But if you’re all for taking a dip in the wilderness and don’t mind a bare bun or two, you’ve got plenty to choose from.
The volcanic activity that formed the Jemez Mountains created an array of hot and cold pools, some of them within easy hiking distance, where you can soak tired legs under a canopy of pine trees. More refined types ― and it’s all relative ― can opt for a dip (or a mud wrap) in one of three developed bathhouses in the area.
Here in the Jemez, a funky nook of the woods about 60 miles northwest of Albuquerque, you’re as likely to bump into a lumberman as a hippie, but you won’t find gourmet restaurants, shopping malls or chain hotels. If, however, you prefer quirky and home-spun to high-brow and sophisticated, this is your place.
We do, and that’s why my husband and I came here.
At the moment, we’re simmering in one of Mother Nature’s saucepans at San Antonio Hot Springs, a collection of toasty, hot tub-sized pools that cascade down the side of a mountain not far from the little town of La Cueva. We walked 6 miles to get here and will walk 6 more to get out, but if the gate at the trailhead is open you can drive the rough road to a parking area that’s just a short, steep climb from the springs.
We’re wearing our skivvies. The six other people and three big dogs that were lounging in the pools when we arrived are not.
I’m practically frozen in place, mesmerized by the little puffs of steam rising from the water and the chipmunks trying to eat the sack of trail mix someone left on a rock.
Soon, though, it’s time to trek back to our car and explore more of our surroundings. We head back to Highway 4, part of the Jemez Mountain Trail National Scenic Byway that winds through these quiet pine forests. It’s kind of strange to think we’re only 45 minutes from Los Alamos, where scientists created the atomic bomb.
|Chris LeBlanc hikes along the Las Conchas trail near Jemez Springs, New Mexico, past a rock formation that resembles the profile of a giant head. (Austin American-Statesman/TNS)|
The village of Jemez Springs is ground zero of the Jemez. The town popped up around the time of the Civil War and incorporated in 1955 but didn’t get telephone service until 1964. The pueblo north of town, though, is much older ― it dates back 700 years, and the natural hot springs have lured people here for years. According to local lore, Chicago gangster Al Capone enjoyed the occasional dip in them.
Downtown Jemez Springs today consists of a coffee shop that always seems to be closed, a couple of restaurants (try the chili rellenos at Los Ojos), two developed hot springs (Giggling Springs and Jemez Springs Bath House) and a few art galleries. Canon del Rio Retreat and Day Spa isn’t far away.
The town is also home to the Servants of the Paraclete, where the Catholic church swept away some of its worst pedophile priests for treatment during the 1980s and ‘90s, but that’s not mentioned in most tourist brochures.
Our circuit today includes stops at Battleship Rock, an imposing slab of mountain that looks like the front half of an old war ship, and Soda Dam, a lumpy, 300-foot formation created by mineral deposits from a hot spring. From Battleship Rock you can hike to McCauley Warm Springs, an 84-degree pool in a forest clearing.
Spence Hot Springs is right on Highway 4, but it’s often crowded. If the small parking area is full, the pool is probably at capacity. Try visiting in the early morning or evening.
We’re staying at a bed and breakfast in La Cueva. Rustic and comfortable (but we wish they’d clear up some of the debris on the property) with a pair of big friendly dogs and breakfast tacos to die for, Elk Mountain Lodge is perched on a hillside about a 15-minute drive north of the town of Jemez Springs.
From there it’s a quick drive to the actual Jemez Falls on the east fork of the Jemez River. There’s a campground and parking lot there, and it’s just a short hike to the falls, which are lovely but suffering from overuse. The trail is eroded, and too many hikers have left behind trash.
You’d be better off driving 15 minutes farther down the road toward the Valles Caldera National Preserve. Stop at the Las Conchas trailhead and lace up your shoes for one of the prettiest hikes in the area. The trail takes you along the Jemez River, beneath high canyon walls and past a rock face that looks just like the facial profile of a giant.
By the time you make it back, you’ll be ready to settle into a chair somewhere and make yourself content just gazing at the mountains. Because in the Jemez, it’s all about nature.
By Pam LeBlanc
(Tribune Content Agency)