Jemez Mountains in General - We are now entering my favorite month in the Jemez Mountains. Hiking, camping, fishing, and scenic drives are all at their peak in color, fun, and beautiful scenery. The blessings of the 2022 monsoon are obvious – undergrowth is much denser and greener than usual and fall stream flows are the strongest in years. Do not wait to explore the Jemez outdoors – it will not get any better than this in 2022!
There are still forest road closures (e.g., upper FR 289) and points of interest closures (e.g., Soda Dam) going on due to the risk of flash flooding from the burn scars of the Cerro Pelado fire. These closures represent a small fraction of the forest, but they also tend to move more recreationists than usual to other areas of the forest which increases crowding. The forest is big and if one looks around there is almost always a similar outdoor opportunity to be found – as an example, if you can’t fish and hike at Battleship Rock look north and west at the many places that provide good fishing and hiking such as the Rio de Las Vacas, the upper reaches of the Rios San Antonio and Cebolla, and the many smaller waters like the Rito Penas Negras or the Rio Puerco.
Campgrounds that are at risk of flash flooding are still closed (e.g., Vista Linda, Jemez Falls), but most are open. This is a fun time of year for dry camping in self-contained RVs and tent campers – roads are dry and in decent shape and the weather is the best. If you are into the more leisurely outdoor pursuits take a scenic drive – wildlife sightings, wildflowers, and aspen yellowing will not get any better than this in 2022. The cottonwoods are also starting to turn in the lower elevations making the drive on lower NM 4 stunning. At 7500 feet we have seen our evening grosbeaks, Mexican jays and western tanagers migrate away, but nuthatches, stellar jays, woodpeckers, and siskins are still at the feeders. This is also a good season for visiting some of our Jemez Jewels (see Calendar below).
HIKING – Jemez trails are in decent shape and should stay that way through October. Temperatures are cooling as we enter the best month of fall hiking weather – September 15 – October 15. This is a magic time in the Jemez with aspens starting to turn, the last of summer’s wildflowers still showing, and this year ample water in our streams. At this time of year, a light jacket in your pack is especially useful for mornings and can be stowed as the day warms. Take water, hats, and let someone know where you will be hiking.
The San Pedro Parks Wilderness (SPPW) is a special place for hikers, backpackers, and fishers. A 41,000-acre wilderness set on a 10,000-foot plateau surrounded by 11 trailheads. The trails are all connected, and a combination of trails comprise the Continental Divide Trail that draws hikers from around the world. There are 13 streams in the SPPW and most have a population of wild Rio Grande Cutthroats in them that date back to the late 1800s stocking of the upper Guadalupe River by Elijah Fenton. As a reference I recommend the book Jemez Mountains 100 years ago by Judith Isaacs which is available at local merchants.
On 9/1 I hiked into the SPPW on the Las Palomas Trail (#50) with Minnesota Mike. We took NM 126 from La Cueva which was in surprisingly decent shape in the 8-mile dirt/dust section after the hatchery. From La Cueva to the right hand turn to FR 70 is 27.4 miles. The Palomas trailhead is on Forest Road 70 between mile markers 9 and 10 and is about 7 miles beyond the popular Clear Creek and San Gregorio Reservoir Trailhead on FR 70 (see map to trailhead). Note the Rio de Las Vacas is on the Palomas trail also.
The Palomas trailhead has good parking, is well-signed, and at an elevation of 9200 feet. The trail starts climbing right away and continues at a steep pace for 0.8 miles, gaining 600 feet in altitude. About halfway up one enters the SPPW boundary (marked with a sign). Mike and I are old, so had to stop 8 or 10 times to catch our breath before reaching the peak at 9800 feet. The trail is rough in places but had no washouts and was easy to follow. It was clear that at one time this was a maintained trail with log steps and rock-lines for drainage, but it is not maintained at that level now. The forest going in was primarily Doulas Fir with a smattering of blue spruce. From the trail we could see the Sandias and Redondo Mountain – one of the advantages of frequent rest stops!
After reaching the peak of the trail it descends rapidly for about 250 feet into the valley of the Rito de Las Perchas. This valley is worth exploring for its inherent beauty and the gorgeous stream. Entering the valley requires crossing the Perchas which looked like doing it barefooted would be pleasant, but we were in fishing boots so just waded across (see photo). The valley was lush green from the rains and the stream had a good flow. We fished for a couple of hours, ate lunch, and headed back. Remember how I used the word rapidly to describe the descent – unfortunately, that naturally turns into a very steep climb going out! It was the worst uphill pull I have done in a long time, but luckily short (about 0.2-miles). We saw one other hiker going in and had the Perchas valley all to ourselves. On the way out we ran into a group of 8 backpackers heading in and 3 – 4 solitary or paired hikers.
Warning – this trail is for physically fit hikers only. If you are unsure, try taking the Spence Hot Spring trail on NM 4 – if the hike to the hot springs tires you out or leaves you breathless you may not be ready for the Palomas trail. At 9200 to 9800 feet elevation the oxygen gets thin, and breathing is much harder than on lower elevation trails with the same 600 feet rise.
The next hike I took was along the west bank of the Rio Guadalupe near the Porter Bridge on Labor Day with John T. and Michael B. on 9/5. I take this trail often to fish the upper Guadalupe, but also for its special forest/river environment. The trail is part of old FRs 604 and 608 and follows the Guadalupe for miles. The trailhead is the first right-hand pullout about 200 yards above the Porter Bridge. The trail is flat (for the Jemez anyway) for the first mile or so and stays above the river keeping a distance averaging about 30 feet from the stream and 5 - 10 feet above it. The recent rains have resulted in a massive undergrowth eruption that has made the trail fainter, but it is still easy to follow. Hikers are needed here to keep the weeds at bay – try it! This is a good trail for taking the dog out or just spending an hour in the forest walking and listening to the gurgle of the Guadalupe. This trail is underutilized so you may have it to yourself – I have been on it 6 or 7 times this year and have yet to see another hiker or angler – we had the rivers surrounding Porter to ourselves on Labor Day!
At about the 1-mile point, one encounters a rock cliff on the left – this is the beginning point for the upper box of the Guadalupe. The trail continues with minor elevation changes and is in OK shape, but the farther one goes the deeper the canyon below, and the elevation difference to the stream eventually approaches 150 feet. I have not gone in farther than about 1.5 miles as I tend to get overwhelmed by the need to fish what I consider as our best brown trout stream. Walking back to FR 376 I spotted a garter snake about 3 feet long on the trail – I stopped and pounded the ground with my staff to move it off the trail, and it was followed by two smaller snakes about 1 ½ feet long. Michael B. thought they might be mating, and he was right. They all slithered off in the same direction in a tight chevron formation with the larger snake, presumably the female, leading and the other two behind it by about a foot.
Other trails to consider trails for late September are:
FR 269 just above Ponderosa on the way to FR 10 (well-marked left turn coming from Ponderosa) is a wonderful hike, a bit strenuous but OK for most reasonably fit hikers. This trail has unshaded areas that make it a marginal summer hike, but in late September it should be quite comfortable.
The Valles Caldera trails off VC-02 and VC-09 are quite pleasant at this time of year. These road-trails typically have segments with little shade but get friendlier as temperatures cool.
The Cerro Grande Trail (trailhead about a mile after leaving the Valle on the left going to Los Alamos) is another one that gets better in the fall.
DRIVES – Forest Road access continues to change in the wake of the Cerro Pelado fire and the subsequent rains. I have twice driven FR 376 from the south heading to the Porter Bridge area only to be turned back by the road closure signs just before the Gilman Tunnels. Admittedly there is a question as to why I would do that twice – I cannot produce an answer either, but the point is that roads are opening and closing and tracking it is not easy – FR 376 is open at this writing. Portions of FR 289 are now open. Points of interest on NM 4 that are adjacent to the Jemez River remain closed (e.g., Soda Dam, Battleship Rock, lower Jemez River access sites), along with areas near the burn scar that have high flash flood potential (e.g., Jemez Falls trailhead and picnic area remain closed).
My best drive in September so far was the drive to the Las Palomas trailhead. We left La Cueva about 7:30 AM and reached the trailhead around 9:20 AM, albeit with a bit of sightseeing along the way. As noted in Hiking the rough 8 miles of NM 126 after the hatchery was in better shape than usual, but that is a low bar – it is still rough in spots and has wash boarding in the last few miles before the FR 20 intersection. The right turn (left coming from Cuba) to FR 70 and San Gregorio Reservoir is well signed. The FR 70//NM 126 intersection is 27.4 miles from La Cueva and 12.8 miles from Cuba (see map in Hiking). FR 70 is an excellent forest road and looks as if it that I think is graded periodically. At 2.3 miles in on FR 70 one reaches the San Gregorio/Clear Creek Trailhead (#51) which has a good parking lot on the right and a vault toilet – a refreshing stop after the drive from La Cueva! If you have not taken the 1-mile trail into San Gregorio Reservoir now is your chance – the walk is in (near) old growth forest and rises gently to the lake gaining 196 feet in elevation in a mile. The average hiking time to and from the lake is about 1 hour, dogs are welcome (and can be off leash in some areas). The trail is well suited for children and adults can make it without getting in shape first, but you may puff a bit.
After the San Gregorio Trailhead, it is 7.7 miles further on FR 70 to the Las Palomas Trailhead (#50). The drive on FR 70 is gorgeous the whole way with alpine forests and clear streams flowing out of the SPPW. There are tremendous distant views along the way so assign a passenger to look west and south and let you know when to slow for a super view.
After being turned around by the closure notice we were still determined to reach the Porter Bridge area, so we went around taking NM 4 to la Cueva and NM 126 to the intersection with FR 376 and finally headed south.to Porter. The time from Jemez Springs to Porter going this way is about 1 hour on top of the hour to get to the road closure sign. According to the Jemez Central website FR 376 is now open, and the Porter bridge can be reached from the south via FR 376 – the lesson learned here is to check the relevant websites before you go!
The suggestions for other drives in the last edition stand up well for late September outings. We are only 2 – 3 months away from wintry weather and the closing of forest roads for winter. Do not let this magic fall weather go to waste – take a scenic Jemez drive!
FR 10 is now open all the way from just above Ponderosa to Sierra Los Pinos on NM 4. This is a great drive with splendid views and a forest surround.
Fr 144 from NM 126 to near the top of the VCNP (about 8 miles one-way, after which FR 144 becomes impassable). My favorite spot on this drive is 6.5 miles in from NM 126. There is a pullout on the right at this point that leads to one of the best views in the Jemez Mountains. One can see both the Valle Grande on the VCNP and the canyon of the Rio San Antonio.
FR 100 and FR 99, both south of Youngsville, both accessed from NM 96. These are both excellent forest roads that explore the north central Jemez Mountains. They parallel Canones Creek, which has a National Recreation Trail designation (Trail #82 with a trailhead near the FR 100//FR99 intersection.
The Puye Cliff Dwellings are now open for the first time in the last few years. Puye is on NM 30 and reached from Los Alamos or White Rock (a 40-mile drive from Jemez Springs). The Santa Clara Pueblo offers tours of the cliff and the mesa-top dwellings. Call ahead for tour times. If you have not been or have not been in a while, GO NOW – it is cool!
This is a wonderful time to explore the northern Jemez from NM 96. Forest roads accessible from NM 96 include FR 76, FR 103, FR 172, FR 316, FR 100, and FR 167 – all of which are well worth the trip.
NM 112, also reached from NM 96, is the road leading to the Nogales Cliff Dwellings (on FR 313) and Rattlesnake Ridge Ruins (on FR 390) of the Gallina Culture that thrived around 1000 AD and disappeared around 1200 AD.
CAMPING – For Jemez organized campgrounds status see the table below. Dispersed or Dry camping is open except in burn scar areas or flash flood prone zones – these areas are signed with forest notices, barriers, or tape. Backpacking is open in the Bandelier, San Pedro Parks, and Dome Wildernesses, and in the Santa Fe National Forest. The fires interrupted planned campground maintenance and refurbishment efforts so check the relevant websites for availability.
On the trip to the SPPW I was able to check out dispersed camping sites on FR 70. From the NM 126 intersection to the palomas trailhead there were about 15 – 20 dispersed camping sites on FR 20. They were all small, but most could easily accommodate a large RV – I saw 5th wheelers that were 35 – 40 foot long. Most sites were on the right-side and all were very private – little clearances in the forest used for years as dry camping sites. The southern and western SPPW trailheads are reachable from FR 70 or FR 103, so these sites are often occupied by SPPW hikers and fishers, and in hunting season (bow season started September 1) by hunters. These can be perfect sites for those that hike into the San Gregorio Reservoir to fish or sightsee. As in all dry camping please pack out what you packed in – and no one is coming to clean up the mess you leave – do it yourself!
FISHING – Waters will continue to cool through September as the days shorten and temperatures fall. The first day of fall (the Autumnal Equinox) is September 23 - fall fishing season is here! Stocking has resumed in our waters and will hopefully continue through October. Fishing spots like Battleship Rock and the Soda Dam area will not be stocked until the flash flood risk is reduced. Wild brown trout will start bulking up through October for the November spawn and will become a bit easier to catch. Wild cutthroat fishing should be good through October, but after that things get dicey at the higher elevations as snow becomes a risk factor for the fisher. We are entering fall with more water than we usually have in our streams and lakes thanks to the great 2022 Monsoon – I do not know how long that will last but while we have it go fishing!
Stream clarity is still problematic at the lower elevations (under 7,000 feet or so) and is most obvious in the lower Jemez River. This will slowly get better and should not be a problem for most streams in the upper drainages. The water clarity in mid-range (7,000 to 8500 feet) elevation streams such sections of as the East Fork, Rio de Las Vacas, Rio San Antonio, Rio Cebolla, and the northern Jemez creeks are all running clear and fishing well. Higher elevation streams are gin-clear and the springs that feed them are flowing very well. If you have been thinking about doing a high-elevation fishing trip in the Jemez now is the time to go.
Stocked Fish: The table summarizes recent stocking in the Jemez. Stocking reports are posted weekly at the NMDGF website, and the next will be on September 16. Note that the September 9 stocking skipped the Jemez - check the NMDGF site before you go if you are looking for stockers in the Jemez.
The Chama River below Abiquiu Dam did get stocked on 9/9 with just under 1000 fish. Current flows are in the 100 – 200 cubic feet per second range which is perfect for fishing – focus on the water just below the dam in the picnic area for stockers. Minnesota Mike and I fished Fenton Lake on 8/31 at the end of a week with no stocking – it showed. We caught fish around 8 – 8:30 AM, and they were nice-sized rainbows of 13 – 14 inches. We were fishing 2-nymph rigs in sizes #16 and #18 below an indicator. After 8:30 the lake seemed to turn off and we went fishless for about an hour before heading home.
Minnesota Mike and I fished Fenton Lake on 8/31 at the end of a week with no stocking – it showed. We caught fish around 8 – 8:30 AM, and they were nice sized rainbows of 13 – 14 inches. We were fishing 2-nymph rigs in sizes #16 and #18 below an indicator. After 8:30 the lake seemed to turn off and we went fishless for about an hour before heading home.
The lake was stocked heavily for the Labor Day weekend and many a creel saw a limit of trout. The crowds at the lake should diminish through October. The Cebolla (at the FR 378 bridge), Las Vacas (at the FR 20 bridge), and San Antonio (at La Cueva Picnic Area), were stocked on 9/2 and should fish well for a while. All these streams also have wild brown trout in them – please release these fish to grow and spawn for the future.
Wild Fish: Wild fish activity has improved with lower water temperatures and high water. As we move into fall the bug menu gets smaller in both number of species and hook size. Baetis mayflies will be hatching in larger numbers soon, and the mahogany mayfly returns in the higher elevation streams like the upper East Fork. Blue winged olive (BWO) flies in sizes #18 and even #20 imitate baetis well and can be the ticket to success, particularly on overcast days. Mahogany mayflies are larger but not by much, I have seen them at the Las Conchas Trail segment of the East fork. I have had some luck on various flies in size #16 or #18 but have not really cracked the code enough to recommend a pattern.
I fished the Rito de Las Perchas in the San Pedro Parks with Minnesota Mike on 9/1. This coincided with the first day of bow hunting season and two packtrains had already gone in for elk – we kept looking over our shoulders for hunters but saw none, in fact we saw no one once we reached the Rito – we had the whole valley to ourselves! Mike had not done much dry fly fishing, but he caught on fast and landed the first Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout (RGCT) of the day. We saw no brown trout – we caught a total of about 10 fish in the 2 hours we were there, and all were RGCT. The hike in and out is brutal but doable, and the drive on FR 70 is wonderful - do not miss this trip if you are a well-fit hiker – it is a fun fishing experience.
The Perchas was flowing well and had a width that averaged about 4 -5 feet. There is not a large gradient in the SPPW to drive the streams, and as a result, they look like English chalk streams (which I have only seen on YouTube) with light riffles, long runs, and pools that reach 2 - 3 feet deep. In addition, it has a heavily undercut bank that increases the volume of water significantly while providing the perfect cover. While hiking across a meadow to reach a large pool I crossed 4 springs flowing into the Rito, and at the end of the meadow a sheet of water was pouring over the hill – I even saw running water inside a cow hoofprint – ‘gotta love a good monsoon!
On Labor Day 9/5 (Labor Day) John T., Michael B. and I fished the upper Guadalupe and lower Las Vacas in the Porter Bridge area. I took the trail downstream on the Guadalupe and hiked to the beginning of the Upper Box – which sounds great until you must bushwhack your way down to the river – but the thorn scratches are healing. I fished small dry flies all morning – ones that did the job were an olive-bodied Comparadun, a poly-humpy, and a parachute Adams, all in size #16. The fish seemed more focused on presentation than the pattern and were spooky in that clear water. I had a red-letter day catching 4 browns in the 12 – 13-inch range and, of course, some smaller ones. I lost a ½ dozen flies to the dense foliage and overhanging trees – but it was worth it.
John T. hiked up the Las Vacas starting at the bridge, and he also fished small dries and found good fishing fish in that first quarter mile up the Las Vacas. He then realized that the dense growth along the riverbank was impenetrable and had to walk back downstream to get out. It is great to see the Las Vacas in that area fishing well again - after the drought of 2018, it dried it up below the Girl Scout Camp which was followed by the Peggy Mesa Fire that eventually shed ash and mud into the river. Michael B. fished the Guadalupe in the area downstream of the bridge using nymphs and streamers but had a harder time getting them to bite – it was a dry fly day under a bluebird sky. None of us saw another fisher, maybe due to the closure in effect that day of southern FR 376. Despite all the driving, we got home just after lunch. Fishing thoughts and notes:
The Rio San Antonio will fish well for brown trout except in the stocked areas. The section from Battleship to La Cueva; the section above the bridge on NM 126; the section on the trail above NM 126 (1-mile walk-in); the hot springs area; and on up to the VCNP the San Antonio has been fishing well. My favorites are the section above the hot springs (see picture) and the 1-mile walk-in section at the lower end of the canyon below the hot spring. Through mid-October, my recommendation is to fish it with dry flies in sizes #18 to #14. If you go use 5X tippet and if you can I suggest using use a short rod (7 feet or less) – particularly with all the dense undergrowth lining all our streams.
The lower Las Vacas below the Girl Scout Camp to Porter Bridge is a real sleeper and should hold trout now – the Porter end certainly did for John T. on Labor Day. The water up there is fun to fish and holds lots of brown trout. There are some areas that have long shallow riffles of about 1 – 2-inches in depth – I typically skip these unless I see fish in them. Where one finds water of 12-inches depth or more there should be brown trout there. I first fished this section with a friend one afternoon in 2010 and we caught and released over 50 brown trout between us within a ½ mile of the Girl Scout Camp. Most were in the 4 – 9-inch range with a few hitting 10 – 11-inches. The Las Vacas in this section has been rode hard and put up wet but is recovering nicely. Conservation fencing has kept traffic out of the riverbed, and it was installed with turnstile access to the Rio. Please treat it gently – tight lines.