Make this geological gem in northern New Mexico your next vacation

By Claudia Carbone, Special to The Denver Post

At first, Jemez (pronounced Hay-mess) Springs looks like just another small village in the mountains of northern New Mexico. But like Dorothy in black-and-white Kansas, after I start opening doors, the town explodes in vivid Technicolor.

Unlike the world of Oz, Jemez Springs is far from fantasy. What archeologists found here circa 2,500 B.C. — a prehistoric lake basin, remnants of ancient cultures, Precambrian metamorphic rock, ancient fossils, even a Bigfoot sighting — is real. So are the ruins of the pueblo occupied by Ancestral Puebloans who migrated from Mesa Verde in the late 13th century. And Valles Caldera, a dormant million-year-old volcano, persists in bubbling hot springs all over the area.

Jemez Springs is a culturally and geologically rich town embraced by steep canyon walls. It’s loaded with history and beauty that inspires artists, musicians and writers, including “House Made of Dawn” author N. Scott Momaday and the late mystery writer Tony Hillerman.

“There’s a rich foundation with tribes and traditions that have been here for thousands of years,” said artist Susan Vigi-Vigil. She’s one of only 250 residents, who represent a mix of Native American, Spanish and Anglo cultures.

There’s an aura in the valley that beckons people, at times calling them back after they’ve left. Such was the case for Tom Swetnam, who grew up in Jemez Springs. He left to attend the University of New Mexico, earned his masters and Ph.D. from the University of Arizona and become a tree-ring scientist and professor at U of A. Now retired at 63, the scientist is back to his roots and delights in being a historian for his little but mighty town.

History

When Valles Caldera, a supervolcano, erupted 1.25 million years ago, it left a 13-mile-wide depression in the land 17 miles north of Jemez Springs. Today, it’s a national park (ps.gov/vall) with 89 acres of forested volcanic domes, old growth Ponderosa pine groves and shiny streams meandering through the valley.

Recreational activities include hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, fishing and hunting, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. It’s also a popular spot for movie sets. You’d find the ranch house used in Netflix’s modern Western crime drama “Longmire” there along with other cabins from the 1800s.

Around 1300 A.D., about 30,000 Puebloans lived in the valley — 90 percent of them up on the mesas where they dry-farmed. When Spanish missionaries came in 1598, they brought disease and warfare, which dwindled the valley’s population to around 300. Spanish missionaries had the Jemez people build a huge church between 1621 and 1625 that the natives later burned in a revolt that temporarily drove the Spaniards away.

When the Europeans returned, Jemez warriors fought back until suffering defeat. The Spanish forced the Jemez people to resettle at the site of the modern-day Jemez Pueblo, where you can learn the history in the visitors center 8 miles south of Jemez Springs (jemezpueblo.org).

In town, step back in time and visit that burned-out church and other ancient ruins with a guide at the Jemez Historic Site (mhistoricsites.org/jemez). Periodically, they open the site to the public to help with ongoing archeological digs. The Jemez Mountains have the largest concentration of ancestral ruins in the country.

Geology

Hidden waterfalls, sandstone rock as red as rare steak and Battleship Rock formed more than 5 million years ago in a volcanic eruption are spectacular sites. One of the most popular natural attractions is Soda Dam, a formation of calcium carbonate created over millions of years. A river flows under the dome that is still building.

“It’s unique in the world,” Swetnam said. As a kid, he learned to swim in the river under the waterfall.

You can easily reach Soda Dam that sits along Highway 4 about a mile north of Jemez Springs. There is no fee for visiting and hiking around it.

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 Hot springs

Jemez Springs was once the pueblo of Guisewa, which means “place at boiling water” for the caldera’s ancient seawater. In 1860, when a geyser exploded in the middle of town, locals added the mineral-rich hot springs as another attraction. Today, there are three non-commercial hot springs you can hike to where swimsuits are optional, and two commercial ones in town where you can “take the waters” all year long.

At Jemez Hot Springs (jemezhotsprings.com) in the heart of town, the small gift shop opens to a glorious garden of four rock-rimmed pools of varying temperatures flanked by private cabanas and lounging chairs. We soak at night under the stars with tiki torches lighting the pathways. The water here is chemical- and chlorine-free. And there’s no rotten-egg smell!

Another soak is at the 130-year-old Jemez Springs Bath House near the site of the original geyser in town (jemezspringsbathhouse.com). Here, I lowered myself into a cement tub with two large pipes dispensing hot (154 to 186 degrees!) and cold mineral water that I can regulate. Because it is a private tub area, swimsuits are optional. Following the bath, attendants covered me with a herb-infused hot towel and wrap me like a burrito in a private cubicle, where I lay until I am jelly.

Although summer is high season in the Jemez Mountains, the attractions are year-round, and winter is a beautiful time to visit. In December, the town is in full holiday mode and luminarias add glow to the historic site while Native Americans dance to flute music. (This year, Light Among the Ruins was scheduled to be held Dec. 8.)


If You Go

Jemez Springs is 7.5 hours south of Denver via U.S. 285, one hour north of Albuquerque and 1.5 hours northwest of Santa Fe.

Where to eat

Los Ojos Restaurant & Saloon: Owned by two former summer Olympians, Los Ojos repurposes an 1886 mercantile building chock full of western memorabilia. Famous for piled-high burgers and northern New Mexico specialties. 575-829-3547; losojossaloon.com

Second Alarm Brewhouse: This old firehouse turned brewery is co-owned by a firefighter whose dad was a fire chief. Jemez native Monica Tolleson prepares New Mexican dishes to pair with small-batch beer made with local ingredients. 575-829-4222

Highway 4 Cafe & BakerySpecializing in coffee drinks and made-from-scratch desserts with a full menu of breakfast and lunch options. East Indian Samosas are the signature dish. 575-829-4655; hwy4coffee.com

Nomad Mountain Pizza: A pizzeria featuring New Haven-style pizza in a vintage Americana-themed space. 575-829-3197; omad-mountain-pizza.business.site

Where to sleep

Cañon del Rio Retreat & Spa: This luxury adobe-style inn sits in a spectacular setting along the Jemez River below the mesa. Gourmet breakfast, outdoor pool, hot tub, spa and art gallery are some of the amenities for the six beautifully appointed rooms with private baths. 575-829-4377; canondelrio.com

Casa Blanca Guest House and Garden Cottage: This historic adobe home offers two styles of lodging on romantic terraced gardens along the Jemez River. 575-829-3579; casablancajemez.com

What to do

Valles Caldera National Park: Open daily 9 a.m.- 5 p.m. Nov. 1-May 14 (closed Thanksgiving and Christmas); 8 a.m.-6 p.m. May 15-Oct. 31. Due to construction, fees are waived through May 14, possibly through summer 2019. 866-382-5537; ps.gov/vall

James Pueblo Visitors Center: Open daily 10 a.m.-4 p.m. (winter); 8 a.m.-5 p.m. (summer). No entrance fee but costs $7 for guided or unguided hike around red rocks. 575-834-7235; jemezpueblo.com

Jemez Historic Site: Open 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday; closed Monday and Tuesday, and Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Fee for 17 and older is $5. 575-829-3530; mhistoricsites.org/jemez

Jemez Hot Springs:  Open Wednesday-Monday (closed Tuesday) at 11 a.m. Check website for closing times that are different each season. $25 per person for one-hour soak; $40 per person for two-hour soak; children 14 and older welcome. 575-829-9175; jemezhotsprings.com

Jemez Springs Bath House: Open Monday, Tuesday and Sunday 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thursday, Friday and Saturday 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Closed Wednesdays, Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas. $12 per person for 25-minute bath; $18 per person for a 50-minute bath. Massage, wraps and body treatments are additional. No bathing suits needed; children 14 and older are welcome. 575-829-3303; jemezspringsbathhouse.com

New Mexico Highway 4-Jemez Mountain Trail National Scenic Byway: Drive it — for the sights, sites, springs and significance. It’s a paved two-lane road with tight curves through the Jemez Valley. Speed limit is 50-55 mph but slows to 25-30 through the towns. jemezmountaintrail.org

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