June 24th, 2020
We have made the drive up to Jemez Springs several times since moving to New Mexico, but had never made it far enough up NM Route 4 to see the astounding landscape of the Valle Caldera. Situated between the towns of Jemez Springs and Los Alamos is a 13-mile wide depression filled with beautiful grassy meadows, scattered fur forest, and several intersecting streams and rivers. The Caldera is so massive that its circular shape is clearly visible on any satellite image of the area.
Itching for a little adventure after months stuck in the Albuquerque area because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Stacia and I, along with our friend Sara, took off early one Friday in June to hike the East Fork of the Jemez River and let our dogs, Texie and Aspen, play in the water.
We arrived at the Las Conchas trailhead (not technically on the Valle Caldera National Preserve, but very close) around midday to find the two roadside parking lots packed, with vehicle parking overflowing onto the side of the road. We were lucky to find a spot waaay at the end of the parking lot, as the dogs could hardly wait to jump out of the car and hit the trail!
The trailhead is a popular spot on a weekday, so I cannot imagine what this trail might look like on a Saturday or Sunday. A wealth of tall rock walls line the sides of the Las Conchas trail, which follows along the side of the river and draws groups of rock climbers, especially close to the trailhead. Most of the groupings with children hung out within half a mile of the trailhead, often with a dog running around off-leash, so as much as I wanted to wander around and admire the stunning landscape straight away, we decided to push forward quickly to avoid the crowds of people.
Texie, our big American Bulldog, was so excited about absolutely everything. This outing was the first time she got to meet Sara, and Texie let out some loud high-pitch squeals as an expression of her excitement. On the trail, as we pushed past groups of people inching toward a more secluded section deeper in the forest, Texie pulled left and right in an attempt to say hi to as many people as she could.
Then, there was the water. I’m convinced there is nothing in the world Texie loves more than a dip in the water (not bath water though--bath time is a brutal affair!). Every time she got a glimpse of the river by the trail, she immediately started to pull toward it. I’m lucky that Stacia walked both dogs at the beginning of the hike because that level of excitement could have caused me extra joint pain with my inflammatory arthritis!
The Las Conchas trail weaves closely along the river with multiple shaky wooden bridges for trail crossings, surrounded by strips of grassy meadow, rock cliff faces, and clusters of tall, thin subalpine fir trees. Before long, when the canyon widened, we decided to step off the trail a bit and let the dogs play in the water. Aspen is in no way as excited about water as Texie so he expended some of his built-up excitement running high-speed laps in the water. Not knowing for sure what breed of dog Aspen is, we often refer to him as the mystery mutt, but his running form and speed makes us think he has some greyhound or whippet in his blood! Texie, on the other hand, dove right into the river. The water wasn’t very deep, but deep enough for her to dunk her head and splash water all about similar to the way an elephant uses its trunk to splash water over its back.
We hiked just over two miles to the end of Las Conchas trail where it intersects with another trail that climbs somewhat steeply up the side of the canyon. We decided to hike a short distance up this steep trail, but having already hiked 2 ½ miles we decided to turn around to spare my Ankylosing Spondylitis joints and Texie’s arthritic joints.
Little did I know then that the Las Conchas trail ends at a narrowing of the canyon called the East Fork Box, where the river has eroded away the ash tuft rock formations leaving a narrow canyon with several waterfall features. There is no real trail through the East Fork Box though, so hiking the box means hiking through the shallow river. Next time I’m bringing my sandals!
On the way back we decided to spend some time hanging out by the river away from the trail. I walked around throwing some sticks into the water for the dogs to fetch while Stacia and Sara hung out on a little sandy embankment. When it was time to head back toward the car, Texie’s diva personality kicked in and, motivated by a mix of tiredness and stubborn refusal to head back, she randomly slumped into the grass along the side of the trail at least three times for a nap. Luckily we ran into a lot of dog lovers, one man in particular helped us cheer Texie along to the end of the trail.
All in all we hiked about 4 ½ miles, which is a bit longer of a hike than usual for us. Both Texie and I suffered several days of increased pain and soreness after the Las Conchas trail hike, but it was well worth it to enjoy this indescribable mountain landscape that’s radically different from the Albuquerque desert environment just 1 ½ hours drive away! I highly recommend this flat and gorgeous hike, which encourages one to leisurely wander along the river and enjoy the scenery, but be sure to plan for summer crowds!