Jemez Mountains in General – I’m writing this on the last day of summer, and
tomorrow is the autumnal equinox – better known as the first day of fall. Wildflowers
continue to bloom, particularly in the higher elevation meadows. Soon elk will be
calling, coyotes will become more obvious, brown trout will be preparing for the
spawning season, and mule deer, bear, badgers, birds, and squirrels will be fattening up
for winter. If you feed birds now is the time to put a bit of extra seed out as some
prepare to migrate and others prepare for a Jemez winter. Jemez streams are dropping
in volume but are still running better than usual thanks to our 2021 monsoon. The
cottonwoods are just beginning to yellow, and the aspens will be turning gold over the
Fall is a great time to visit a “Jemez jewel” like the Puye Cliff Dwellings or Fenton Lake
State Park. The Jemez Outdoor Calendar has not changed recently with one exception
– the phone number for Kashe-Katuwi has been updated – unfortunately, it‘s beginning
to look as if Kashe-Katuwi won’t open this year due to Covid concerns for the Cochiti
area. Jemez Adventures Newsletter readers – please share fish pics, fun hikes, cool
drives, campsite notes, or comments here or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Recent and coming highlights/overview in the Jemez outdoors:
The dry (dispersed) camping season continues, but October may be the last chance to dry camp as November and December will be cold, and after that, the forest roads are closed until spring. Park along a forest road and set up camp! Leave no trace, pack out what you pack in, and stay for less than 14 days. Responsibly tended campfires are allowed.
Trout streams stocked in the Jemez in mid-September included the Jemez, San Antonio, and Cebolla. Fenton Lake was stocked with triploid rainbows, and GREAT NEWS – San Gregorio Lake was stocked with Rio Grande Cutthroats!
Fishing for wild brown and cutthroat trout was good through September and it should continue in October.
Most organized Jemez SFNF campgrounds (CGs) are open, the exception still being Cochiti Lake campgrounds which remain closed due to Covid.
Wildflowers are waning, but aspens and Gambel oaks are turning brilliant colors in the high country, and the cottonwoods are yellowing up in the lower canyon. Take a scenic drive this month – it won’t get better!
For those that feed birds, the hummingbirds are starting to thin out and by mid-October, it will be time to bring in the nectar. Many larger birds have already migrated away, and we will soon have only winter residents such as nuthatches and Steller jays.
Hiking – Morning temperatures are now in the mid-’40s and will remain cool through
October. Starting a hike before 10 AM will require a light jacket and long pants. Always
carry water, wear a hat, use sunscreen. Being careful is tedious - until you need it.
Recent – Continuing our theme VCNP trails a great one at this time of year is Coyote
Call Trail. It can be hot in the summer as tree density is light, but in the fall, this means
great views of the Valle and Rabbit Mountain. The map shows the full loop of 2.9 miles
during which the trail gains 500 feet elevation. Remember that a trail can still be fun
without going the whole distance – at 1⁄2 mile in the views are super.
The trailhead (TH) is located on the right going toward Los Alamos on NM 4 about 1.5
miles east of the VCNP entrance road (VC 01) and is easy to spot. Traffic is moving at
55 mph here and can be heavy, so be careful making that right-hand turn. Along the
trail, one sees burn scars from the 2011 Las Conchas fire. My first sighting of badgers in
the Jemez came on Coyote Call about 11 years ago – two of them were wrestling near
the TH – still one of my lifetime top 10 wildlife sightings.
There are a few intersecting trails to be avoided, but the last time I hiked it trail markings were clear and this wasn’t a problem. Coyote Call is a perfect fall hike – it’s rarely
crowded, the weather is usually good, and the skies are a deep New Mexico blue.
Make it an October hiking goal – you won’t regret it.
Coming Up – As we move inexorably toward Halloween the weather will get
progressively cooler. For a hiker, October is a challenge because extra clothing means
extra weight and bulk to be carried. Consider that there probably won’t be a better time
to get outdoors again until 2022!
In keeping with the VCNP theme, the early October hike selection is SFNF Trail #121
which crosses private and SFNF land before reaching the East Fork of the Jemez River
as it leaves the VCNP. This is a steep trail that demands some fitness from its hikers,
but the rewards are an isolated canyon that is knock-down-drag-out gorgeous. The TH
is about 1⁄2 mi. south of the VCNP entrance on NM 4, or 10.3 miles above La Cueva. It
is distinguished by the large boulders (over 15 ft. high) near the TH and a #121 marker.
Turn left at about 10 feet after the turnstile entry. After that there is a large burn scar for about ¾-mile, then the trail descends steeply to the uppermost canyon of the East Fork – this section is about a mile long. If you are like me during descent, your only thought is about how tough it will be to climb out – I recommend taking
timeouts to catch your breath often on the way out – don’t rush the climb. Once at the bottom the canyon the East Fork stretches left and right – pick a direction and take a camera!
The East Fork is a brown trout powerhouse through most of its course, but admittedly I have fished this section a few times and have always been skunked! I may be fishing it at the wrong times – my
trips here have always been in high summer which is clearly not a good time – water is low, and water weed, and algae growth is significant. I’m not giving up though – I hope to fish
it in mid to late spring next year and expect (always an optimist) the browns to be there then.
Drives – This first half of October is a great time to make a foray into the high country.
Check the tires, pack a lunch, gas up and go! High-country drives effectively end at the first snow. Some high-country drives that will shine through October include:
The VCNP backcountry drive
FR 103, FR 100, FR 99, FR 10, FR 36, FR 316, and FR 534 are good October choices.
This is also a great time to check out the Cabezon from US 550 or take NM 96 across the top of the Jemez Mountain range.
Fall is a great time to sample Jemez cities such as Cuba, Los Alamos, Espanola, and of course Jemez Springs. Each has its own charm and personality, and all of them have good restaurants and entertainment venues.
The drive I’ve picked for October is a redo of a drive we visited a while back, but is
particularly beautiful in October, and is in keeping with our VCNP theme. As one
approaches the VCNP from the south on NM 4 there is a cool dirt road on the right - FR
268. It goes from the Valle area to Cochiti Mesa. This area was burned heavily in the
first two decades of the century, leaving hundreds of acres of burned trees.
The good news is it's regrowing! And more good news – long-distance views have
emerged with the (admittedly ghastly) burning of the forest canopy. In August the focus
was on the FR 268 – FR 36 – FR 289 loop drive – which is one of the Jemez’ best.
That drive leaves FR 268 at the intersection with FR 36. An out and back add-on drive
starts by going straight on FR 268 instead of turning - and driving onto Cochiti Mesa. It
is simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting – the devastation from the fires versus the
beautiful regrowth that the forest is undergoing. It may take as much as 50+ years for
full recovery – and on this drive, you will see the early signs of recovery. Note: Doing a
turnaround here can be challenging – take your time and pick your spot. Vehicle-wise
this I recommend 4WD, mostly because of the turnaround issue.
Camping – Early October is a great time to camp in the Jemez. The weather stays cool
and comfortable, and the air is filled with the fresh smells of autumn forest and flowers -
perfect for camping.
All organized public Campgrounds in the Jemez Mountains remain open except the two at Cochiti Lake. The table below shows the Jemez’ organized campgrounds (excluding Group Campgrounds). The Cochiti Lake CGs are still closed.
Dry (Dispersed) Camping – Dry campers can pitch camp for up to a 14-day maximum
stay. The most popular (and crowded) dry camping road is FR 376 south of NM 126. A
quieter experience can be found along FR 36, FR 10, or FR 103.
A neat dry campsite area that is also near the VCNP is FR 36. A short road it is well
maintained, and some big RVs use it routinely. It is accessed via FR 268 on the west
end and FR 289 on the eastern end. Camping is in pullouts, and it’s always a good idea
to scout them for rough spots before pulling in.
Fishing – Soon the brown trout will be spawning, and the streamside brush will turn
color and drop leaves. Fall water levels are better than usual, but they are still
reasonably low. It’s a great time to be outdoors – go fish!
Stocked Fish: Three central Jemez streams were stocked in mid-September, San
Antonio, Jemez, and Cebolla. The best locations for these are the San Antonio Day Use
area in La Cueva, Battleship Rock for the Jemez, and FR 378 for the Cebolla. Michael
B. and I fished at Battleship Rock twice in late September – the river is full of fish, and
some big ones. On our last trip, I had caught a dozen or so, all 10” or less, in the first
hour and a half of fishing and was on my way out when I saw a good pool was
unoccupied. On my first cast, I got a whopper (15” or over) on the chub! That fish
release produced a tangle that took me 10 minutes to fix, at which point I made my
second cast and got another whopper! I was fishing a 1/64 oz. gray marabou jig called
a Fuzzy Chub followed by a bright #16 nymph with crystal flash legs and fishing slow.
GREAT NEWS on the stocker side – San Gregorio Lake has been stocked with Rio
Grande Cutthroat Trout! That is very high country (near 9,00 feet) so the fishing window
of opportunity is probably no more than the next 4 - 6 weeks. It’s a one-mile hike into
the San Pedro Parks Wilderness through a (near) old growth forest.
Fenton Lake was stocked in September and should fish well into mid-October. The last stocking included many large fish. Michael B. and I fished it in late September during a cold front passage, we got around 10 between us fishing
from 8:00 to 11:00 AM. Water temperature at the surface was 62 degrees after a 5-day heatwave, so the lake is staying cool, and the trout are enjoying it. One of the dumber large fish found my fly and ate it – but I don’t mind catching large fish that aren’t that bright! I was fishing the Fuzzy
Chub with a #16 nymph trailer again – the nymph took about ¾ of the fish.
Wild Fish: I’ll be looking for brown trout in October. My fall brown trout favorites are
led of course by the Guadalupe River above Mile Marker 7. John T. and I fished the Guadalupe in the last week of September – we purposely ventured into the lower river
to see if the brown trout were recovering from the Peggy mesa fire which had a
devastating effect on fish populations below mile marker 7. We found trout! We got 6
or 7 between us, with the biggest being a brown of about 13 inches and had one
rainbow. Some of the browns were very darkly colored – not sure why – maybe a
precursor to spawning? I got most of my fish on a #12 Turk’s Tarantula, with a few
hitting a pheasant tail dropper. For October I would recommend dry droppers until mid-
month. By the end of October, I’m focused on fishing the deeper moving water with bead-head Wooly Buggers in black with flash in sizes #8 to #12.
My second choice would be the San Antonio above NM 126 or at the Dark Canyon
Fishing Access. Both have excellent brown trout populations, and both have produced
big fish, but the average fish will be 8 – 11 inches.
Third choice would the East Fork, and it would be a tie between the Las Conchas
Recreation Area and Las Conchas Fishing Access – either way walk/hike away from the
crowds for the best results.
Fourth choice would be the San Antonio on the VCNP – not because it doesn’t have a lot
of fish – but because being a headwater it will be very low in October, and my
experience is that the fish up there get super spooky toward Halloween. This effect
wanes once the spawn starts, but early in the month may be tough. Tight Lines.