Jemez Mountains in General – Jemez streams are low and fire danger is MODERATE
throughout the Western Division (Jemez Mountains) of the Santa Fe National Forest
thanks to recent snows. Forest roads have now closed, most until April 15, but some
later – such as the road to San Antonio Hot Springs (FR 376 north of NM 126) which
opens July 1.
As we enter the 2022 winter the Jemez outdoor opportunities change significantly:
Hiking opportunities will narrow in the new year will shift to lower elevation trails with occasional good weather spurts allowing paved road trailhead access.
Scenic drives also shift to lower elevations and will center on southern valleys and southern Jemez areas such as the Ojito Wilderness that have maintained roads.
Fishing will shift to ice fishing at Fenton Lake if temperatures stay low, the Jemez as it goes through the village, or the lower Jemez River access sites.
Peak skiing at Pajarito should happen in January or February, the skating rink is open, and XC skiing will be good if snowfall is good.
At this time of year, the “Jemez Jewels” are subject to quick closures from weather, if in doubt call ahead or check their website.
HIKING – Hiking at this time of year can be fun if properly dressed – we are in glove
season for sure, and a hooded sweatshirt or jacket is a good layer idea, as are long
johns. Bundle up and go hiking! In keeping with the season this month’s featured hike
is at low elevation and accessed by a paved road, but admittedly has 0.3 miles of well-maintained dirt road to the trailhead.
FR 269 Trail – Directions to the trailhead:
On NM 290 roughly 2.7 miles north of the winery in Ponderosa (a great stop on the way back) see the USFS sign for FR 269 on the right pointing to a lefthand turn.
Take FR 269, a good dirt road, for 0.3 miles to a gate.
This gate is the start of a Resource Protection Area that is off limits to all vehicles, but open to hikers.
Pass through the gate on the right and begin your hike along the old roadbed.
The hike begins in the foothills heading west and north. These foothills have their own beauty being in an arid cedar forest that has great distant views of the mountains and foothills surrounding the Ponderosa Valley. The trail continues for roughly 11 miles with some rough patches occurring after 3 – 4 miles. For a short hike of 1 – 2 miles one still gets panoramic views of the foothills around Ponderosa while walking on an easy to navigate roadbed.
I drove FR 269 form both ends before the road was closed, From the top (off FR 10) it was harrowing at best, downright terrifying at worst. Beth and I had started it without realizing what we were up against! As an example, there was a segment in the higher elevations where there was a 500 ft. drop on either side of a land bridge that was 7 – 8 ft. wide for a 50-foot stretch – I white knuckled it while worrying the whole time that one tire would slip off and we would be doomed! Then just as we got to the foothills, we had to cross a dry creek that required jumping a 2-foot bank to get out – with a 4WD Lincoln Navigator! The worst was when we finally got to the end and the gate was locked – there was a ranger there trying to unlock it (it was April 15 or so) but the key didn’t fit! We had to drive back across that creek and land bridge!
Fortunately, they have closed the road and created one of the best foothills hikes in the Jemez when accessed from the Ponderosa end. The risks we faced in that drive are not an issue for a walk of up to 3 – 4 miles. After that no guarantees! While scouting the trail the week before Christmas I ran into a couple from Ponderosa who hike it routinely – they verified that it was a relatively easy trail with good walking conditions and tremendous sightseeing. The trail is all on public land, easy to find, easy to walk, usually clear a few days after a snowfall, and well suited to winter hikes – how can you go wrong!
DRIVES – Drives at this time of year can be challenging – snow, ice, and cold temps all
combine to raise the risk level significantly. A breakdown in cold weather can be life
threatening, Jemez residents may remember the family that got stuck on a Christmas
tree hunt about 6 years ago – they made it but had to endure very cold conditions for
many hours. Please respect the risks that winter weather adds to driving in remote
areas. No new drives this time, but here are some suggestions that work when weather
The Ojito Wilderness drives from Cabazon Road near the White Mesa or from the other end of Cabezon Road in the San Luis area. Drives from both ends are beautiful and full of great vistas – but if it looks wet or snowy turn around!
The drive to FR 269 (above) is often open in winter and has the Ponderosa Winery and Valley to stop and explore.
The drive to Cuba discussed in the last edition is also a fun winter-time drive when snow is clear - with the added attraction of some great restaurants.
NM 4 is well maintained in winter all the way to Los Alamos and White Rock and can be quite picturesque when snow is on the ground. Don’t go in active snowstorms – even minor ones. Los Alamos has many things to see as a destination – the Bradbury Space Museum, the Los Alamos History Museum, the skating rink, and the Pajarito ski slope to name a few.
CAMPING – Nighttime temperatures are in the teens and twenties lately – unless you are VERY well prepared for cold weather, I don’t suggest 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). 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 still low – ‘tis the season with drought. We need a lot more
snow to store water for springtime. Stocking of the lower Jemez River winter fishery and Fenton Lake provide continued fishing opportunities. Wild fish are tough to find at this time of year - most Jemez wild fish can’t be reached without a forest road, and those that can are already half frozen.
Stocked Fish: The most recent stocking of the Jemez River and Fenton Lake was done on 12/23 and they will be stocked again in January. The best locations to find these fish 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 Access Sites: The Bluffs, River’s Bend, Spanish Queen, SanDiego, Las Casitas, La Junta. My favorite – San Diego.
I stopped by the San Diego site the third week in December to see if they were biting. Asking a couple of fellows how the fishing got me a look at their catch – nice! They were from the Rio Rancho Seniors Fishing Club; in fact, they were officers – John (left in photo) the treasurer and Alfred the Sargent at Arms. Nice guys - they gave me some fishing tips and pointed out a few more members upstream.
I went back to San Diego Fishing Access on my birthday - which I have fished without missing for over 30 years. I euro-nymphed with a single perdigon fly exactly where they said. I got about ½ dozen stockers right away. At that point I started hiking downstream – passing a lot of shallow water – and found a gorgeous hole which didn’t look as if it had been fished very hard. I got three more rainbows in that pool and decided to change location; besides it was a birthday fishing trip, so I needed to stop at Highway 4 Café for a coffee and an almond croissant!
Starting just above the upper Mooney Boulevard bridge (one can’t fish for about 20 feet
upstream from the bridge – tree fall) I was happy to see the water was clear, and although shallow – quite fishable. This run is my favorite winter stocker spot because water clarity often allows sight fishing to specific trout. I was able to fool 4 or 5 more and was able to watch how fish reacted to my perdigon nymph. They would not move much laterally but if I was able to drop the nymph in a line that (with a little steering) came right at them they almost always went for it. I on the other hand didn’t always react fast enough, so if I had to guess I only caught 30% of the fish that mouthed it!
Note 1: A native Jemez Springs resident, Tom S. of Firewise fame, told me a story you should hear. While in high school he worked at the gas station located in the center of town – most recently occupied by the Jemez Stage Stop near the upper Mooney bridge. There was a mounted brown trout in the store that was about 20 inches long with the inscription
“this trout was caught behind this building.”
All I can say is WOW.
Note 2: About 15 years ago and expert fly fisher - who later became a Jemez Springs
resident - gave me a framed quote that I have always cherished. It was my birthday (see a theme here?) and I really liked it. Here it is – enjoy.
“There is something about the whirr and hum of fishing that that casts out worry and reels in peace.” (Cody Halvorson)
Can you guess who gifted me? Here’s a hint, there is something that Note 1 and Note 2
have in common, and that will lead to the answer!
Wild Fish: I haven’t tried for any wild fish in about a month, and probably won’t for another couple months. As I’ve explained before this is because I’m a wuss in winter Library run looking toward upper Mooney Bridge and finding wild fish means getting COLD. For those who do want to try it my best advice is stay home, but if you can’t here are the places where I would suggest that are both reachable from paved roads and are typically only iced over about 40 – 50% of stream width:
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.
Although they may require snowshoes to get in, the two fishing access points on the East Fork (Las Conchas Rec Area and Las Conchas Fishing Access) are accessible via NM 4 (you will have to park outside the gates without blocking them). Icing is a real issue here – wait for a “warmer” spell of weather.
That’s it! After that you must pack in in deep snow as all the forest roads are closed.
SKIING AND SKATING – I do neither, but the season is here, and our recent snow is
encouraging – let there be snow! Here are some Jemez highlights:
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: 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 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, dropping into Los Alamos canyon – which has a cool trail at the bottom 1.6 miles from the Guard Shack turn. Parking is limited, but the 4-mile round trip trail is stupendous).
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 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. The higher elevation trails may have enough snow for XC for a while, but clearly more is needed.
Nearby XC Ski Clubs have newsletters with suggested XC trails and current/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
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)