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Jemez Mountains: Unplanned Day Trip

We’ve been traveling together for nearly six years, and we’ve noticed a trend. Sometimes the best memories have come from unplanned experiences. When my recent birthday rolled around, we decided to embrace the impromptu day trip. We simply got in the car and let the road take us to wherever we were supposed to be.

We live in Santa Fe, New Mexico and decided to head northeast, into the Jemez Mountains. We started out on the 285/84 cutting over at the 502 but turning off before Los Alamos onto the 4. This led us to the Valles Caldera.

Valles Caldera Road Trip Map

Map of our route

Valles Caldera

The area is the remnant of a “supervolcano” (a volcano capable of producing a volcanic eruption with an ejected volume greater than 1,000 km3 thousand times stronger than a normal volcano). The caldera – formed by the collapse of land following a volcanic eruption – measures nearly fourteen miles across and the highest peak is over 11,000 feet in altitude. The caldera is now fertile grasslands split between several cattle ranches and the Valles Caldera National Preserve.

Valles Caldera
The area has been occupied for 11,000 years by native tribes. They came both for hunting and to mine obsidian, a rock used to make arrow tips. In 2000, President Clinton signed a bill preserving the Valles Caldera for future generations.

Fields of Flowers, Valles Caldera
For those interested in wildlife watching, the area is known for brown bears, raptors and especially elk. The best time to view elk is in the fall.

Prairie Dogs

Instead of elk, we stumbled across several colonies of prairie dogs. These little burrow builders are highly social animals, often seen “hugging” and grooming one another.

Prairie Dog
Factoid: Prairie dogs have a developed communication system to differentiate threats such as “big dog” or “small cat.” They can even develop a new sound for something they haven’t seen before.


Past the Valles Caldera is a pullout for an overlook of San Diego Canyon. The area serves as drainage, and is striped with red to orange shades of sedimentary rocks and tannish tuff (volcanic ash). It’s a geologist’s dream.

San Diego Canyon Overlook, New Mexico

San Diego Canyon

What we noticed were the black trunks of trees. The lower portion of pine trees were a very dark gray. We assumed that they were either due to a wildfire or those damned pine beetles. Wrong. A sign told us it was “blackjack.”

Example of Blackjack pines

Example of “Blackjack”

For the first eighty to one hundred years, the bark of young ponderosa pines is a dark brownish-black. As the tree ages, the bark changes to an orange-brown color and develops ridges. These trees grow in 90% of the United States, and can reach heights of 230 foot. It takes a surefooted squirrel to scale one of these pine trees.

We stopped at a scenic picnic spot, overlooking Fenton Lake.

Fenton Lake
This 37-acre lake is known for fishing. However, it has shrunk dramatically in the three years since our last visit. (Read about our water crisis.)

From there, we traveled on to the Seven Springs Fish Hatchery.

Seven Springs Trout Hatchery

Seven Springs Trout Hatchery

Example of a brood pond

The hatchery consists of a couple of brood ponds and a few silos (ditches) for trout.  Brood ponds not only offer a habitat and good food sources for fish, they also create a place of rest and refueling for long-distance migratory birds.

Seven Springs Brood Pond

Decoys and fake duck butts!

This hatchery is part of a system that New Mexico has developed to stock nearly sixteen million fish a year into lakes and streams. This particular hatchery is in charge of producing New Mexico’s state fish, the cutthroat trout, and has raised more then 72,0000 fish since 2002.

This has been no small feat since “whirling disease” has infected U.S. fishing waters. This parasite, which originated in Europe, attacks young fish causing skeletal and neurological damage. Instead of swimming normally, the fish “whirl”, earning the disease its name.

After we retraced our drive to the 4 we headed south to the 550, and then Home Sweet Home.

Below is my birthday dinner. The wine provided by my daughter, and the steak expertly cooked by my better half.

Birthday Dinner

Lane & Juliet

The writing and photography team behind Southwest Compass, the travel blog for the American Southwest.

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