Recent snows have helped our water situation, and as it runs off our streams will benefit – it’s already happening, the lower Jemez River is running great. By mid-month it will muddy up as the melt proceeds, bring nutrients and soil. Let’s hope the snow or rain keeps coming – a wet Jemez spring and summer beats a dry one every time! Fire danger is currently LOW throughout the Santa Fe National Forest. Forest roads remain closed until April 15.
The high country is still largely inaccessible, but there are still many opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in the high arid plains surrounding the Jemez Mountains. Much of it is public land owned by the Bureau of Land Management, Winter fishing for stocked fish on the lower Jemez River is still good. If one has the courage wild fish can be found below 7,000 feet – such as the lower San Antonio and East Fork but expect a tough slog to the stream and it will probably be frozen to 50% of its width. Hiking is available in the Ojito Wilderness, San Ysidro, and Cabezon Peak areas. These areas are best explored in cool weather, have a unique beauty all their own, and a visual geology that’s fascinating. Get out for a winter adventure - you’ll be glad you did!
Winter sports opportunities have peaked but should continue to be decent through February. Skiing, ice-skating, and cross-country (XC) skiing activities are primarily centered between La Cueva and Los Alamos, but some opportunities exist in the San Pedro Parks for XC skiing. There are many XC ski trails off NM 4 and NM 126. Pajarito Ski Area conditions are average for late February, and the ice-skating rink is ready, but it typically closes in late February.
HIKING – I do a “research day” for every Jemez Adventures newsletter and After the Thunder newspaper column to check trail and road conditions for the hikes and drive segments. On February 8th I headed out for the Bernalillito Mesa Trail in the Ojito Wilderness area. My pre-trip research had shown the trailhead to be about 1 mile beyond the Hoodoo trail Parking area on Cabezon Road. On the way I scouted the trailhead for the Dragon Back Trail which is part of the White Ridge Bike Trails (last edition we did the White Mesa Trail which is also member of the White Ridge Trails). There were scattered patches of snow everywhere and much of it was melting by 9 that morning – the result of that melting was mud on the way out. Most dirt roads develop washboard surfaces, particularly in winter and spring, and Cabezon Road is no exception! The first 2 – 3 miles in from US 550 were rough going in, not threatening, just rough with washboard. Weirdly they seemed better going out – is that even possible?
I got to the Hoodoo trailhead and measured the distance I had estimated to the Bernalillito trailhead. That’s when the plan went south. What I found was a BLM sign saying, “road closed” and then showing symbols barring vehicle use. Had I been in the Santa Fe National Forest I would have started hiking, but I was unsure whether BLM also had the hike freely policy for closed roads. I called the Rio Puerco BLM office as the sign suggested and they returned my call in a day – and they said, “Happy hiking, enjoy your public lands.” Wow. Hats off to BLM again!
But I was already out in the Ojito Wild that morning, so I decided to hike BLM’s Hoodoo Trail. The trailhead is well marked with a nice parking area at 13.5 miles from the US 550 Cabezon Road intersection just east of White Mesa. I had written about the trail early this winter but had not had a chance to hike it. The geology and beauty of this trail can’t be overstated. I found it easy to follow, although there were a few confusing side trails. The Hoodoo trail follows the base of Bernalillito Mesa, and many hoodoos are on the mesa ridge. The Bernalillito Mesa Trail climbs and follows the top rim of the mesa and looks down on Hoodoo trail at points.
At about ¾ mile I started seeing hoodoos on the mesa rim, and at about a mile there was a mushroom shaped hoodoo right on the trail. There were also sandstone outcroppings that had been sculpted by wind and weather in this same area. The distant views are amazing and the colors that paint this arid landscape are stupendous. The day we (me and my trusty dog
Zia) did the hike the sky was its bluest blue and the temp at 10 AM was around 40 degrees with some wind. There was a bit of snow on the ground, but it never impeded the hike, although some melting did make the ground soft and muddy in places. Total trail length is just under 3 miles out and back, and the elevation change is under 100 ft.
The Hoodoo and Seismosaurus trails are signature BLM Ojito Wilderness trails, and they
deserve the accolade. If you haven’t done one or the other yet, do it soon – by May these
and other Ojito trails can be very hot and a lot less fun.
Another recommendation for a trail in late February is the Perea Nature Trail in San Ysidro. This 1-mile walk is easy for all ages. The Rio Salado runs through it and is dry most of the year, but it has water now and probably will off and on through spring. There is a bit of snow on the area now, but typically the trail itself is always in good shape.
DRIVES – Except in the middle of a big snowstorm NM 4 stays open all winter, as do NM 126 from La Cueva to the fish hatchery and NM 290 from NM 4 to near the SFNF boundary above Ponderosa. These routes can be good treatment for cabin fever at this time of year. The forest, stream, and lake views in winter are special – framed in white and punctuated with thousands of trees the forest seen from the car is a visual treat in winter. These three paved roads are well maintained, and snow is cleared quickly – the winter forest awaits!
CAMPING – Nighttime temperatures are starting to climb into the 20’s and 30’s, but I still don’t recommend tent camping again until late March. Only a few campgrounds are open (Vista Linda on NM 4, Clear Creek and Las Vacas campgrounds on NM 126). RV camping at this time of year isn’t much better, but if you do 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 – The lower Jemez River and Fenton Lake continue to provide winter fishing opportunities. To track these stocking levels, I prepared the table opposite, and will keep it updated. Fenton Lake is stocked and ice-bound, but edge thickness was a problem before the recent cold weather. The lower Jemez is fishing well, and flows are up. Wild fish are tough to find at this time of year with forest roads closed, but for the insanely intrepid there are a few spots one can get to where most of the water is still in liquid form!
Stocked Fish: The best locations to find stocked fish In a Jemez winter are:
Fenton Lake - From shore, ice, or boat – look for water depths of 5 – 7 feet.
Jemez River – the library run from the upper Mooney bridge to the Bodhi.
Jemez River - USFS San Diego Fishing Access.
I stopped at San Diego Fishing Access on February 9. I saw only two active fishers. One fellow I spoke to had been having no luck with flies, so he encased his fly in bright orange bait paste and sure enough he caught one right away! I did walk the library run and tried to see how many fish I could spot – I saw nine, most stationed behind rocks that had small plunge pools. Water color was a bit off from snow melt, so spotting trout was tough, and I felt like I should have seen more, but they were there. My winter season campaign to learn to euro-nymph is nearly over – it will be time to try it on other waters and wilder fish in 3 – 4 weeks. The rig I finally came to is shown below. I made it much shorter than the experts recommend, but they don’t fish our small Jemez streams. The stick outs on the sighter are made form the tag ends of the blood or surgeon’s knots on either end. The sighter I use is a 4X Umpqua Indicator fluorocarbon – its expensive, about $14, but it lasts a long time (my spool still looks brand new after 7 – 8 trips) and really makes this whole thing work. The 5X tippet is only a foot or so long and it breaks before the rest of the rig on a hard snag.
This rig fishes one fly quite comfortably – I have not tried it much with multiple flies, but our waters are skinny and managing a two-fly rig seemed like an invitation to lose flies. My most productive flies were classic perdigons in sizes 14 and 16 with tungsten beads ranging from 2.4 to 3.2 mm (3/32” to 1/8”). I also liked a fly called Sweet Meat Caddis from an article by Charlie Craven. The few times I did try a second fly I used a standard RS 2 in sizes 16 and 18. I’m not sure about giving tips on a method I’ve only tried this winter - but here goes:
Keep casts to 15 – 20 feet across and upstream with very little to no fly line outside the tip guide.
Move the rod slightly faster than the current leading it downstream.
Strike at everything but keep the strikes small so you can continue the drift if no fish hit.
Stay at it! It feels awkward at first, but within a few hours on the water it will smooth out.
Wild Fish: Fishing for wild fish in winter is sketchy – but we are not far from early spring and the streams will clear of ice soon. The forest roads are still closed so if you want to touch some brown trout, I suggest places reachable from paved roads. On February 10 the ice line (below which water is mostly open and fishable) was below Rincon Fishing Access on the San Antonio. If you go here are my best guesses where wild fish may be available:
Lower Rio San Antonio and the first mile or so of the Jemez River below Battleship Rock. Ice cover can be checked from the highway. The Rincon Fishing Access on the San Antonio is about the farthest upstream one can go without ice problems, but this will get better soon..
The lower East Fork can be easily accessed from Battleship Rock and is usually free flowing for a mile or so upstream with only iced edges.
Guadalupe River lower box and downstream of the FR 376 “Closed” gate.
SKIING AND SKATING – I do neither, but the season is coming to a close soon, so this is the last chance to ski/skate/XC ski. This will be the last Skiing and Skating article until next winter. Here are some Jemez highlights to try before it’s too late:
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, keep snow dancing – you never know – it might work.
Note: To get to Pajarito Ski Area see the directions to the ice-skating rink below. For more info call (505) 662-5725 or go to the Pajarito Ski Area web site. It is currently open Friday to Sunday, and tickets must be purchased online. Rentals are not currently available. Call before you go in late February.
Ice Skating – the Los Alamos County Ice Rink is on West Road. It is open and in full
operation – call (505) 662-4500 for information about fees and schedules. They
typically shut down in late February so if you’ve been thinking to go now is the time! To
Take NM 4 to NM 501 (~ 20 mi. from La Cueva) and go left on NM 501 toward Los Alamos (there is an unmanned guard shack at the turn).
Just before the National Lab guard shack take a left toward Camp May on West Road. In about 0.2 miles pass the road to Pajarito Ski Area on the left. Both Roads are paved and recently resurfaced.
Pass the road to Pajarito Ski Area and continue straight, eventually dropping into Los Alamos canyon as the road bends left.
The Ice Rink is on this road on West Road on the right 1.8 miles from the turn off to West Road, about 1/4 mile after reaching the canyon bottom.
Cross-Country Skiing – The Jemez Mountains are becoming a winter destination for cross-country (XC) skiers. XC skiing conditions are currently decent, but the season is ending soon. If you have been putting it off now is the time to go for 2022.
Popular Jemez XC Ski Trails – I’ve gleaned these from the web and books that include Jemez XC trails. The list is certainly not exhaustive, but representative of the XC Skiing in the southern Jemez Mountains.
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
San Pedro Parks Wilderness – many XC trails
Redondo Campground - park outside, don’t block gate
Banco Bonito Road (off NM 4)
FR 378 Barley Canyon Rd (accessed from NM 126 above Fenton Lake).