Jemez Mountains, NM: The “Low-down” on the “Up-high”

Charming Adventures ventured southwest from Abiquiu to the Jemez Mountains, a volcanic chain that extendes throughout northwestern New Mexico. Besides the high altitude, we also got high (no — not what you’re thinking) climbing ladders more than 140 feet into the sky to the ruins of ancient Pueblo Indians, who have lived in this area since even before the Spanish arrived.

Along the way, we gawked at a supervolcano that sent debris so high into the air that it landed in Kansas! Lastly, as we sampled two very different natural hot springs, we find ourselves heading for high ground to avoid being eaten alive by tiny, aggressive fish. All in a day’s adventures in the Jemez Mountains! First up — Bandelier National Monument, established to preserve the Puebloans land and ruins of ancestral homes from times gone by.

You’d think the ancient nature of this place would have them saying “stand back, hands off” … but SURPRISE! One of the best things about Bandelier is its accessibility, allowing you to get very “up close and personal” with the ruins, including climbing up to, in to, and around many of the structures.

There are at least 3,000 sites in Bandelier, but they were not all inhabited at the same time. Some of these small villages included more than 400 rooms!

Bandelier is 70% wilderness backcountry, but the Main Loop behind the Visitor Center takes you on a short, easy walk to the ancestral Pueblo dwellings that this monument seeks to preserve. This village, called Tyuonyi, is probably from the mid-1400’s.

Higher up the mountain from Tyuonyi are the hillside condos. They were multi-level and the straight rows of holes are from the support beams that extended out and created the roofs of each of the units.

Nimble and adventurous visitors have the option to hike beyond the main loop further into Frijoles Canyon to Alcove House, a cliff dwelling that housed probably 25 people. Here, you’ll find the viga holes and niches of former homes, as well as a reconstructed kiva, an underground chamber used for religious rites. Male Puebloans would climb down into it through the hatch in the top.

But to get there, you’re a-gonna have to conquer your fears, because this place is 140 feet in the air, up a series of wooden ladders!

Because only one person at a time can go up or down, and because everyone (understandably) goes verrrrrrry slowly, there is lots of time waiting on various levels. This is a good thing — it gives your heart rate a chance to simmer down!

Even though Bandelier is so remote that it has only 3 miles of paved roads in a 33,000-acre park, the visitor center has a bookstore, cafe, and dark cozy alcoves where we caught lots hummingbirds darting and dashing amongst the hollyhocks.

Tsankawi Prehistoric Site is a completely separate area about 12 miles away, with minimal crowds and a more primitive trail on a 1.5-mile loop. Even though it’s easy to get to, you’re still high up above the desert floor!

Tsankawi has (lots) less people than Bandelier National Park proper, but still has lots to explore, including cavates (pronounced cave-eights), or hollowed-out dwellings ….

…. ancient petroglyphs ….

… nature’s perfect symmetry …

…more of those rickety ladders we just can’t get enough of …

… and perhaps most interestingly, these deep tuff trails (made millions of years ago when volcanic ash was compressed), which have been carved into the soft rock over hundreds of years by millions of footsteps, as Puebloan residents made the daily trek from their high villas to their farmland and water sources down below.

Tsankawi was a terrific hidden gem and a “don’t miss,” little known section of Bandelier!

For more super-fabulous 
Native American cliff dwellings, 
don't miss Mesa Verde 
National Park
in southern Colorado!  

Read more about it here.

We journeyed past Bandelier, further into the Jemez Mountains. Along the way, we passed the Valles Caldera. Sure, it just looks like a farmfield. BUT NO! This is the collapsed cone of the Jemez Volcano, one of only three active supervolcanoes in North America (the other two being Yellowstone, and Long Valley in California).

Valles is the oldest of the three, blowing its top — not once but twice — 1.25 million years ago and spewing debris as far away as Kansas. Each of these eruptions was 600 times more powerful than the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens! It’s hard to portray the scale of the thing in a photo, but the caldera is 12 miles x 14 miles!

In Jemez Springs, an unusual 50 feet high formation called the “Soda Dam” has built up over the centuries by depositing calcium from a spring flowing under it here. The creepy looking dome on the right is still growing, oozing out of the top like a giant popped pimple!

But the spring that formed the Soda Dam isn’t the only spring in town, oh no sireee. In our never-ending search for cool hot springs (is that an oxymoron?), we hunted down two new additions to the list. We love hot springs so much we wrote a post called “Hot Spring Mania”!

Spence Hot Springs has a remote, natural setting, but no shortage of visitors, owing to its location just a short, dog-friendly hike from the road.

The unusual thing that Spence has — something we’ve never seen before — is a natural sauna! That’s right … you can get the complete spa experience free of charge! Crawl into this small crack in the rocks ….

… and suddenly you’re in for a pore-cleansing, sweat-drenching, lung-expanding sauna experience like no other!

Another nearby hot springs was a completely different spa experience, and not necessarily in a good way. You know those Japanese pedicures where you put your feet into a basin with tiny little fish that attack your feet and eat all the dead skin? Yep — that’s what Macauley Hot Springs is all about. These piranhas!

Everything looked good from the outset. Nice 4-mile trail (leaving from the Jemez Falls trailhead) with hardly anyone on it … check. Good looking pools, with bonus waterfall feature … check.

Oh, he looks happy now … but not for long!

Those aggressive little fish bastards moved in for the kill not long after, nibbling away at every bit of exposed flesh! Which makes the left-behind swimsuit top even more curious … did that chick really WANT those parts exposed? Me thinks that to be a bad idea.

At any rate, we lept from the water screaming and laughing after just a few minutes. It just wasn’t pleasant to be eaten alive and to wonder which soft spot they would bite next. At least the hike in and out was enjoyable!

If you’re in northwestern New Mexico, don’t miss slot-canyon hiking at Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument! It was so awesome that I wrote about it for RV Destinations Magazine. Though not exactly in this area, it’s worth the 70 mile drive to go there.

Our time at Bandelier and Jemez Springs was shorter than we would have liked, but we’ll surely be back again! For now, we’re headed to Taos to experience their charming Goldilocks-style town: not too big, not too small, just right for adventuring!

Where we camped here:
White Rock RV Park, the only electrical hookup option in this area (Juniper Campground at Bandelier has campsites, but they have no hookups, no reservations, and many sites are difficult to maneuver into)
Jemez Falls Campground, a beautiful and spacious wooded campground (no hookups) in the Santa Fe National Forest 

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *