Taking I-25 from Route 66 RV Resort in Albuquerque to Santa Fe would be the shortest and most direct route. But that didn’t sound like much fun! Instead, based on the recommendation of an Old Town Visitor Center staff member, a better choice would be the longer but more scenic route along NM State Road 4 known as the Jemez Mountain Trail, a National Scenic Byway, which parallels the Jemez Mountain Range and eventually traversing through the Valles Caldera National Monument. In the map on the right, the route we took is highlighted in yellow although we decided not to follow NM State Road 4 to White Rock but instead took NM State Road 501 to SR 502.
So glad we did – what a stunning drive through red rock canyons, then dramatically ascending more than 1,000 feet through dense forest to crest at an elevation of well over 9,000 feet! If you are ever in the Albuquerque/Santa Fe area this drive is an absolute must!
Our first stop along the way was at the Walatowa Visitor Center and Museum in the small town of Ponderosa which features exhibits on the history and culture of the Pueblo of Jemez, one of the 19 remaining pueblos encompassing over 89,000 acres of land and home to over 3,400 tribal members. The pueblo is not open to the public.
In addition to the typical tourist information found in a Visitor Center, the Museum Shop specializes in world renown Jemez Pottery, beautiful stone sculptures, basketry, embroidered woven cloths, exquisite moccasins and jewelry. There is also a wide selection of collectibles and gifts, including Native American music, books, jewelry, and adult/youth apparel. Outside was a replica of a historic field house which is a one or two room house built of stone and used by the Jemez people during spring and summer months as base camps for hunting, gathering and agricultural activities.
Continuing our drive, we uttered our usual “oohs” and “aahs” as we passed by the craggy, brightly colored cliffs. Soda Dam, which according to a historic marker is “a natural dam created by a buildup of calcium carbonate deposits from a spring that bubbles to the surface. The Jemez River flows under the dome that is still building. The dam is 300 feet long, 50 feet high and 50 feet wide at the bottom.” Pretty neat!
A quick stop at Battleship Rock was next. Formed as a result of fragmental pieces of rock, ejected from the vent during a volcanic explosion, Battleship Rock is a large basalt monolith which rises nearly 200 feet. Lush pine forest surrounds the rock, providing lots of shade to the Battleship Rock Picnic Area, a day use park. A pair of trails lead to McCauley Warm Springs (the Springs hover around 99 degrees and are accessed via a two mile trail), a second trail leads to Hidden Falls. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to hike either trail.
Our elevation continued to climb (we were now at 8600′) as we traversed the mountain roads, white stuff (aka snow) started to appear on the ground, mostly in the shady areas. Boy, we hadn’t seen that stuff up close in a very long time, not since we sold our house in 2013! Taking a photo of it, then leaving it behind suited us just fine!
A private ranch until 2000, the Valles Caldera National Preserve is now open to the public. Once a fiery volcano, Valles Caldera was once between 15,000 and 25,000 feet high. About 1.25 million years ago, it collapsed onto itself, leaving a 13 mile wide circular depression. Hot springs, streams, fumaroles, natural gas seeps and volcanic domes now dot the caldera floor landscape. The highest point in the caldera is Redondo Peak, an 11,253-foot resurgent lava dome located entirely within the caldera. Also within the caldera are several grass valleys the largest of which is Valle Grande, the only one accessible by a paved road. When we stopped to soak up the vast, breathtaking view, there were no other cars or people around, the tranquility was surreal.
Amazingly the majority of the scenic byway driving north is not hairpin turns and steep drop offs as you would expect, for the most part it is an easy and pleasant drive. But now at an elevation of 9339′, as we started our descent down the mountain to the city of Los Alamos, the last few miles became much more twisty and did have hairpin turns and steep drop offs – and some even more spectacular views!
Los Alamos is home to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, established in 1943 for the Manhattan Project, a research and development undertaking during World War II that produced the first nuclear weapons. We were surprised when we were challenged at a security checkpoint. Apparently the Los Alamos National Laboratory imposed a new security regimen along two public roads with access to the New Mexico nuclear weapons site.
Finally we arrived in Santa Fe! After walking around a bit, it was time for lunch. After reading online reviews which were very good, we made our way to The Shed for some authentic Mexican food.
After a bit of a wait, our name was finally called. We both had the Enchilada/Taco Plates ($11) which consisted of one rolled blue corn enchilada filled with ground beef, cheddar cheese, onion & covered with red chile and one soft blue corn taco with cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion and served with pinto beans & posole. Maybe it was good but to be honest, I couldn’t really say, the posole (like a soup) that was ladled on top of everything was so hot (as in spicy) it was barely edible! Hmmmm, guess I should have paid attention to the warning about how hot their chile peppers are at the bottom of the menu! I think it took two days for the inside of my mouth to recover! Maybe we just ordered the wrong thing – if we do ever return I won’t order anything with posole!
After lunch we spent several hours strolling around town, exploring such attractions as La Fonda Hotel, De Vargas Street House (Santa Fe’s Oldest House, built in 1646, free admission) and San Miguel Church built in 1610 and considered to be the oldest church in America. See pictures below.
One attraction that we wanted to see was Loretto Chapel to see the mysterious spiral staircase. This magnificent structure with two 360 degree turns without nails, only wooden pegs and, according to legend, was built by an unidentified carpenter who appeared after the Sisters of the Chapel made a novena to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters. The staircase has been the subject of many articles, TV specials, and movies including “Unsolved Mysteries” and the television movie titled “The Staircase.
Knowing that we had at least a 1-1/2 hour drive ahead of us (or even longer depending on rush hour traffic), we reluctantly bid farewell to this fabulous city. That night we enjoyed a gorgeous sunset at the resort.
It was a very short visit here but even so we knew that a return visit would be in our future. As you can see below, I couldn’t resist sharing more photos.
Soon we would leave New Mexico behind us, returning to Texas as we continue our journey east.