San Diego Canyon, Los Alamos, and Bandelier
Enjoy a day trip through Northern New Mexico
The attractions on this mind-bending drive are as varied as a spectacular red rock canyon, prehistoric Pueblo ruins, and the birthplace of the atom bomb. Although the High Road to Taos (see pp. 70-78) is a required course for anyone wishing to learn about northern New Mexico, this Jemez Mountain excursion is quickly becoming our favorite scenic day trip out of Santa Fe.
Plan to start early, as you will cover about 200 miles in four and one-half hours of driving, not counting the time you’ll spend at various attractions. Consider making it an overnight trip and relax at one of the area’s mountain lodges or camp in the Jemez National Recreation Area. If you enjoy hiking and other outdoor recreation, a visit of four or five days would not exhaust the possibilities in this beautiful corner of New Mexico.
Your drive begins
Begin your drive by taking I-25 south (toward Albuquerque) to the US 550 exit at Bernalillo, about 45 miles southwest of Santa Fe. Before the sightseeing begins, stop at a local comfort food institution, The Range Café, for breakfast or a take-out lunch; there will be excellent picnic opportunities all along your route. To find The Range, turn right when you exit I-25 at US 550. Proceed three blocks to the traffic light at NM 313/Camino del Pueblo, turn left, and look for the sprawling restaurant less than one mile ahead on your right.
Now fully provisioned, you’re ready for your first historical encounter, the Coronado State Monument. Retrace your route back to US 550, turn left, cross the Rio Grande and turn right on Monument Road.
The Coronado park is the site of an Ancestral Puebloan village named Kuaua (koo-AH-oo-ah) or Evergreen in the Native Tiwa (TEE-wah) language. In the 13th and 14th centuries, groups of Anasazi peoples escaped drought in the Four Corners area by joining other Native groups already settled along the Rio Grande. They started building the multi-story adobe village of Kuaua about BC 1300, and by 1500 it consisted of 1200 rooms clustered around three plazas and six kivas or underground ceremonial chambers.
In February 1540, the Spanish conquistador, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, arrived at Kuaua on his way north in his futile search of the legendary Cibola or Seven Cities of Gold. Coronado, along with 300 Spanish soldiers, six Franciscan friars, 1000 Indian allies and slaves, and 1500 head of livestock, are known to have occupied one of the dozen or so Tiwa villages in the area during the two winters of the expedition. For years, archeologists believed that Kuaua was Coronado’s temporary home and thus the park was named for him when it was dedicated in 1940, the expedition’s cuarto-centennial. However, no firm evidence has ever been found to confirm this speculation.
Today, the massive adobe village lies completely buried under blowing dust and the melted remains of its own earthen walls. One of the kivas has been reconstructed and visitors may climb the ladder into the cool semi-darkness where rituals ensuring the survival of the village once took place. The most extraordinary feature of the Monument, however, is the exhibit of original wall paintings from the reconstructed kiva. Hundreds of paintings were found on seventeen different layers of mud plaster when the kiva was excavated in 1935, and a sampling of them is displayed in the Visitor Center.
After touring the Pueblo, take some time to stroll through the park. This is your first gorgeous picnic site: the Monument provides a few covered tables overlooking the Rio Grande with phenomenal views of Sandia Peak soaring above the cottonwood bosque (forest) on the far side of the river.
Heading out again, turn right (north) on US 550. If it’s lunchtime and you’re not picnicking, turn right on Tamaya Boulevard and follow the signs 2.3 miles to Santa Ana Pueblo’s luxurious Tamaya Resort. The resort’s Santa Ana Café offers a hearty lunch with patio dining during warm weather. Be sure to wander the public rooms of the hotel to view the excellent collection of New Mexico art.
Back on US 550 north, look for historic Santa Ana Pueblo far across the valley to your right at about mile marker 10. A bit farther, at mile marker 17, you’ll get a good view of Zia Pueblo. Both Pueblos welcome visitors only on their respective feast days: June 29 and July 26 for Santa Ana and August 15 for Zia. (See pp. 110-119 for the Pueblo Dance Calendar.)
After mile marker 21, look for the turn-off for Cabezon Road on your left. About 10 miles in on this maintained gravel road is the Ojito Wilderness, more than 11,000 acres of rugged canyons, towering rock formations, and colorful badlands. Ojito also contains cultural sites such as prehistoric petroglyphs and kivas, and more recent Navajo and Hispanic sites. Because it is a designated wilderness, motorized vehicles are not allowed within its boundaries. Nevertheless, excellent views can be obtained from Cabezon and Pipeline Roads which run along its southern and western edges. For hiking and camping-certainly the best way to see the wilderness-contact the Bureau of Land Management’s Rio Puerco Field Office at 505.761.8700 or www.blm.gov/nm.
Once again returning to US 550, proceed to the village of San Ysidro and turn right onto NM 4. This is the start of the Jemez Mountain National Scenic Byway which you will be following for much of the rest of your trip. Between mile markers 5 and 6, you’ll see the Jemez Pueblo village of Walatowa (Wah-LA-tow-ah) meaning “this is the place” in the Towa language. Like its neighbors, Jemez (HAY-mes) welcomes visitors to the village only on its feast days (January 1, Easter Sunday, August 2, November 12, and December 12), but tourists are welcome every day at the Walatowa Visitor Center on NM 4 at mile marker 7. The Center’s museum gives a brief overview of the history of Jemez which once was home to some 30,000 people spread among the largest and most powerful villages in the Rio Grande region, but was decimated during the years of Spanish colonization. Also at the Center, you can pick up maps and information for the many outdoor recreation opportunities in the area.
Today, Jemez Pueblo is known for high quality decorative pottery, hand-made with traditional techniques but contemporary, innovative designs. Tribal vendors sell their art at the Red Rocks across the highway from the Visitor Center on weekends between April 1 and October 30. The Red Rocks Arts & Crafts show, which includes vendors from surrounding Pueblos and Tribes, takes place on Memorial Day Weekend.
Leaving Jemez Reservation lands, you will enter San Diego Canyon and the Jemez National Recreation Area. This gorgeous red rock canyon and the Jemez River which flows through it drain an enormous, ancient volcano crater called Valles Caldera (crater of valleys.) About 1.14 million years ago a huge magma bubble welled up in an older volcano crater, and the resulting eruption deposited a layer of volcanic ash hundreds of feet deep over the surrounding countryside. The volcano then collapsed, forming a 1000-foot deep basin, surrounded by a jagged, mountainous rim. Initially, a lake formed in the crater, but about 500,000 years ago erosion breached the rim and the lake burst through and into the river. The resulting catastrophic floods scoured out much of the canyon you see today.
The gentle sound of the river, the lush cottonwood bosque, and silent, towering cliffs now give little hint of the violent origins of the landscape. Perfect for a stroll, a nap, or a picnic, this peaceful canyon contains many day-use and overnight recreation facilities operated by the Santa Fe National Forest. Several trails lead to hot springs where bathing is permitted, and a short trail at the Jemez Falls Picnic Area leads to a 40-foot waterfall. All recreation areas are well marked, but you can pick up maps at the Walatowa Visitor Center or the Jemez Ranger Station near mile marker 17 on NM 4.
If hiking and fishing aren’t exactly your style, drive on up to the village of Jemez Springs to be pampered at the Jemez Springs Bath House. Built around the original springs in the 1870s, it is one of the oldest buildings in town, and offers massages and wraps in addition to a luxurious soak in the natural hot mineral water. If you’d like to end your hot mineral bath with a cold plunge in the Jemez River, check out The Giggling Springs outdoor baths. After your restorative soak, try a snack or lunch at Laughing Lizard Inn & Café or Los Ojos Restaurant & Saloon. All four businesses are located within steps of each other in the middle of town.
Just beyond the northern edge of Jemez Springs you will see the sign for Jemez State Monument on the right. Though the entrance building is rather unassuming, the monument itself is fascinating. The site contains the stone ruins of the 500 year old Jemez village of Giusewa (GHEE-say-wah.) Using Indian labor, the Spanish built a impressive stone church at the village in the 1610s but abandoned it in the 1640s, possibly because their harsh policies drove the residents to other villages. A small museum at the monument interprets the history of Giusewa from the Jemez point of view.
Across the road from the Monument is the architecturally striking Mary Mother of Priests Shrine, part of Cor Jesu Monastery. It is not open to the public. Just south of the Shrine are the offices of the Valles Caldera National Preserve. Check in at the gift shop or office to see what activities might be offered that day at the Preserve which lies about 20 miles ahead.
A few hundred yards beyond the Jemez Monument is the “Soda Dam” on the Jemez River. Minerals from the many hot springs that feed the River have been deposited over the millennia at this small waterfall. The irregular shape of the dam attests to the fact that the water’s flow has been interrupted and diverted many different times. Flowing water always finds its way and, for the time being, it comes tumbling through a hole near the bottom of the pink and white travertine mound.
Continuing up NM 4, watch for the spot where the canyon narrows and a huge triangle of grey rock juts from the cliffs on the right. This is Battleship Rock which marks the outer rim of Valles Caldera at the place where the caldera lake came crashing through some one-half million years ago.
When you reach the village of La Cueva at the intersection of NM 126, you will have arrived inside Valles Caldera. As NM 4 curves away from the village, it climbs up onto the caldera rim and will follow it for about the next 15 miles. At mile marker 38, the road breaks through the trees and clings to the inside of the rim, giving fabulous views of one of the most beautiful mountain valleys in the Southwest, El Valle Grande. Here, you can just begin to comprehend the size of the crater as you follow the curving line of mountains that define its edge. It is not possible to see across the 14-mile wide caldera, however, because mountains that formed from later eruptions and lava flows fill most of its center. The last of these flows occurred about 57,000 years ago and the volcano is considered dormant, not extinct.
Most of the caldera comprises the 89,000 acre Valles Caldera National Preserve which offers a variety of fee-based programs including guided tours, hiking, and camping. In the interest of protecting its pristine environment, the Preserve is accessed only through these programs, and reservations must be made in advance through email@example.com or 866.382.5537. If you’d prefer to just enjoy the scenery from the road, but sure to stop at one of the pull-outs at Valle Grande to read the interpretive signs.
Near mile marker 48 you will begin to descend the outside of the caldera rim onto Pajarito Plateau, a deep layer of volcanic tuff or ash-rock laid down by the mountain’s big eruption. At the bottom of the hill lies the intersection of NM 4 and NM 501. At this juncture you probably will have to choose between a visit to Bandelier National Monument or the town of Los Alamos, especially if you are making this trip in one day.
For Los Alamos, turn left onto NM 501. At the edge of town you will be required to stop at a checkpoint recently built by the Department of Homeland Security. You then will be amidst the main concentration of buildings that house Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) Proceed to the intersection of NM 502, turn left on Diamond Drive and follow it around to Canyon Drive on the right. After Canyon becomes Central Avenue look on the left for the parking lot at Fuller Lodge Park.
The town of Los Alamos and the surrounding National Laboratory lie on a series of finger-like mesas that radiate from the base of the mountain. In the 19th century, the mesas were part of a prosperous cattle operation called Alamos Ranch. In 1917, a former Rough Rider named Ashley Pond converted the ranch to Los Alamos Ranch School, an outdoors oriented boarding school “where privileged eastern boys might become robust, learned men.” Then, in 1943, the US Government appropriated the Ranch School and several surrounding farms and ranches as a remote, secure site for its top-secret Manhattan Project. Two years later Los Alamos scientists, led by physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, detonated the world’s first atomic bomb.
Three fine museums interpret the Los Alamos experience, past and present. The little stone house in Fuller Lodge Park contains the Los Alamos Historical Museum featuring exhibits on the early history of the Pajarito Plateau as well as the Ranch School and Manhattan Project. The large building at the east end of the Park is Fuller Lodge, built in 1928 as headquarters and dining hall for the Ranch School. It now houses The Art Center at Fuller lodge and shows the work of regional artists. Ask to see the old dining hall, a marvelous example of mountain rustic architecture and the only rustic building designed by John Gaw Meem, progenitor of the Spanish-Pueblo Revival or Santa Fe Style.
One block east of Fuller Lodge on Central Avenue is the Bradbury Science Museum. Owned and operated by LANL, the Museum is part science museum and part nuclear research propaganda. All of it, however, is well presented and deeply engaging. The History Gallery offers a brief overview of the Manhattan Project. The Defense Gallery includes displays on nuclear weapons testing and maintenance, and the Research Gallery briefly treats each of the scientific fields addressed by LANL programs, including the human genome, environmental science, space science, computing, lasers, and particle physics.
Stop in at Otowi (OH-toe-we) Station, the Bradbury’s museum bookstore, to browse Los Alamos titles and to buy tickets for a 90-minute van tour of Los Alamos and LANL. The tour is an excellent way to learn about LANL programs and buildings (which are not open to the public) and to identify the historic sites around town. If you’d rather strike out on your own, pick up a copy of the self-guided walking tour at any of the museums.
If you’ve chosen Bandelier National Monument over Los Alamos, stay on NM 4 and watch for the Monument entrance about 6 miles past the junction with NM 501. The main attraction of Bandelier is the ruin of the Ancestral Puebloan village of Tyuonyi (chew-OHN-yee) which lies at the bottom of Frijoles (beans) Canyon. Nomadic hunter-gatherers followed game through the canyon at least 10,000 years ago, but permanent settlement began about 1150 BC. By 1550, depletion of the area’s natural resources coupled with prolonged drought drove the residents of Tyuonyi to settlements along the Rio Grande.
The ruins are easily accessible on a short, paved trail that is handicapped accessible. An extension of the trail takes you to an area of dwellings built against and into the canyon wall. Ladders allow access to small cavates or rooms carved into the cliff face and the trail offers views of petroglyphs chipped into the soft volcanic tuff. A slightly more strenuous hike will take you to Alcove house, an earlier dwelling built into a natural recess in the cliff face. For the wilderness backpacker, Bandelier contains 70 miles of trails traversing the Monument’s canyons and mesas.
The Bandelier Visitor Center, a picturesque set of pueblo-style stone buildings constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression, includes a museum, bookstore, gift shop, and snack bar. A quiet, cottonwood-shaded picnic area lies just across Frijoles Creek from the Visitor Center.
After leaving Bandelier and returning to NM 4 you will encounter the town of White Rock, a “suburb” of Los Alamos. For a stupendous view of the Rio Grande and Sangre de Cristo Mountains, turn right at the Rover Boulevard traffic light, take the first left onto Meadow Lane, drive 10 blocks to Overlook Drive and follow it to the end. From the Overlook viewing platform you can see the entire stretch of the Sangre de Cristos from above Santa Fe all the way into Colorado. Between you and the mountains is the canyon of the Rio Grande, looking exactly like what it is: a great “rift valley” in which the sides are actually pulling away from each other as the middle drops between them.
Now, you are ready to drive down to the Rio Grande on NM 4 to NM 502, following the signs to Santa Fe. After crossing the Rio, look on the left for the turn-off to San Ildefonso Pueblo. Famous for the black-on-black pottery of Maria Martinez, this historic village is open to visitors except during non-public ceremonies. Stroll the village plaza, centered by the great round kiva, and look for “open” signs indicating pottery and other crafts for sale from the craftspeople’s homes. A small museum is located in the Tribal government building on the west side of the plaza. Also, ask directions to Sunbeam Indian Arts Gallery, owned by Maria’s great-granddaughter, Barbara Gonzales, and featuring exquisite pottery by several of Maria’s descendents.
Follow NM 502 east and exit onto US 84/285 south at Pojoaque. Immediately on your left is a cluster of adobe buildings and log ramadas, home to the Poeh Center, a museum and arts center containing a beautifully crafted exhibit tracing the history of the Pueblo peoples. Be sure to visit the Poeh’s gift shop as well as the Roxanne Swentzell Tower Gallery next door. If dinner time approaches, try the “O” Eating House for sophisticated modern dishes based on Native, local ingredients.
Another option for capping off a long day of travel with a relaxing dinner is Gabriel’s Restaurant, about three miles south of the Poeh Center at the Cuyamungue exit (cross back over the highway and turn left.) Long a favorite of both locals and tourists, their classic, northern New Mexico menu is most famous for the guacamole made right at your table.
Heading south, again, lift your tired eyes one more time for a view of Camel Rock, an uncanny “hoodoo” eroded out of the buff-colored sandstone. No imagination is required to see how this outcropping got its name. At Camel Rock, you are only about 20 minutes from downtown Santa Fe and a good night’s sleep. After all the sights and experiences of the day, we guarantee you’ll need it.
Food and Lodging
- The Range Café 505.867.1700
- Santa Ana Café at Tamaya Resort 505.771.6037
- The Laughing Lizard Inn & Café 575.829.3108
- Los Ojos Restaurant & Saloon 575.829.3547
- La Cueva Lodge 575.829.3300
- Elk Mountain Lodge (La Cueva) 575.829.3159
- Canyon Inn Bed & Breakfast (Los Alamos) 505.662.7444
- The North Road Inn (Los Alamos) 505.662.3678
- The Hill Diner (Los Alamos) 505.662.9745
- “O” Eating House 505.455.5065
- Gabriel’s Restaurant 505.455.7000
- Coronado State Monument 505.867.5351
- Ojito Wilderness, BLM 505.761.8700
- Walatowa Visitor Center 575.834.7235
- Jemez National Recreation Area, Santa Fe National Forest 575.829.3535
- Jemez Springs Bathhouse 575.829.3303
- The Giggling Springs 575-829-9175
- Jemez State Monument 575.829.3530
- Valles Caldera National Preserve 866.382.5537
- Los Alamos Historical Museum 505.662.4493
- The Art Center at Fuller Lodge 505.662.9331
- Bradbury Science Museum 505.667.4444
- Buffalo Tours (Los Alamos van tour) 505.662.3965
- Bandelier National Monument 505.672.3861
- Sunbeam Indian Arts 505.455.7132
- Poeh Center 505.455.3334
- Roxanne Swentzell Tower Gallery 505.455.3037