Jemez Falls

Santa Fe National Forest / Jemez Springs / Valles Caldera National Preserve, New Mexico, USA

About Jemez Falls


Hiking Distance: 3.5 miles if road closed; 3/4-mile loop if road open
Suggested Time: at least 2 hours if road closed; 30-45 minutes if road open

Date first visited: 2017-04-15
Date last visited: 2017-04-15

Waterfall Latitude: 35.81243
Waterfall Longitude: -106.60693

Jemez Falls was perhaps the most satisfying of the waterfalls in the state of New Mexico that I had encountered during a 2017 Spring Break Trip to the Desert Southwest.

That was because it was left alone in a forested setting where there were no dams, no development, and it had a pretty healthy flow during our visit.

Jemez_Falls_046_04152017 - Jemez Falls
Jemez Falls

The falls was said to have a cumulative height of 70ft, where the watercourse cascaded for most of the drop before twisting into the final plunge.

While this waterfall didn’t appear to be safely accessible in terms of swimming or playing at its base, there was a neighboring smaller waterfall (maybe 15ft) that was accessible and more suitable for cooling off.

Being on the East Fork of the Jemez River, it made sense that the falls had a pretty healthy flow, especially when it was benefitting from the snowmelt, which appeared to be at nearly peak runoff when we showed up in late April 2017.

Jemez Falls Experience – A Near Failure

Our visit was tempered with some setbacks as the road to the Jemez Campground was still closed to vehicles (thereby significantly adding to the overall hike).

Jemez_Falls_004_04152017 - On our April 2017 visit, the road to the Jemez Falls Day Use Area was closed so we had to walk this road to reach the waterfall
On our April 2017 visit, the road to the Jemez Falls Day Use Area was closed so we had to walk this road to reach the waterfall

Moreover, the trail to get to the waterfall overlook was poorly signed once we made it to the day use parking lot.

We’ll get to the difficulties that we had in finding the falls shortly, but to make a long story short, Julie and Tahia never got to witness this waterfall.

And to salvage my visit (after Julie and Tahia had given up), it took a little bit of me paying very close attention to any possible spur trails that we might have missed.

We don’t know if this was all a complication from the fact that the Forest Service didn’t open the roads (and perhaps didn’t erect adequate trail signage as a result).

Jemez_Falls_038_04152017 - Tahia and Julie fruitlessly searching along the banks of the East Fork Jemez River in search of the Jemez Falls
Tahia and Julie fruitlessly searching along the banks of the East Fork Jemez River in search of the Jemez Falls

Hopefully, after reading through this writeup, perhaps you may avoid the same mistakes that we made.

Jemez Falls Experience – accessing the Jemez Falls Day Use Parking Lot

Speaking of closures, had the road been open, then we could have driven all the way to the Jemez Falls Day Use Parking Lot.

From there, it was said to be merely a 0.7-mile round trip out-and-back hike to the overlook (assuming you find the right trail), which can also be done in a loop hike that was also 0.7 miles long.

But since the road was closed during our visit, we had to hike on that closed road, which was about 1.5 miles long in each direction.

Jemez_Falls_013_04152017 - The road to the Jemez Campground was still closed when we showed up in April 2017 so it was actually an eerily quiet road walk through forest
The road to the Jemez Campground was still closed when we showed up in April 2017 so it was actually an eerily quiet road walk through forest

Thus, the overall hike wound up being nearly 4 miles round trip.

It might be more like 3.7 miles round trip, but we had to deal with additional scrambling and searching for the falls, which increased the overall distance.

This was all reflected in the difficulty score.

We pretty much spent about 40-50 minutes walking this road in each direction, which was gently downhill on the way there (but more uphill on the way back).

Jemez_Falls_026_04152017 - The restroom up ahead was the end of the Jemez Falls Day Use Parking Lot
The restroom up ahead was the end of the Jemez Falls Day Use Parking Lot

If hiking on asphalt and cattle guards isn’t your idea of a good hike, then we did notice some other people do the East Fork Trail.

That other trail was said to be about 4 miles round trip, and it would follow mostly along the East Fork Jemez River all the way to the Jemez Falls Day Use area.

Jemez Falls Experience – hiking towards the East Fork Jemez River then finding the waterfall trail

So once we made it to the Jemez Falls Day Use parking lot (which was just beyond the Jemez Group Campground), we had a not-so-obvious choice of which way to go.

On the one hand, we could take a trail on the far right side of the fence behind the restrooms.

Jemez_Falls_061_04152017 - Pink police tape on the shorter side of the loop walk leading from the Jemez Falls Day Use Parking Lot to its overlook
Pink police tape on the shorter side of the loop walk leading from the Jemez Falls Day Use Parking Lot to its overlook

On the other hand, we could descend from the junction of the East Fork Trail with the descending waterfall trail on the opposite side of the parking lot.

Again, during our visit, there was no signage indicating that it was even possible to hike a trail to the right of the fences.

It was only after-the-fact when we finally noticed that there was pink-colored police tape where this side of the trail was supposed to be.

In any case, I will describe the loop hike in the manner that I managed to do this hike.

Jemez_Falls_041_04152017 - This was the very easy-to-miss spur path where a very thin and faint trail to the right led up to Jemez Falls Overlook. The wider trail on the left merely descended to the East Fork Jemez River
This was the very easy-to-miss spur path where a very thin and faint trail to the right led up to Jemez Falls Overlook. The wider trail on the left merely descended to the East Fork Jemez River

I’ll get into the difficulties of figuring how I ultimately managed to figure out how to do this hike later in this write-up.

So starting from the Jemez Falls Day Use Parking Lot, I followed a somewhat obvious trail that descended past the junction with the East Fork Trail.

It promptly descended towards the East Fork of the Jemez River while providing a glimpse between the trees of fwhat I thought was the rounded dome-like summit of Redondo Peak (one of the chain of mountains collectively known as the Jemez Mountains).

After about 500ft beyond the East Fork Trail Junction, there was an unsigned and not-so-obvious fork in the trail leading more uphill to the right.

Jemez_Falls_035_04152017 - Julie and Tahia descending to a trail labyrinth. If you get this far, that means you missed the easy-to-miss spur trail to Jemez Falls
Julie and Tahia descending to a trail labyrinth. If you get this far, that means you missed the easy-to-miss spur trail to Jemez Falls

Had I continued hiking downhill past some interesting rock formations as well as a trail labyrinth, then I would have missed this spur trail.

Jemez Falls Experience – accessing the upper and lower waterfalls

So following the easy-to-miss spur trail (which was well higher than the East Fork Jemez River), I proceeded along the gently climbing path for another quarter-mile.

I eventually started to see the actual overlook for Jemez Falls as well as a spur trail descending somewhat steeply to my left.

That descending trail would eventaully lead to the smaller but more accessible Upper Jemez Falls.

Jemez_Falls_054_04152017 - Looking towards the Upper Jemez Falls from the banks of the East Fork Jemez River after a steep descent off the loop trail
Looking towards the Upper Jemez Falls from the banks of the East Fork Jemez River after a steep descent off the loop trail

Of the people who came here and went in the water, this was the more sensible spot to do it, because the other half of the Jemez Falls was harder to get close to.

At the main overlook, there were railings put in place so clearly this was the right place to be.

From the overlook, it was more of a top-down view from across the East Fork Jemez River towards the lower drop of Jemez Falls.

It appeared that shadows started to get on the falls in the early afternoon that I was there.

Jemez_Falls_053_04152017 - Context of the lookout at the Lower Jemez Falls
Context of the lookout at the Lower Jemez Falls

While it was tempting to seek a way to get closer to the falls, it didn’t appear that there was a sanctioned way to do it.

That said, it didn’t stop some people from at least scrambling around to try to reach the brink of the lower drop of Jemez Falls.

Jemez Falls Experience – finishing the loop

When I had my fill of the Jemez Falls Overlook, I noticed that there were a handful of people who managed to get to this overlook from a different direction than where I came from.

So instead of going back the way I came, I decided to keep left back on the trail.

Jemez_Falls_057_04152017 - Pursuing the continuation of the trail uphill from the Jemez Falls Overlook, which led me on this not-so-obvious ascent up this hillside
Pursuing the continuation of the trail uphill from the Jemez Falls Overlook, which led me on this not-so-obvious ascent up this hillside

That led me to a somewhat steep uphill slope though it did appear that there was still a trail here.

Once I crested the incline, then the trail was pretty obvious and wide as it seemed to follow some kind of forested ridge.

Eventually after another quarter-mile or so, I found myself back at the day use parking lot on the other side of the fence by the restrooms.

It was only after returning to the parking lot in this manner was I finally made aware that perhaps we should have done this loop hike in reverse (i.e. counterclockwise instead of clockwise).

Jemez_Falls_058_04152017 - After going up the hillside, I then picked up a trail that followed along this ridge back to the Jemez Falls Day Use Parking Lot
After going up the hillside, I then picked up a trail that followed along this ridge back to the Jemez Falls Day Use Parking Lot

Well, with hindsight being 20/20, I was simply glad that we finally figured out how we were supposed to do this hike.

In total, we spent about 2.5 hours away from the car, but that included some time spent fruitlessly scrambling.

In reality, this hike with the closures should have taken about 2 hours or less.

And of course had the road to the campground been open, then we very easily could have done this excursion in 30 minutes or so.

Jemez_Falls_069_04152017 - Returning on the road from the Jemez Falls Day Use Area back to the Route 4
Returning on the road from the Jemez Falls Day Use Area back to the Route 4

As a result, we’ve bumped up the difficulty of this excursion due to the seemingly unnecessary route-finding resulting from the poor signage and trail markings (surprising for something as built up as this).

Anyways, for all intents and purposes, under normal circumstances, the difficulty of this hike should be no more than a 1.5 (as opposed to the 3 we’re giving it).

Jemez Falls Experience – the mistake of descending to the East Fork Jemez River

Earlier in this write-up, I mentioned that there was an easy-to-miss spur that led up to the Jemez Falls Overlook roughly 500ft after the trail junction with the East Fork Trail.

Well, we learned the hard way what happens when that spur trail was missed.

Indeed, we continued hiking downhill past some interesting rock formations as well as a trail labyrinth.

Jemez_Falls_036_04152017 - If you get to this trail labyrinth as Julie and Tahia had done, then it means you missed the correct trail further upslope to Jemez Falls
If you get to this trail labyrinth as Julie and Tahia had done, then it means you missed the correct trail further upslope to Jemez Falls

That pretty much put us down to the East Fork Jemez River, where the trail seemed to have terminated.

Any further progress pretty much involved getting wet or embarking on a degenerated cliff-hugging rock scramble with no guarantee of getting a good luck at any of the Jemez Falls.

We probably spent a pretty solid half-hour or more on a fruitless search for the Jemez Falls in this manner.

This was what made Julie and Tahia gave up, but we also saw dozens of other people make this same mistake and fruitlessly search for the Jemez Falls from here.

Jemez_Falls_039_04152017 - Some people have tried to get across the East Fork Jemez River in search of Jemez Falls, but little did they realize that this way would not take them there
Some people have tried to get across the East Fork Jemez River in search of Jemez Falls, but little did they realize that this way would not take them there

Some people even managed to cross the river and look for the “trail” on that side!

It was only when I reluctantly stopped searching around the East Fork Jemez River and slowly made my way back up to the parking lot did I notice the unsigned fork that we somehow missed.

I wondered if our difficulties was a result of an early-season visit to Nambe Falls or if there was incomplete infrastructure as of April 2017.

That said, maybe the forest service might have improved the signage and infrastructure since this write-up, and you may be wondering what I’m tripping out about…

Authorities

Jemez Falls resides in the Santa Fe National Forest near Jemez Springs in Sandoval County, New Mexico. It is administered by the USDA Forest Service. For information or inquiries about the area as well as current conditions, visit their website.

Jemez_Falls_007_04152017 - Julie and Tahia walking the closed Jemez Falls Road to the Jemez Campground and Day Use Parking Lot
Jemez_Falls_009_04152017 - Julie and Tahia going past one of a few cattle guards en route to the Jemez Falls Day Use parking lot
Jemez_Falls_015_04152017 - The Jemez Falls Road was pretty well signposted as it guided us towards the trailhead and day use parking lot
Jemez_Falls_016_04152017 - The Jemez Falls Road was gently downhill and was roughly 1.5 miles long, which meant it added 3 total miles of additional hiking when we had to walk it. At least it was free of vehicular traffic
Jemez_Falls_019_04152017 - Julie and Tahia walking by one of the junctions with a road closure as we continued walking the Jemez Falls Road to the Jemez Falls Day Use Parking Lot
Jemez_Falls_022_04152017 - Finally making it to the Jemez Falls Day Use Parking Lot, where the road made a loop with that building actually being a restroom facility
Jemez_Falls_027_04152017 - As we descended the trail towards the East fork Trail junction and the trail to Jemez Falls, we got this glimpse of what I think was Redondo Peak at over 11,000ft
Jemez_Falls_029_04152017 - Julie and Tahia making their way down this wide trail, which I believe was actually part of the East Fork Trail, but it did also junction with the Jemez Falls Loop Trail
Jemez_Falls_031_04152017 - Julie and Tahia continuing to go downhill on the trail leading down to Jemez Falls and the East Fork Jemez River
Jemez_Falls_032_04152017 - Julie and Tahia continuing down the East Fork Trail while some folks were coming back up. Little did we realize that we had missed the easy-to-miss spur to the Jemez Falls Loop Trail
Jemez_Falls_034_04152017 - Some interesting rock formations near the trail labyrinth on the East Fork Trail
Jemez_Falls_043_04152017 - After finally figuring out where the Jemez Falls Loop Trail was, I then encountered this moderately steep descent leading to the base of the Upper Jemez Falls
Jemez_Falls_045_04152017 - Finally getting a frontal look at the Jemez Falls (or the Lower Jemez Falls since there was an upper waterfall further upstream)
Jemez_Falls_047_04152017 - Broad contextual look at the Lower Jemez Falls from the overlook
Jemez_Falls_056_04152017 - Looking back at the official overlook of Jemez Falls. As you can see by the quantity of people here, quite a few of them didn't make the same mistake we had made earlier, but I swore there were just as many that did!
Jemez_Falls_065_04152017 - After having our fill of Jemez Falls, it was time to walk back from the Jemez Falls Day Use Parking Lot to the Route 4 where we had left the car
Jemez_Falls_070_04152017 - Tahia finally approaching our parked car by the Hwy 4 thereby ending our semi-misadventure of Jemez Falls in April 2017

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While there may be many ways of getting to Jemez Falls, we’ll first describe the driving directions from downtown Santa Fe since that was how we did it.

Later, we’ll describe the driving directions from Albuquerque.

Driving from Santa Fe to the Jemez Falls Day Use Parking Lot

So within the city of Santa Fe, we took North St Francis Street (Route 285) to the city’s northern outskirts.

This street eventually became the Hwy 285 (which was a freeway once we left the northern city limits), and we followed it north for about another 12-13 miles from the time it became a freeway.

We then took the exit for Hwy 502 towards Los Alamos.

Valle_Grande_001_04152017 - Passing by this wide open meadow or pasture at Valle Grande en route to the Jemez Falls Day Use Parking Lot
Passing by this wide open meadow or pasture at Valle Grande en route to the Jemez Falls Day Use Parking Lot

Once on the Route 502, we went west for the next 11 miles or so as the road was about to split between staying on the NM-502 to the left or Route 4 to the right.

The GPS actually had us go on the Route 4 then turning onto East Jemez Road through a nuclear research facility at Los Alamos (an interesting unintentional drive), but in hindsight, we also could have remained on the NM-502 through the real town of Los Alamos.

Either way, we continue heading west for about the next 7 miles before this road and NM-502 continued west as the NM-501.

Continuing a little over another 4 miles, the NM-501 then junctioned with the Route 4, where we turned right (to continue going west), and followed this route about the next 17 miles past Valle Grande.

During this stretch, we went past the East Fork Trailhead, and eventually we arrived at the signposted turnoff for the Jemez Campground on the left.

Jemez_Falls_003_04152017 - Even though the Jemez Falls Road was closed, there were still lots of cars parked along Hwy 4 right by the gate
Even though the Jemez Falls Road was closed, there were still lots of cars parked along Hwy 4 right by the gate

Since the road was closed when we were there in April 2017, we had to park the car in one of the open spaces to the east of the gate.

Had the gate been open, then we could have driven the last 1.5 miles to the Jemez Falls Day Use parking lot.

In any case, this drive from Santa Fe to the trailhead would take under 90 minutes (about 59 miles).

Driving from Albuquerque to the Jemez Falls Day Use Parking Lot

Coming from Albuquerque, we could have gone north on the I-25 for about 16 miles before exiting onto the Hwy 550.

Then, we’d follow the Hwy 550 for abou 22 miles to its junction with the Route 4 at San Ysidro.

Turning right onto Route 4, we’d then follow this road through the mountains and through Jemez Springs to the Jemez Campground turnoff on the right after about 31 miles.

For context, the city of Santa Fe was 34 miles (45 minutes drive) southeast of Los Alamos, and 64 miles (a little over an hour’s drive) north of Albuquerque. Albuquerque was 325 miles (about 5 hours drive) east of Flagstaff, Arizona, 790 miles (about 13 hours drive) east of Los Angeles, California, and 647 miles (about 10 hours drive) west of Dallas, Texas.

Sweep starting with the main waterfall lookout then following informal trails leading to the plunge pool before the Upper Jemez Falls

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Tagged with: santa fe national forest, los alamos, jemez springs, valles caldera, valle grande, new mexico, waterfall



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Johnny Cheng

About Johnny Cheng

Johnny Cheng is the founder of the World of Waterfalls and author of A Guide to New Zealand Waterfalls. Over the last 2 decades, he has visited thousands of waterfalls in over 40 countries around the world and nearly 40 states in the USA.
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