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On Walkabout On: New Mexico’s Jemez Mountain Trail

The Santa Fe area is filled with many great sites to see, but there is probably none more scenic than taking a drive up into the beautiful Jemez Mountains to the city’s west.  The Jemez Mountains is well known in New Mexico for its brightly colored rocks and densely forested slopes, but what few people realize is that these mountains are not mountains at all, but are actually one of six known supervolcanoes in the world.

The 175-square-mile Valles caldera forms a large pock in the middle of northern New Mexico, west of Santa Fe. It last exploded 1.2 million and 1.6 million years ago, piling up 150 cubic miles of rock and blasting ash as far away as Iowa. That's equivalent to roughly 2,000 Mount St. Helens eruptions.

Interestingly this isn’t the only supervolcano I have visited; during a trip to New Zealand when my wife and I spent an incredible time holidaying at Lake Taupo, which is the caldera of a supervolcano and one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited:

Lake Taupo, New Zealand

The best way to explore these mountains is by driving along New Mexico State Road 4, which is known as the Jemez Mountain Trail that traverses the entire length of the supervolcano.

I recommend driving west up Highway 550 from Bernalillo just south of Santa Fe to begin the climb into the Jemez Mountains from the south:

A Picture From New Mexico's Jemez Mountains

Along the way on Highway 550 there are a number of Pueblo Indian Reservations such as the Zia Pueblo that can be seen from the road:

A Picture From New Mexico's Jemez Mountains

There is really nothing impressive about these Pueblo communities compared to the historic Taos and Acoma Pueblos that are located in the region.  As I continued down Highway 550 the famous colorful rocks of the Jemez Mountains began to come into view:

A Picture From New Mexico's Jemez Mountains

As I turned onto State Road 4 the colorful rocks were much closer and even more impressive:

A Picture From New Mexico's Jemez Mountains

Here is another picture of the colorful rock plateau seen above as viewed from further down the road:

A Picture From New Mexico's Jemez Mountains

Here is a picture of the red rocks further up the Jemez Mountain Trail:

A Picture From New Mexico's Jemez Mountains

Looking at these rocks it is easy to imagine how this was once a supervolcano and how over time the water flowing down the sides of the volcano have greatly eroded it to expose all these beautifully colored rocks:

A Picture From New Mexico's Jemez Mountains

As the road began to ascend into the Jemez Mountains we were soon surrounded by the brilliantly colored red rock:

A Picture From New Mexico's Jemez Mountains

Here is a picture of State Road 4 ascending into the Jemez Mountains:

A Picture From New Mexico's Jemez Mountains

Along the road I pulled over into a park that provided access to the Jemez River.  It is this river through thousands of years that is partly responsible for eroding this supervolcano into the splendor of colors that can be seen today:

A Picture From New Mexico's Jemez Mountains

Eventually State Road 4 enters into the small village of Jemez Springs that is known for its various hot springs and the historic Guisewa Pueblo located on the outskirts of the village.  This Pueblo was constructed in the 16th century by Spanish explorers.  It was occupied for hundreds of years by local Native-Americans to include having its own Spanish mission that can still be seen today:

A Picture From New Mexico's Jemez Mountains

Besides the hot springs in Jemez Springs further evidence that this supervolcano is still alive and active today can be seen just up the road from Jemez Springs at Soda Dam:

A Picture From New Mexico's Jemez Mountains

Thousands of years of superheated mineral water being pushed to the surface caused by the hot cauldron of molten rock below the surface has created a natural dam along the Jemez River. The river has, however been able to erode a path through the mineral dam that has created a small waterfall:

A Picture From New Mexico's Jemez Mountains

When I visited there was a few people wading in the water, but I was wearing shoes and didn’t wade into myself.  The water also didn’t look very clean compared to the hot springs in New Zealand my wife and I had a great time swimming in. As I walked around the dam there was little areas where I was able to see the hot water bubbling to the surface and slowly leaking into the river:

A Picture From New Mexico's Jemez Mountains

Once passed Soda Dam the Jemez River flows normally down the valley towards Jemez Springs:

A Picture From New Mexico's Jemez Mountains

Here is the view from the top of Soda Dam looking further up river into the Santa Fe National Forest:

A Picture From New Mexico's Jemez Mountains

Another interesting natural feature just up the road from Soda Springs is Battleship Rock:

A Picture From New Mexico's Jemez Mountains

Looking at this impressive butte it is easy to understand why it was called Battleship Rock.  Something of note about Battleship Rock is that there is a trail that begins here that takes hikers to isolated hot springs in the surrounding forest.  This is something I would definitely like to do sometime.  Here is a view from Battleship Rock looking south down the canyon I drove up:

A Picture From New Mexico's Jemez Mountains

Here in the upper reaches of the Jemez Mountains the slopes of this supervolcano are thickly forested, which stands in steep contrast to the colorful, but sparsely vegetated cliffs at the lower altitudes:

A Picture From New Mexico's Jemez Mountains

Finally at the very top of this supervolcano the Jemez Mountain Trail enters into the Valles Caldera National Preserve, which is the caldera of this supervolcano:

A Picture From New Mexico's Jemez Mountains

This caldera is 12 miles wide and sits at an altitude of 8,750 feet, which is big enough to classify the Jemez Mountains as a supervolcano:

Picture from the Jemez Mountains

The caldera is composed of rich grassland that is surrounded by the rim of the supervolcano:

A Picture From New Mexico's Jemez Mountains

This grassland used to be a private ranch from 1860 to 2000 when the Valles Caldera Preservation Act was passed, which transferred the land over to the government for preservation while continuing to allow the operation of the cattle ranch.  In the below picture in the background you can see the highest point of the Jemez Mountains, Redondo Peak that soars to a height of 11,258 feet (3,431 meters), which was created by swelling magma in the volcano’s caldera:

A Picture From New Mexico's Jemez Mountains

There is a little hill that can be seen in the middle of the caldera, which is in fact a rhyolite lava dome.  This lava dome right now is enough to contain the heat bubbling below the surface of this supervolcano.  Fortunately there is no danger of this volcano erupting any time soon because this supervolcano was formed in a massive eruption 1.4 million years ago and the last time it erupted was 50,000 years ago.

After passing through the Valles Caldera State Road 4 than comes to its ultimate destination, Frijoles Canyon which is home to ancient ruins of the ancestral Pueblo Indians at Bandalier National Monument:

Picture from the Jemez Mountains

Just like with the valley I drove up that was carved by the Jemez River, the creek that flows through this canyon is partly responsible for carving this canyon as well.  The ancient ruins located in this valley are really a must see for anyone visiting New Mexico.  From Bandalier National Monument State Road 4 twist an turns its way out of the various canyons that can be found on the east side of the Jemez Mountains:

Picture from the Jemez Mountains

Eventually these twisting roads make their way to the isolated, but historic city of Los Alamos:

Picture from the Jemez Mountains

After visiting Los Alamos I then proceeded to head back to Santa Fe.  As I headed to Santa Fe I took one last look back towards the beautiful Jemez Mountains:

Picture from the Jemez Mountains

From this view it was easy to picture how these mountains were once a large shield volcano that has had its top blown off of it over a million years ago.  The supervolcano that these mountains hide may no longer be threat, but its many scenic wonders made possible by its volcanic past continues to wow people to this day.

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