fe. It makes a delightful day’s jaunt from the Albuquerque or Santa Fe area.
This 132-mile loop accommodates most vehicles and offers a convenient and rewarding way to experience the best of Northern New Mexico—in just one day! Depart west from Los Alamos via State Road 501 and turn right onto State Road 4 (SR 4) toward Jemez (HEY-mess) Springs, traveling through Bandelier National Monument. The road leads up more than 1,000 feet through dense forest, cresting at an elevation of 9,000. It is at this point that the view will open up to reveal the incredible Valles Caldera, a volcanic crater with grazing elk and trails to fishing and hot springs. From here, continue on to Jemez Falls campground where a 1/4-mile easy hiking trail leads down to a lovely waterfall. Back on SR 4, see the majestic Battleship Rock (on left). A short, but steep, hike takes you to McCauley Warm Springs. Further along SR 4, you will see Soda Dam and then the Jemez State Monument, site of the historic pueblo and mission. If time permits, drive 5-1/2 miles to the Gilman Tunnels on SR 485 (a remnant of the old D&RG “Chili Line” railroad that ran in the early 1940’s). An extra three miles will take you to Ponderosa Valley Vineyard (575-834-7487) on SR 290 or the red rocks of Jemez Pueblo and Walatowa Visitor Center (575-834-7235) on SR 4.
Points of Interest
South Central Trail
Coronado State Monument Spanish explorer Coronado was thought to have camped here while looking for the fabled Seven Cities of Gold. On U.S. 550 just before the trail commences, the monument includes the partially reconstructed ruins of the ancient Kuaua Pueblo. Polychrome murals found in an onsite kiva can be viewed in Kuaua Hall, and mural reproductions are mounted in the original kiva. The visitor center displays both Native and Spanish artifacts.
Jémez Pueblo sits about five miles from San Ysidro, the trail’s gateway village, at southern end of majestic Cañon de San Diego. The 3,400 tribal members reside predominantly in the single Pueblo village, Walatowa, where the visitor center and small museum is found. Check out traditional Jemez foods, and striking arts and crafts, particularly pottery, at roadside stands in the beautiful Red Rocks area. The Pueblo offers a 1.5-mile guided tour of Red Rock Canyon Trail most days, a great way to take in the scenery and learn more about the culture, past and present. The Pueblo has preserved its complex ancient Towa language, the only culture to speak this language.
One of the best reasons to visit the Jémez Mountains is this historic mineral springs bath house, sitting on the Jémez Springs village plaza. Dating to the 1870s, the bath house surrounds bubbling natural springs. Owned by the village and recently restored in vintage character. w
Jémez State Monument
The monument protects the ruins of Giusewa, one of numerous fortified villages built some 6 centuries ago in canyon lands and mesa tops by the ancestors of the Jemez people. Spaniards established the Catholic mission of San Jose de Los Jemez here about the same time as the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. The church ruins sit beside those of Giusewa. The ancient name referred to “place of the boiling waters” and mineral hot springs steam through the area. Further up the road, pass formations Soda Dam and Battleship Rock, as well as coneshaped “tent” rocks.
A side trip 3 miles to the east on NM 290 brings you to Ponderosa, a family-owned winery on the south facing Jemez Mountains, known for Rieslings and pinot noir. Tours and tastings.
Fenton Lake State Park
a popular year-round retreat surrounded by beautiful ponderosa pine forests. Fenton Lake features a cross-country ski and biathlon trail and wheelchair-accessible fishing platforms. Some of the trout from nearby Seven Springs hatchery stock the lake.
La Cueva area
Seven Springs Loop Trail is popular with mountain bikers. Cross country skiers will find a trail bonanza within a 20 mile drive of La Cueva. East along N.M. 4, encounter five different ski areas, including an easy 2½ mile loop trail near Redondo Campground and more difficult trails in the Los Griegos area, which offers views of Redondo Peak and Valle Grande. West of La Cueva on N.M. 126, don't miss Valle San Antonio Road, a 5-mile, one-way trip to San Antonio Hot Spring. Soak in the hot spring and enjoy views of the Bandelier cliffs across the canyon. Note that highway 126 is unpaved between miles markers 33 and 13.5.
Bandelier National Monument
One of New Mexico’s most popular destinations, Bandelier gives visitors a firsthand look at ruins of many 13th-century Pueblo cliff dwellings hollowed out of the steep volcanic tuff walls. The flat Main Loop Trail, just over a mile in length, offers a wealth of sights, with short ladders into the ancestral dwellings, and many easy-to-find petroglyphs. Backcountry trails at Bandelier climb in and out of deep canyons and cross large flat mesas, showcasing the entire spectrum of volcanic geology. The beautiful 1930s-era visitor center was constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The park’s name honors Adolph Bandelier, the influential 19th- century historian and anthropologist who did much to research and preserve the ancient Pueblo heritage of New Mexico.
The once top-secret scientific community of Los Alamos shaped the course of 20th-century history, and it continues to excel in innovative technology in the 21st century. The Los Alamos National Laboratory is closed to visitors, but the nearby Bradbury Science Museum (below) tells the history of the Manhattan Project, which created the first atomic weapons. The town of 14,000 sits mesa-top among breathtaking high desert scenery, so makes a great base for outdoor activities.
Bradbury Science Museum
The Museum highlights the Los Alamos National Laboratory's current and historic projects related to defense and technology, and focuses on the Lab’s research into national and international economic, environmental, political, and social concerns. These exhibits, together with extensive educational and community programs, draw nearly 100,000 visitors a year.
Valles Caldera National Preserve
About 1.2 million years ago, a massive volcano erupted in the Jemez Mountains, forming a 14-mile-wide, circular depression in the earth called a caldera. Today, visitors are invited to experience the vastness and wonder within this unique geologic landscape at Valles Caldera National Preserve—approximately 89,000 acres of public land managed by the National Park Service. Hike a trail around a lava dome, catch a massive trout in the caldera’s waterways, view an elk herd from an overlook, or stop into the Ranger Station for souvenirs, ranger programs, and park information.
Experience the Jemez Trail
Start your journey along the Jemez Mountain Trail in the village of San Ysidro on NM-4 heading northeast. You instantly find yourself driving through the Jemez Reservation and the Jemez Pueblo. Here you can view what untouched land really looks like and experience the beautiful landscapes that exist in this part of the country. Stop by the Walatowa Visitors Center that is located here, which will give you a lot of valuable information on the native people and their culture.
As you continue northeast, you will reach the area of Jemez Springs, where you can relax in the Jemez Springs Bath House. The Jemez Historic Site and State Monument are also located here, which is a great opportunity to learn even more about the culture of the area. Battleship Rock is also a point of interest to stop by along the way right before you begin to head east on the road.
Next up, stop and get a great view of the Jemez Falls at a beautiful Overlook located right along the Byway. When you continue east, you can drive up to see the Valles Caldera and the wonderful views of the area. Your journey can continue along alternate routes of the Byway, but this is a trip that is well worth it!
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