Jemez Mountains in General - My heart is broken. At this writing the Cerro Pelado fire continues to rage against the Jemez Mountains. Eastern Jemez communities such as Los Alamos and Cochiti Pueblo are threatened by the fire’s direction. My most fervent hope is that when you read this the fire is out and all firefighters and residents are safe.
In addition to the obvious burn scars that will remain many trails, forest roads, and streams will have been damaged to the point that full recovery will be measured in years. Streams that we know are impacted at this point include Peralta and Capulin Creeks, and the Rio Frijoles – all cutthroat enclaves, and smaller waters such as Paliza and Vallecito Creeks. Cochiti, Peralta and Medio Dia canyon creeks, and the Rios Chiquito and del Oso were already decimated by the Las Conchas fire of 2011 and much of the recovery made since then will be lost in this fire. Many trails and forest roads in the eastern Jemez will be damaged and will require extensive post-fire repair. The Valles Caldera has also become a fire site – let’s hope not for long – but the damage to trails and streams there could be potentially huge.
The forest is currently (5/10) in Stage II fire restriction. Under these restrictions the following is prohibited:
All fires no matter where a person is in the forest. This includes campfires, stove fires, charcoal grills, and briquettes.
Smoking outdoors, blasting and explosives, or welding (or any torch use).
From 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., operating a chainsaw or other equipment powered by an internal combustion engine is prohibited.
Fireworks are ALWAYS illegal on National Forests.
The Stage II restriction applies to the entire Western Division of the Santa Fe National Forest (SFNF) - essentially the Jemez Mountains. The forest remains open except for fire areas and routes used by firefighters. What this means to the Jemez outdoors enthusiast is that the western side of the Jemez is currently available for fishing, camping, scenic drives, and hiking. The key to reaching the western Jemez lies in 3 roads reachable from NM 4 – US 550, NM 485/FR 376, and NM 126. At this time FR 376 is closed as it has a Fire Camp. Cuba is the hub for western Jemez adventures, and once on US 550 it’s a quick 40-minute drive from San Ysidro. The alternate route to the western Jemez is NM 126 – a road paved on each end with an 8-mile mid-section that is ROUGH, but if you have a 4WD vehicle and the road is dry it can be a fun drive.
The SFNF has not closed the forest so far, but it could happen if the fires grow. If the forest does close all access is forfeit – no hiking, camping, scenic drives, or fishing.
The western side of the Jemez is fire-free at this writing – help keep it that way - please obey Stage II fire restrictions. The Jemez outdoor calendar is dominated by fire closures, and as of this writing the SFNF recreation areas and parks (e.g., Battleship Rock, Jemez Falls) are closed, the Valles Caldera is closed, and all areas east of NM 4 are closed. Please give fire crews the right of way and monitor Cerro Pelado fire status.
HIKING – The two featured hikes for late May are in the San Pedro Parks Wilderness (SPPW). Both are under 1½ miles one-way and are a good introduction to the SPPW - a western Jemez jewel. The trailheads are accessed from FR 70 which intersects NM 126 about 8½ miles east of Cuba - the paved portion of NM 126). It can also be reached by NM 126 coming from La Cueva, but this drive has a 4WD recommendation. FR 70 is well maintained and is passable in a 2WD passenger car when dry (as we unfortunately seem to be).
The first trailhead is 2.7 Miles from NM 126 on FR 70. There is a good parking lot with a vault toilet on the right and the trail begins on the left (north) side of FR 70. The hike goes to San Gregorio Lake and back to the parking lot on FR 70 in 2.3 Miles round trip, gaining 240 feet in elevation through a gently sloping forest that has not been cut since 1936. The trailhead starts at 9020 ft and lake is at 9260 feet. The lake is made by an irrigation dam on Clear Creek. The trail can be taken north from the lake to merge with the trail along the upper Rio de Las Vacas.
The lake is stocked once a year, usually in June, with triploid Rainbow Trout and fishes well into fall. This area of the wilderness is grazed by both elk and cattle – challenge neither! I once witnessed a steer that got into a verbal argument with an elk – I didn’t understand what was said but got the impression someone’s mother had been insulted. What made it kind of scary was that Michael B. was just rounding the corner of a hill on that side of the lake, fly rod in hand, as the fracas started. He kept his cool and stayed still until they moved on and then he started fishing again – I would have needed an underwear change!
The second hike into the SPPW is a portion of the Las Palomas Trail (#50) ending at the crossing of the Rito de Las Perchas in 1.2 miles. The trail continues for another 7 miles if one chooses, but this short hike of 2.4 miles round trip is a sweet walk into the wilderness. Perchas Creek is gorgeous and has a robust Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout (RGCT) population. The trail rises a bit more sharply (about 15% steeper) than the San Gregorio trail but is still a comfortable walk at a steady rise. The trail head is at 9200 feet, and it crosses Perchas Creek at an elevation of 9550 feet. The trailhead is about 5.5 miles from NM 126 on FR 70 and has a small parking area.
For late May and staying in the western Jemez far from the fires, my other hike recommendations would include:
Hal Baxter Trail at Fenton Lake State Park
Cebolla scramble east from the FR 378 bridge in Fenton Lake State Park
Upper Cebolla trail at FR 214 gate via the Hatchery (1.7 miles above NM 126).
Two trails to the San Antonio Hot Springs:
On FR 376 north of NM 126, about 4½ miles to the hot springs (this portion of FR 376 opens July 1 but can be hiked now).
The trail from the parking area on the north side of NM 126 near the Rio San Antonio bridge though the “Private Drive” gate – about 5 miles to the hot springs. This starts on private property with an SFNF right of way – please respect it so we don’t lose it.
DRIVES – Western Jemez drives, because of fire closures, must originate via US 550 or NM 126. At this writing (5/10) there are no restrictions or closures on US 550 or NM 126. FR 376 is closed. These arteries to the western Jemez open-up a lot of highcountry forest recreation opportunities that are – to date – fire free and away from firefighting traffic. If the SFNF closes all forest roads close.
The drive selected for late May is a simple one that explores NM 126 west of La Cueva to
the 7 Springs Hatchery – roughly 15 miles on NM 126 with side trips along the way totaling another 15 or so miles. It’s kid friendly and the side trips are safe. Start at the junction of NM 4 and NM 126 in La Cueva, heading west. The table lists the points of interest on the drive and the distance form La Cueva. The first two are commercial stops for sundries & snacks and fishing gear & bait – you may need both. Side trips are a major part of the fun of this drive – try these:
San Antonio Campground is one of the nicest campgrounds in the forest – camping by reservation only via recreation.gov. Unfortunately, it’s currently closed.
Rio San Antonio Parking area near NM 126 Bridge – trails to two sections of the Rio for brown trout. The trail through the gate leads to SFNF land in about 1 mile, and San Antonio Hot Springs in about 4 – 5 miles.
FR 376 to the south is closed for firefighters. FR 376 to the north is closed until July 1, but can be hiked until then.
FR 144 is open and is a cool drive. It requires a high-clearance vehicles for about 12 miles, after that it’s a disaster for about 7 miles and 4WD may not be enough! At 6.5 miles in from NM 126 there is a pullout on the right that has one of the best views in the Jemez – it overlooks the Caldera and a canyon of the Rio San Antonio.
This little overlook is hard to turn into going west, but totally worth it. Great views of Mt. Redondo, Thompson Ridge, and the southern caldera ring mountains. One of the Jemez’ best (if not the best) overlooks, but sadly unmaintained and a well-kept secret!
Fenton Lake and FR 378 – both are in Fenton Lake State Park. Fun trails and fishing! The FR 378 scramble is a fun walk along the Rio Cebolla above the lake.
The 7 Springs Hatchery has several attractions:
Kid Pond – Kids under 12 can fish for rainbow trout here – some large ones too. Rods and bait can be obtained in La Cueva.
Red Chile hike – Continuing on the hatchery road (FR 314) for 1.4 miles after the Kid Pond leads to one of the prettiest hikes in the Jemez. The road is rough, requiring a high-clearance vehicle, a 4WD when wet. Park at the gate, go through a turnstile, enjoy a 2 mile walk to McKinney Pond in a Cebolla canyon.
After reaching McKinney Pond the hike continues for 4 or 5 miles in a beautiful mixed conifer forest. This section is a Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout restoration area and is fun to fish with dry flies.
Continuing west on NM 126 from the hatchery one encounters a rough 4WD recommended road for just under 8 miles before reaching pavement again. If the road is dry, it can be a gorgeous drive, if wet it’s a nightmare. It continues to FR 70 and the SPPW and ends in Cuba.
CAMPING – Camping in the Jemez comes in 3 forms: Organized Campgrounds, Dispersed or Dry camping, and Backpacking.
Campgrounds – Most Jemez campgrounds are closed due to the eastern Jemez fires. The five that remain open include Clear Creek and Las Vacas campgrounds on NM 126, Vista Linda on NM 4, Fenton Lake State Park on NM 126, and Riana Campground at Abiquiu Lake on NM 96. The table below includes the dozen public campgrounds available inside the Jemez Mountains. There are commercial campgrounds on the periphery of the Jemez, but they are not included here. Group campsites are also not included, but websites for the 12 campgrounds listed contain information for group camping. NOTE: Fire level danger or the need for firefighting support may close the remaining campgrounds at any time, check their websites for more info.
Dispersed/Dry Camping – Dry camps can be set along open forest roads, but fires preclude many of the most popular dry camping areas in the eastern Jemez. Most western Jemez forest roads remain open – but the Stage II fire restrictions remain in force for the entire forest. The maximum stay is 14 days, and all dry campers are encouraged to check USFS fire restrictions and act both responsibly and safely in a tinder dry forest. NO OPEN FIRES are allowed anywhere in the Santa Fe National Forest (per Stage II restrictions).
For a late May dry camping choice try FR 103 and FR 93 – FR 103 can be reached easily 30 miles east of Cuba on (paved) NM 126, or 24 miles from La Cueva via NM 126 which includes the rough section. FR 103 is a well-maintained dirt road and is safe for RVs and 2WD vehicles when dry. Teakettle Rock is on FR 103 and is well worth a stop and a walkaround. FR 103 crosses the Rio Puerco at an informal dry campground and picnic area which also provides access to the Rio’s brown trout fishing. Another dry camp informal campground can be found on FR 93 which is a left just above the Rio Puerco. Resumidero (dry) campground is 2 – 3 miles from the 103//93 intersection. Upper FR 93 is a good dirt road that leads to two of the SPPW trailheads, Rio Puerco (#385) and Corrralitos (#452) trails. Also, along FR 93 the Resumidero falls can be seen from the road on the left side going south – a beautiful 40-foot waterfall.
Other western Jemez dry camping roads include:
FR 264 along the Rito Penas Negras
FR 144 for the first 10 – 12 miles above NM 126
FR 533 which has some great distant views
Backpacking – The Jemez backpacking season has taken a big hit from the Cerro Pelado fire, knocking out the Bandelier and Dome Wildernesses. The western SFNF and the San Pedro Parks Wilderness (SPPW) are both excellent backpacking destinations. The SPPW is one of the most popular backpacking areas in the Jemez. A collection of trails in the SPPW have been put together as the Continental Divide Trail which draws backpackers from around the world. With an average altitude near 10,000 feet, the “old” forest setting, and the many streams make this place tough to beat.
FISHING – At this point we can only hope that the eastern Jemez stream damage isn’t so catastrophic that restoration efforts due to the 2011 Las Conchas and subsequent fires need to be restarted. Jemez Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout restoration has been focused on the eastern Jemez and the Cerro Pelado fire will undoubtedly set those efforts back. Unless the forest closes – and I hope it won’t – there is still a lot of fishing opportunity in the western Jemez .
Stocked Fish: Stocking of trout in Jemez streams has largely been curtailed due to the fires, but Fenton Lake has been well stocked and so has the Kid Pond. The only western Jemez stocked stream is the Rio de Las Vacas above the Girl Scout Camp (I think of the Rio Cebolla as an eastern Jemez stream – admittedly a questionable assumption), but it also remains unstocked.
If you are looking for a trout dinner head for Fenton Lake or take your 10-year-old to the Kid Pond and root for them (the urge to over-coach a kid that’s fishing is best ignored—“help only when needed and after they have tried it once themselves” is good advice).
Wild Fish: On 5/6 I fished the Rio San Antonio above NM 126 from the trail leading to the hot springs. It’s about a mile walk, slightly uphill, through the Private Drive gate from the Rio San Antonio parking area near the NM 126 bridge. This is private land that the SFNF has a right of way to, please be courteous and quiet while passing the house. The SFNF boundary marker is about 100 yards after the house, after which can one drop into the canyon of the Rio San Antonio to fish for the next 4 miles or so. The SFNF right of way doesn’t necessarily include fishing and hiking access and it can be revoked if private land is disrespected—please don’t do that.
I had done well on the lower water that is accessed from the same parking area about 2 weeks ago but 1 - 2 miles upriver. I expected to whack ‘erm like I did then. Great plan, but not so much on the fishing success. I was able to hustle up 3 brown trout, the biggest just under 12 inches, but I really had to cover some ground to get them, and the fishing was way slow compared to two weeks ago. I stuck with a Missing Link dry fly in a size #14, later changing to a #16 after a tree encounter—which did no better than the #14. The water was gin clear and flowing well, albeit a bit low for spring. There were no insects hatching while I was there from 10 AM to 1 PM. When I had fished the lower water, it was later by 2 – 3 hours and that might have been the difference. I was also too lazy to add a dropper in that low water—which becomes work real fast—but a nymph might have been the ticket—I didn’t try one, so I’ll never know.
Here are some wild fish stream choices that are open in the western Jemez and have no fire or firefighter issues at this writing (5/10). Remember that if the forest gets closed all the outdoor activities will also close—so watch for changes in the Cerro Pelado daily updates and abide by SFNF directives.
The Rio de Las Vacas in the upper water along FR 20 has the largest average brown trout size in the Jemez in my opinion. I’ve seen at least 4 - 16 inchers netted there, and personally spooked a fish that looked like a 20 incher. My biggest fish there is a (single) 13 incher but I’m ready for more!
All RGCT SPPW streams are Red Chile water – if you catch a brown trout in the SPPW take it home! This is the Jemez best RGCT water, but brown trout incursion is accelerating.
The Rito Penas Negras is small a brown trout stream accessible from FR 264 and lower FR 103. Please be respectful of dry camp sites along FR 264. The Rito is accessed with a short hike to the south (right hand side going in from NM 126).
The Rio Puerco is a good brown trout stream in the vicinity of Rio Puerco Campground. Once away from the campground the forest is tight to the stream – watch your back cast.
FR 100 is the access road for getting to the Canones Creek trailhead and its RGCT.
Good fishing, and if a fire truck comes up behind you pull over and let them by.