Nambe Falls (or more accurately Nambé Falls with the accent; meaning it’s pronounced “nam-BEH”) was certainly an unexpected waterfall surprise when we briefly toured the northwestern part of New Mexico during Tahia’s Spring Break. In a state where we expected more desert than mountains, this series of tall waterfalls (the top two tiers were said to be 75ft and 100ft tall, respectively) was certainly one of the most anticipated waterfalls of our Spring Break Trip to the Desert Southwest. It definitely had all the potential to be one of the state’s biggest tourist attractions as it not only featured the scenic falls, but it also offered the opportunity to offset the desert heat in the seemingly reliably-flowing rushing creek. Further adding to the waterfall’s scenic allure were commanding views looking downstream towards the Pueblo of Nambé and the picnic grounds backed by the mountains of the Sangre de Cristo (literally “blood of Christ”).
Now, I did mention that this falls had a lot of “potential”, but as you can see from the photo at the top of this page, there was also an imposing 150ft dam and spillway directly above the waterfall. While the dam took away from the scenic allure of this place, it did serve a purpose in terms of providing water for the Nambé people more reliably while also allowing the waterfall to more or less flow consistently. Meanwhile, the view of the falls was also limited to vegetation obstructing the lower drop of the main two tiers of the Nambe Falls. I’ve seen in the literature that it was possible to photograph the lower drop of the falls without the obstructions, but that would involve some precarious scrambling (possibly beyond the wire fence) where the exposure to a deep dropoff was ever present. We didn’t take that risk for the improved photo and I’d consider the sub-optimal view shown on this page to be the sanctioned view.
There were actually two trails that gave us the opportunity to experience the falls (albeit in very different ways). The first and most obvious manner to enjoy the falls (and the way we wound up doing it) was to take a roughly quarter-mile (in each direction) trail that began on the other side of a bridge crossing the creek. Beyond the bridge, the trail then meandered upstream alongside the creek itself before it climbed pretty steeply up a series of steps. Eventually, the trail was high enough to be hugging ledges before it finally ended at a fenced overlook yielding the picture you see at the top of this page. While up at this overlook, there wasn’t really a whole lot we could do other than to view the waterfall as well as soak in the commanding views back towards the picnic area and the pueblo. It took us about an hour round trip to do both the hike and experiencing the overlook (about a half-mile total in distance).
Back at the picnic and parking area, we then briefly followed another path before the bridge that followed on the near side of the creek. After a couple of minutes, we arrived at an open-air shelter. Progress from this point forward was pretty much a scramble as I had to scramble over some rock wall and then followed faint trails before it disappeared into the creek itself. Further progress to get up to the pools below the lowermost of the Nambe Falls required wading in the creek (i.e. getting wet), which I wasn’t willing to do at the time. Thus, I can’t really say much more about that experience. We were told by the young Native American gatekeeper that this trail was also about a quarter-mile in each direction. I recalled that from the Nambe Falls overlook earlier on, when we looked down at the steepness and how rough the scramble would be to get up to the bases of the upper two drops, it looked like a pretty dangerous and not-so-easy scramble. In any case, to really make the $15 admission price work for you, I’d imagine you’d want to come prepared (to get wet) and experience the falls both from the overlook and its base, which ought to take a pretty solid 2-3 hours or so to do it all.
From downtown Santa Fe, we took North St Francis Street to the northern outskirts of the city. This street eventually became the Hwy 285 (which was a freeway once we left the northern city limits), and followed it north for about another 13 miles from the time it became a freeway. We then took the exit for the 503 towards Nambe. Once on the Route 503, we went east for the next 3 miles or so until we followed the sign (saying Nambe Falls Lake Recreation Area) telling us to make another right turn onto the NP-101 road. We then followed the narrower NP-101 road for a little over 5 miles to an intersection on the Nambe Pueblo lands, where there were people manning an outpost on a corner collecting the entrance fee from visitors.
Once the fee was collected, we were directed to turn right at the intersection, then follow the unpaved road for the remaining 0.4 miles to the dead-end, which was a wide open dirt clearing with sheltered picnic tables on the perimeter of the clearing. We just picked an open spot (there was plenty of space at the time) to park the car and get started on the hike. Overall, this drive took us around 30-45 minutes.
As for other logistics, we had to pay $15 for our vehicle, and we had to time our visit for the weekend as this area was only open on the weekends (we showed up on a Saturday). I had read reports that even on some weekends, they may close the area without an explicit advance posting or notice. So to improve the odds of not being disappointed, the Nambe Pueblo posted on their website that they’re typically open Thursdays through Sundays from 7am to 7pm. On top of that, they also recommended to call ahead and confirm that the recreation area would be open as there may be special ceremonies that supercede the posted open times.
For some added context, the city of Santa Fe was 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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