The Pacific storms that have been soaking Southern California have been doing us a bit of good, here in Northern New Mexico, and this past weekend was the perfect opportunity to strike out for the high country and see what Nature has put in the storehouses. Our choice this time was one of my favorite walks up in the Jemez Mountains, a trail along a little steep-walled canyon so beautiful that a friend of mine calls it “Beaver Valley”, after some half-remembered Disney fantasia from childhood. It’s an idyllic hike in the summer, with a cheerful creek winding along the flat floor of a narrow canyon crowded with spruce and dotted with wild rose and iris. I’d never seen it in the depths of winter, and now was the time.
The real name of the trail is the East Fork Jemez River, and our point of departure was the Las Conchas Trailhead, just off Highway 4 not far after you leave the Valle Grande in the Valles Caldera National Preserve. It’s about 57 miles from Santa Fe.
The drive up was beautiful. The last snow squalls from the departing storm were still blowing through the mountains and the forest, flocked with fresh white, was almost hypnotic. Of course we pulled over at the Valle Grande overlook to have a look at the snow:
It is impossible to capture the scale of this mountain park, but you can get a measure of the expanse by noting the height of those full-grown trees at the foot of the mountains. (At other times of the year, you can pull up with the other visitors and listen to people arguing if those little specks way out there really are a herd of elk)
The Valle Grande is just a small part of the great volcanic caldera that blocks out the center of the Jemez Mountains. It has held a number of crater lakes in the recent geologic past, which accounts for its forest-free floor. The fires below are banked for the time being, however, and now, in winter, the Valle becomes a dazzling bowl of snow. You really must see it.
The Las Conchas Trailhead opens off Highway 4 at a place where the East Fork of the Jemez River enters a box canyon it has cut through the tortured rocks of the South Mountain Rhyolite. This rhyolite is a thick flow of silica-rich lava erupted around 550,000 years ago, during the waning stages of volcanic activity in the Jemez. The flow blocked drainage inside the caldera for a while, but the lava was overtopped by water and a narrow canyon was soon carved through the resistant rock. A subsequent episode of backfilling gave the canyon a flat floor, which accounts for its unique attractiveness, and makes a summertime walk delightful.
Usually when you pull up to the trailhead you have a suspicion that you have stumbled into an REI commercial. Cattle Call Wall, which you can see in the picture below, is usually thick with rock climbers, and there are always many more just inside the canyon, shouting happily to each other and jingling their carabiners.
There were no climbers on Saturday. The summertime crowds of hikers were missing, and the gurgling creek was muted by ice and buried under about two and a half feet of new snow. A few hardy snowshoers had broken a path – bless them – and my friend and I wound our way into the hushed winter paradise within.
Let me just mention that crossing these very narrow bridges, on an unstable icing of over two feet of new snow, is somewhat . . . challenging. There’s not a lot of margin for error, and it’s really really hard to put one foot in front of the other when you are wearing snowshoes. Always be sure to bring someone along to help pull you out of the creek! But don’t let such minor obstacles stop you from enjoying the glorious snows of our New Mexico winter.