About Jemez Falls
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. 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. And being on the East Fork of the Jemez River, the falls also 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.
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), and 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 in order to attain the view that you see pictured at the top of this page. 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), but after reading through this writeup, hopefully you won’t have to make the same mistake that we made.
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. Thus, the overall hike wound up being nearly 4 miles round trip (more like 3.7 miles round trip, but more if you count our scrambling and searching for the falls) instead, and this was 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). 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, which was said to be about 4 miles round trip and would follow mostly along the East Fork Jemez River all the way to the Jemez Falls Day Use area.
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 taking a trail on the far right side of the fence behind the restrooms or descending from the junction of the East Fork Trail with the descending waterfall trail on the other 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, and 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. So instead, we took a more obvious trail past the junction with the East Fork Trail, which then promptly descended towards the East Fork Jemez River while providing a glimpse between the trees of what 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. If you continue hiking downhill past some interesting rock formations as well as a trail labyrinth, then you missed the spur trail. Beyond the labyrinth, the trail pretty much terminated at the East Fork Jemez River and any further progress would involve getting wet or degenerating into a cliff-hugging rock scramble with no guarantee of getting a good look at neither the Upper Jemez Falls nor the main Jemez Falls. This was the mistake that we made initially, and after several minutes of fruitless searching, Julie and Tahia gave up. It was only when I slowly made my way back up towards the day use parking lot did I notice the unsigned fork that we somehow missed.
Nevertheless, I then followed the trail that was well higher than the East Fork Jemez River, and after another quarter-mile, I would eventually start to see the actual overlook for Jemez Falls as well as a spur trail descending somewhat steeply to my left leading to the smaller but more accessible Upper Jemez Falls. At the main overlook, there were railings put in place so clearly this was the right place to be. It was more of a top-down view from across the East Fork Jemez River, and it appeared that shadows started to get on the falls in the early afternoon that I was there. 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. Though that didn’t stop some people from at least scrambling to try to reach the brink of the falls.
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, and 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). 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. 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), but 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).
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.
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. 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, then past the East Fork Trailhead, and eventually to the signposted turnoff for the Jemez Campground on the left. Since the road was closed when we were there, we had to park the car in one of the open spaces to the east of the gate. If the gate was open, then we could drive 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).
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.
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