New Mexico is much more than an arid desert wasteland. Frosty peaks rise above lush pine forests and tower over mountain meadows where deer and elk graze in the warm sun. Muddy rivers tumble down cliffs and natural hot springs bubble up through the rocks. Welcome to the cool, green side of the Land of Enchantment. Welcome to the Jemez Mountains.
New Mexico Route 4 through the Jemez Mountains is one of the most spectacular National Scenic Byways in America and it's only a little more than an hour from Albuquerque or Santa Fe. There are campgrounds, picnic areas and lots of beautiful spots to watch the Jemez River flow by. Pull over whenever the spirit moves you and enjoy these pristine and glorious mountains.
The route described here assumes you are originating in Albuquerque or Bernallio and are heading north. If Santa Fe is your starting point, you’ll encounter the sites in reverse order.
Head north on Route 550 until you reach the village of San Ysidro where you’ll turn onto NM Route 4. Shortly before you reach San Ysidro, you’ll pass the entrance to the Zia Pueblo. The symbol on the New Mexico state flag is the Zia sun sign.
The Zia Pueblo is closed to visitors. However, directly across 550 from the entrance is the abandoned Big Chief gas station, a favorite subject for photographers passing through the area.
The Jemez Pueblo and Walatowa Visitors Center
Soon after you turn onto Route 4 you’ll enter the Jemez Pueblo. The area has been occupied by the Jemez people since the 16th century and probably earlier. Jemez was one of the largest and most powerful pueblos. Prior to Spanish contact many small villages and settlements were scattered throughout the canyon and atop the surrounding mesas.
As you drive along Route 4, you will pass through the main Jemez village of Walatowa, population approximately 3000. Walatowa means “This is the Place.” Please respect the residents’ privacy. Don’t stop and don’t take any pictures.
Although generally closed to visitors, the pueblo does open at certain times of the year including feast days. Visit the pueblo's website or call 575-834-7235 for information on traditional dances and arts and crafts shows as well as etiquette for outsiders.
On the northern outskirts of the village is the Walatowa Visitor Center and Museum of History and Culture, a facility created specifically for travelers. In addition to the museum with its interesting artifacts, displays and vintage photos, you’ll find restrooms and a gift shop featuring hand-made pottery, jewelry, tee shirts, local souvenirs and snacks. The sheer red rock walls of the mesas near the building offer one of the best photo ops in an area famous for gorgeous views.
You can pick up maps and the helpful staff can make recommendations for particularly interesting and/or scenic stops along Route 4. From April to October food vendors from the pueblo set up in the parking lot and offer freshly made traditional goodies. Two words: Fry bread.
Route 4 runs smack dab through the middle of the tiny town of Jemez Springs. There are a few public bath houses where you can experience the warm mineral springs without tackling a mountainside trail. There is also a down home establishment called Los Ojos Restaurant and Saloon that serves up traditional New Mexican fare, green chile cheeseburgers and a mean margarita. For more information on bath houses in Jemez Springs as well as places to stay, visit the village's website.
Jemez Historic Site/Jemez State Monument
The Jemez Historic Site, also known as the Jemez State Monument, consists of the ruins of the Mission of San Jose de los Jemez, which are nestled in an almost impossibly picturesque setting about 12 miles north of the Walatowa Visitors Center.
Spanish friars forced the local people to build the mission complex in the 1620s. The buildings were constructed of stone, not adobe, which is probably why the ruined walls are still standing. The Franciscans abandoned the mission in 1640. It was only used for about 20 years.
The Jemez Historic Site is open from 8:30am – 5:00pm Wednesday through Sunday. We visited on a Tuesday. Although I was disappointed that we couldn’t explore the site, you can get a good look at the overall area from the roadside which is where I was standing when I took the pictures below. Visit www.NMHistoricSites.org or call 575-829-3530 for more information.
The hot springs that percolate throughout the Jemez Mountains have created some fascinating geological features. One of the most unusual is Soda Dam. It’s very close to the Jemez Historic Site and literally only a few yards from the side of the road. Pull into the parking lot, get out of your car and take a look.
A hot spring bubbles to the surface up the hillside and flows down to the Jemez River below. Over the eons, minerals from the spring water have accreted on the surrounding rocks creating surreal formations and partially damming the Jemez which cascades through a small opening in the rocks.
This is not a place for swimming or wading. However, you can climb on the rocks, get a whiff of the spring’s sulphuric aroma and take some very interesting pictures.
Battleship Rock, about 5 miles further north, juts out of the pine forest like the prow of gigantic gray ship. This is a good place to get out of the car, walk the trails for a while and look at the Jemez River, which was rushing with melted snow the day we visited. It’s another great place to take pictures. There are restrooms and park benches if you feel like relaxing and just soaking up the atmosphere.
Spence Hot Springs
Just a little further up the road – less than a mile – you’ll encounter the pull off for Spence Hot Springs. The springs are only about half a mile from the parking lot and there is a clearly marked, well-maintained trail. However, you must climb a fairly steep mountainside to reach the thermal pools. It’s worth it though. The setting and views are simply magnificent and you can soothe your tired feet in the 100-degree water to recover from the trek up.
Valles Caldera National Preserve
This wild, natural area spreads out for more than 89,000 acres on the north side of Route 4. The enormous caldera was formed millennia ago when one of the few super volcanos in prehistoric North America erupted. Today it is a vast sea of rolling green grasslands and high mountain meadows rimmed by peaks that are snow covered much of year. It is home to huge herds of elk, eagles, deer, bears and a myriad of songbirds and other wildlife.
In 2011 a devastating fire swept through the caldera. The forest and meadows are coming back, but you’ll still see evidence of the damage, even if you’re just driving through. There are two free trails. Admission is charged for other areas and activities. Find out more here.
There are other places to visit in the Jemez Mountains, wonderful places like Los Alamos, the secret city of the Manhattan Project, and the ancient cliff dwellings at beautiful Bandelier National Monument. But those are for another day. Stay tuned.