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The Red Rocks Canyon Trail at the Jemez Welcome Center is an easy loop through desert terrain showcasing the iconic landscape and spirit of the region. Photo by Katie Hearsum

First Timer’s Guide: Jemez Springs, New Mexico

Make a deeper connection with the land on a journey to one of New Mexico’s last remaining pueblos.

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If New Mexico is the Land of Enchantment then Jemez Springs is the source of the spell. Situated about an hour’s drive north of Albuquerque, this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town seduces visitors with a mesmerizing blend of pueblo culture, stunning scenery, friendly locals and abundant hot springs—all of which you’re likely to learn about before polishing off your first margarita at the town’s original watering hole, the historic Los Ojos Saloon. With just 400 residents, visitors quickly become the talk of the town, and locals are more than happy to share their stories with interested parties. Many of these tales begin with a line that will sound familiar to many Denverites: “I came to visit, and ended up staying.”

Jemez Springs became a resort destination in the late 1800s for those seeking its healing, mineral-rich waters, but there is evidence of human activity in the region dating back to 2,500 B.C. After barely surviving a rather violent history involving the Spanish conquistadors in the 1600s, the pueblo now honors its past with museums, monuments, and galleries full of artwork inspired by the canyon cliffs and lush bosques of the surrounding southwestern landscape.

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The Odometer: 391 miles (about seven hours) from Denver


Eat & Drink

The town’s few restaurants have enough green chile-infused dishes to keep your mouth on fire for weeks. Some spicy stars include the blue corn “celebration” pancakes at the Jemez Stage Stop (with both red and green chiles mixed into the batter), Olga’s famous chiles rellenos at the Los Ojos Saloon (Olga, the restaurant’s owner, is also famous for her former career as an Olympic long-distance runner) and Nomad Pizza’s signature pie topped with green chiles and piñon nuts (a local ingredient similar to a pine nut). Save room to indulge in a gooey piñon tart, sweet lemon bar, or other enticing confections at the Highway 4 Café & Bakery.

Thirsty? Spend an afternoon at Ponderosa Valley Winery, located about 14 miles south of town, for a free tour of the bucolic vineyard and complimentary samples of its award-winning Sangiovese and Chardonnay varietals. You might want to get a few bottles to go as there are no liquor stores in town. For a sampling of local suds, head to the Second Alarm Brewhouse, the town’s first brewery and the only other spot that serves alcohol besides the saloon.

Get Outside

Situated on the banks of the Jemez River in a beautiful red-rock canyon, Jemez Springs is surrounded by the 1.6-million-acre Santa Fe National Forest, offering more than 1,000 miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, and snowshoeing. The forest also contains the headwaters of several rivers, luring anglers in with the promise of stocked rainbow trout.

A visit to the nearby Valle Caldera National Preserve is a must for the scenic drive alone along the Jemez Mountain Trail National Scenic Byway. Make a quick stop at Soda Dam on your way to marvel at a centuries-old geological formation created by mineral deposits, and maybe even take dip in the pool below—a local swimming hole. The park itself consists of a 13-mile-wide valley formed by the eruption of a “super volcano”—one of just six in the world—approximately 1.25 million years ago. The caldera is responsible for the naturally heated waters that flow from its basin, and is a great place for hiking, snowshoeing, and mountain biking, as well as viewing wildlife like elk, bear, and wild turkeys (hunting is allowed, if procuring your own Thanksgiving dinner is on your bucket list).

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Relax

In 1860, a geyser erupted at the site which is now the Jemez Springs Bath House, a registered historical site, clueing residents in to the area’s commercial income potential. Still operating today, the bath house has a collection of indoor, spring-fed tubs where guests can soak privately and regulate the water temperature to their comfort level. Many guests also opt to add on an herbal wrap or massage for the ultimate relaxation session (reservations recommended). Down the street at the Jemez Hot Springs, a luxe “day resort” with four pools at varying temperatures, guests are pampered with poolside beverage service and shaded cabanas for lounging. Those seeking to tap into their spiritual side can attend a full moon meditation session at the Bodhi Manda Zen Center, and then take a tranquil dip in the facility’s quaint on-site hot pools for free (rumor has it that song-writing legend Leonard Cohen was a regular here.)

Several primitive hot spring pools are also accessible via trails in the Santa Fe National Forest, offering hikers a relaxing treat (just be aware that most people like to enjoy their soaks here in the most primitive way, too, a la nude, although this is technically against state law). A few popular ones include the San Antonio hot springs, accessible via a six-mile trek featuring several hot pools and a waterfall, and McCauley Springs, a 3.5-mile loop that provides nice views of Battleship Rock and access to a small collection of warm pools.

Stay

The courtyard at the Canon del Rio Retreat & Spa offers a nice spot to enjoy the view of Virgin Mesa. Photo by Katie Hearsum

There are several hotels in Jemez Springs, as well as a variety of private rentals. The Canon del Rio Retreat & Spa is known for its exceptional breakfast presentations of dishes like French toast with fresh fruit preserves and chiles rellenos. The on-site spa and adjoining pool deck complete the property’s zen-like atmosphere. A stay at the Casa Blanca Guest House makes you feel like a VIP at a private estate. Owned by the town’s current mayor, who can often be found doing yard work on the property, these cozy casitas have fully equipped kitchens, wood-burning fireplaces, and private river access. Across the street, the Laughing Lizard Inn offers colorful, budget-friendly rooms connected by a large porch with beautiful canyon views.

Culture

A tour of the Jemez Historic Site shows what life was like in an ancient pueblo, before and after the Spanish invasion. Photo by Katie Hearsum

Jemez is one of New Mexico’s original pueblos, and tribal traditions are still alive and well. To learn more about the history and culture of the Jemez people, stop by the Pueblo of Jemez Welcome Center for an informative guided hike through the awe-inspiring Red Rocks Canyon, which served as the backdrop for a laundry list of films, including A Million Ways to Die in the West and The Lone Ranger. For even more perspective on this ancient lifestyle, visit the Jemez Historic Site, where archaeological excavations are on public display, and guests can take a self-guided walking tour of the dig areas.

In addition to geological oddities and ancient artifacts, Jemez Springs is also home to a thriving community of artists, whose work can be admired (and purchased) at several galleries and shops around town. The Jemez Fine Art Gallery houses a collection of high-end sculptures, photographs and paintings, while the Jemez Artisans Co-Op Gallery showcases local craftwork from jewelry to textiles. Tucked away at the Casa Blanca hotel, the Jemez Mountain Pottery shop displays artisan ceramics like vases and flatware. Make sure to visit them all, and you can take a piece of local artistry (and history) home with you.

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