Jemez Mountains in General – Winter cometh! Days are shorter and more prone to
bad weather. The list of outdoor options is admittedly dwindling – but there are still fun
outdoor activities, they are just harder to find!
Recent and coming highlights/overview in the Jemez outdoors - It’s nearly
Christmas! Where is the snow? Temperatures have been dropping, and we have had
some freezes, but no significant rain or snow since September! Mt. Redondo got a
dusting of snow just before Thanksgiving, but below 8,000 feet not so much. Our
streams are very low and will be worse without precipitation. Hiking opportunities are
still abundant as a result and some high-country trails are still accessible. Bundling up
in layers is a good idea – it can be frigid in the mornings, particularly above 7,000 feet,
but by early afternoon a long sleeve shirt and a light sweater can be enough until winter
hits in earnest. Although this mild weather does lend itself to high-country scenic drives
and maybe some camping, it’s important to know what weather is coming and to be
prepared for it. A mild afternoon can turn too cold to enjoy in a flash – carry extra layers
in a pack if going very far, and don’t forget snacks and water.
Note: The Lake Fork Fire, started 11/6, is still active as of 11/20 but appears to be
managed as if it were a controlled burn. The website nmfireinfo.com is no longer
updating the fire and won’t unless it gets significantly larger – which is not expected.
They also indicate that the fire was Human-caused – the Jemez is extremely dry, and
everyone should be careful and conscientious about camp or brush fires.
At this time of year, the “Jemez Jewels” are subject to quick closures from weather.
Most organized campgrounds are closed, many higher elevation trails will effectively
close, and fishing has shifted to lower altitudes.
HIKING – Early December hikes can be fun when dressed for the weather – we are in
glove season for sure, and a hooded sweatshirt or jacket is a good layer idea. Bundle
up a bit and go hiking! The first hike was discussed briefly in the last issue, and the
second and third are particularly pretty and easy – great for a post-holiday dinner walk.
Hoodoo Trail Ojito Wilderness – Another great Ojito trail that is at its best in cool
weather. To reach it:
The trip begins in San Ysidro, go left on US 550 for 2.7 miles to Cabezon Road– a right-hand turn. There are signs to the Ojito Wilderness and White Ridge bike trails at the intersection – be careful as traffic is moving fast here.
Stay on Cabezon Road for 10.8 miles to the trailhead parking lot on the left - the kiosk is easy to spot and has a map of the trail.
Obviously, there are hoodoos along the trail – keep looking up. The trail is 3.3 miles
round trip, but one sees hoodoos before the end of the first mile. This area is also
known for its dinosaur fossils and petrified wood. Before going I recommend viewing a
few videos on the web – they can help focus your hike. Simply search “Hoodoo trail Ojito”
to find many YouTube videos of the hike. The trail has an elevation change of about
300 ft. and is in good shape and easy to follow. Some rocky and sandy areas make a
hiking staff, or a pair of hiking sticks a good idea.
Christmas Trails – In selecting these I had several constraints in mind:
1. It had to be a short hike accessible by paved road.
2. It had to be a knockdown, drag-out, gorgeous walk!
3. It had to be easily accessible by a wide age range – like 5 to 75+ yrs. old.
4. If it were to snow – or even look like it might – it’s not that far back to run home
and warm up by the fire!
The winners are (imagine a drum roll): Las Conchas Recreation Area and San Diego
Overlook. Simple yet beautiful walks to get the kids out of the house and wow your
Los Conchas Recreation Area – This trail is a portion of the East Fork Trail #137 – a
major Jemez hiking attraction. Parking is typically dodgy, but at this time of year
shouldn’t be too bad. There are 4 – 5 parking spaces right at the trailhead, but when
crowded many folks park along the road – I don’t recommend it. Just 1⁄4 mile further
toward the Valle there is parking for 5 – 6 cars that require a 1⁄4 mile walk back.
This is one of the most beautiful rivers and forest walks in the Jemez. The Forest
Service has installed bridges for any required crossings of the East Fork of the Jemez
River in the first mile or so. The trail is easy to follow and loved hard by many a hiker. I
was there the last week in November and the river was partially frozen – please dress
The trail follows the East Fork for about a mile through an alpine forest/meadow at 8400
ft. It then enters a box canyon that requires some wading of the river to progress, but at
this time of year, I would suggest staying in the first mile for your hike. Once snow falls
the trail can get icy – particularly in the mornings – but on a nice day, this is often over
San Diego Overlook – Another Forest Service trail that satisfies the “gorgeous”
requirement! The distant views of San Diego Canyon are breathtaking – albeit often seen through small openings in the tree canopy. The round-trip length is 0.4 miles with an elevation gain of fewer than 50 ft. Parts of the trail are paved, and the entire trail is well maintained and easy to walk. It also has a Vault Toilet and easily accessible parking right off NM 4. From La Cueva (intersection of NM 4 and NM 126) it is 2.3 miles to the Overlook on the right. This is the easier of the two Christmas trail choices, and certainly easier for kids and older adults. It is also less likely to snow there as it is about 500 ft. lower – but don’t get overconfident!
DRIVES – The next few weeks may still have decent weather for a drive in the high country – but don’t count on it, and don’t expect a lot of high elevation exploring after the first big
snow. The forest roads will close December 31st, leaving time to get a Christmas tree permit!
NOTE: Christmas tree permits went on sale on November 22. Permits cost $10 and are available at the Jemez Ranger Station (located at Valles Caldera administration offices on NM 4) and at Walatowa on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 9 AM to 4 PM.
The Cabezon - A drive we often go back to in winter is to the Cabezon. The drive is fun
and is another look at the high plains surrounding the Jemez. The Cabezon is a
massive tower of rock that is the result of a volcanic eruption that left lava in the tube
that hardened and formed a solid neck. The outer part of the volcanic structure eroded
away over millions of years leaving a tower 7800 ft. high that can be seen from as far
away as the Cerrillos hills south of Santa Fe. (Note: A fun thing to do on the drive
home from Rio Rancho is to spot the Cabezon from US 550 – it begins to appear on the
left just as you pass the Zia Pueblo entrance road across from the new fire house.
To get to the cabezon from San Diego Canyon:
From San Ysidro go north on US 550.
After 17 miles see the sign for San Luis, Cabezon, and Torreon pointing left.There is a turning lane – but be careful - traffic is traveling at 70 mph. This is San Luis Rd , also called County Road (CR) 279.
Follow CR 279 for another 13 miles to the left turn onto BLM 1114 – NOTE: The sign for BLM 1114 was gone in 2020 – be looking for a left turn leading to the Cabezon and watch your mileage - it’s not hard to find.
There is a VERY rough parking area about 2.5 miles in but be careful - the last 1⁄2 mile is
rough. A 4WD vehicle is best for this drive, but 2WD vehicles with decent ground
clearance and driven slowly and cautiously make it routinely. If the bottom of your front
bumper is 4 inches or less from the road surface this drive is probably not for you unless
you ride in someone else’s vehicle.
The Cabezon is the largest volcanic neck in the area, but by far not the only one. If one
drives beyond the Cabezon on CR 279 for 2 - 3 miles or so there are many smaller neck
formations visible from the road. A distant view of some of these is shown in the photo
below. We have always called this Cabezon Alley – not sure why, it just seemed to fit at
CAMPING – Nighttime temperatures are in the 30’s and getting colder – unless you are VERY well prepared for cold weather, I don’t suggest tent camping again until late
March. RVs can dry camp until forest roads close. Only a few campgrounds are open (Vista Linda on NM 4, Clear Creek and Las Vacas campgrounds on NM 126). I don’t recommend RV camping at this time of year either, but if you go be sure to watch the 7- day forecast before launch – ending up in a snowstorm in an RV can be both hazardous and joyless. The Jemez campground table will reappear in spring when there’s more to tell.
FISHING – Water levels are way down after an October/November virtual shut out for
precipitation – the worst in recorded history. Stocking has shifted to the Village and the lower Jemez River fishing access sites. Wild fish are still active, but as temps drop so do trout metabolisms, so don’t expect the high catch rates of early fall. Most Jemez wild fish streams can’t be accessed easily when snows begin and forest roads close, so if you want a last chance at wild fish do it now.
Stocked Fish: The lower (below Soda Dam) Jemez River and Fenton Lake were both
stocked in late November and will be stocked with triploid rainbow trout again in early
December. The best locations to find these fish are:
Fenton Lake - From shore and boat – look for water depths of 5 – 7 feet.
Jemez River – the library run from the upper Mooney bridge to the Bodhi, and the USFS Fishing Access Sites: The Bluffs, Spanish Queen, San Diego, Las Casitas, La Junta, and the NM 485 bridge area. My favorite – San Diego.
The winter fishery on the lower Jemez River is a fun place to catch a few rainbows for
dinner or fun. I scouted the San Diego Access on 11/19 and saw lots of fish but have
not explored any other sites yet. These fish like deep nymphs with flash in them such
as perdigons, flashback pheasant tails, and hare’s ears, and Copper Johns. Eggs and
worms – both real and artificial - can be killers when they are fished near the bottom.
Small spinners, jigs, or spoons are also good for stocked fish – fish them as slow and
deep as possible without snagging.
Wild Fish: I fished the East Fork on 11/16 in the Las Conchas Recreation Area. The
canyon was beautiful as always. I hiked in about 1⁄2 mile – the first things I noticed were
that the river was frozen in many spots and that I had never seen the East Fork that low
before. Air temps were in the mid-’30s by 10 AM and any place there was a pool with
a slower current the water was skinned over with ice. In the photo below the pool above
the iced rocks has a thin skin of ice that gives it a mirror-like appearance. Despite the
cold temps the “rock snot” was still thick on the bottom so fishing became a matter of
finding flowing water with depths of 8 inches or more and avoiding getting green slime the fly!
I was lucky enough to find an 11-inch brown trout right away – I was fishing a two-nymph indicator rig with a #16 perdigon on top and a #18 RS-2 below – the brown took the RS-2. The water was so low that the distance from the indicator to the bottom fly was under a foot, and in many places that was too long! I didn’t catch another fish for an hour or more, but
finally got a 6-incher who also took the RS-2. At that point, I quit to get warmed up in the car and decided to call it a day. That’s kind of the story on wild fish.
The San Antonio has bankside and pool ice from the Valle to La Cueva. The East fork from Jemez Falls to Battleship Rock was mostly ice-free 11/23. The wild fish opportunities are nearly over – with forest road closures coming, low water in the high country, and bone-chilling temps it will have to be one of those odd warming periods we get periodically in the winter before I try it again. Luckily, we have the winter stocked fishing heating up so there is still fishing to do be done. If you must go before the New Year for wild fish my recommendations would be:
Fish the East Fork from Battleship upstream to Jemez Falls, but expect more ice the higher you go, small nymphs on the bottom between icy pools worked for me.
Until we get a good snow fish the upper San Antonio Fishing Access Sites (e.g., Dark Canyon, Rincon, Spence), but remember the water may be frozen in places – La Cueva Day Use was partially frozen 11/24!
The Cebolla above the lake (via FR 378) has wild browns and cutthroats, and probably some remnant stocker rainbows. It’s tough to fish with the vegetation surge – the best method is to feed line downstream without casting, but if there is ice go home or go to the lower Jemez River Fishing Access sites or Fenton Lake. Icey East Fork on 11/16
The San Pedro Parks Wilderness streams will be frozen or very close to it from now
until spring. This is also expected on the Bandelier cutthroat streams (e.g., Rio Frijoles
and Rio Capulin) and the Valles Caldera brown trout streams. The northern cutthroat
streams (e.g., Cañones and Polvadera creeks) are only accessible by forest roads so
are effectively closed after 12/31, and probably frozen before that. It’s winter!
December through February is a great time to tie flies for 2022. I typically make up about a dozen each of 7 – 8 nymphs, 4 dozen streamers – mostly wooly buggers and Thunder Creeks, 6 dozen dry flies #12 - #18 - including Humpies and Stimulators, 3 – 4 dozen
terrestrials – mostly hoppers and beetles, and a few dozen crustaceans for the lakes –
mostly crawdads and scuds. These numbers may seem large – and they are believe
me – but I give about half of them away to non-tiers and beginners, and I’m a very
aggressive fisherman and don’t mind losing flies if I’m catching fish. The two flies
shown above are real producers for me fished in tandem under an indicator. If the RS-2
isn’t working I change it out to an egg – preferably peach colored with a red blood dot.
SKIING AND SKATING – I do neither, but the season is here and will get better soon if
we aren’t defeated by the La Nina and the snow finally arrives. Here are some Jemez
Skiing – Our only Jemez ski slope is Pajarito Ski Area in Los Alamos. It has historically
had problems getting water for snowmaking, but recently put in a 10-million-gallon
water retention pond that holds the promise of more consistent snow. It took $250,000
to re-line the pond in September, so the full benefit won’t be seen until the 2023 season.
In the meantime, do your snow dances, and pray for snow!
Note: Season passes are now on sale at the Pajarito Ski Area web site. To get to
Pajarito see the directions to the ice-skating rink below. For more info call the Pajarito
Ski Area at (505) 662-5725 or go to their website.
Ice Skating – the Los Alamos County Ice Rink is on West Road. To get there:
Take NM 4 to NM 501 (~ 20 mi. from La Cueva) and go left on NM 501 toward Los Alamos.
Just before the National Lab guard shack, take a left onto Camp May Road toward Pajarito Ski Area. It and West Road are paved and recently resurfaced.
Pass the road to Pajarito Ski Area on the right and continue into Los Alamos canyon (with a cool trail at the bottom). Camp May road turns into West road.
The Ice Rink is on this road on the right about 1⁄2 mile after the canyon bottom. Call (505) 662-4500 for information about fees and schedules.
Cross-Country Skiing – The Jemez Mountains are becoming a winter destination for
cross-country (XC) skiers. Some of the XC trails are groomed by local XC clubs, while
others are groomed by the US Forest Service and the state of New Mexico. As XC
skiing can’t begin until we get snow, I thought to start with information sources that can
help introduce folk to Jemez XC skiing:
Nearby XC Ski Clubs have newsletters with suggested XC trails and expected
conditions. They are also an opportunity to join projects devoted to improving XC
access and experience. Here are the ones I’ve found so far:
New Mexico Cross Country Ski Club - P.O. Box 51563 Albuquerque, NM 87181, website nmccskiclub.org
Los Alamos Mountaineers - PO Box 987, Los Alamos, NM 87544, website lamountaineers.org
Los Alamos Ski Club - Pajarito Mountain Ski Area, PO Box 1436 Los Alamos, NM 87544, website pajarito.ski/los-alamos-ski-club/
Southwest Nordic Ski Club - P.O. Box 1556 Los Alamos, NM 87544, website swnskiclub.org
NM XC Ski books are often written by XC Ski club members and typically contain XC
trail descriptions, photos, etc. The first two listed are strictly northern New Mexico, the
third is an XC Ski beginner’s book that may be helpful.
Ski Touring in Northern New Mexico - Second Edition, by Sam Beard (Note: I inadvertently bought the last one of these that Amazon had. They were at one time available through the NM XC Ski Club and may be yet).
Popular Jemez XC Ski Trails – I’ve gleaned these from the web, and the list is certainly
not exhaustive, but representative of the XC Skiing in the Jemez.
FR 376 above NM 126 to the San Antonio Hot Spring.
The Valles Caldera National Preserve (many XC Ski trails, e.g., Coyote Call, Rabbit Mountain, back country VC roads, ...)
Griegos Mountain XC Ski Trail (off NM 4 near mile marker 35)
FR 144 starting from the NM 126 intersection
Hal Baxter XC Ski Trail at Fenton Lake State Park