Driving Through The Sandia and Jemez Mountains

As we mentioned on Valentine’s Day, we headed out for a day of scenic driving through New Mexico’s Sandia and Jemez Mountains. We set out to see some of the incredible scenery in the mountains that numerous Albuquerquians (Albuquerqueites? Albuquerquefolk? Quarks?) had told us about.

So we fired up our podcasts and set sail for the kind of roads where you rarely see another car and when you do, they wave at you. This is our idea of how to spend Valentine’s Day, just seeing new things, grabbing a delicious meal, and hanging out.

Starting Off On The Right Foot

We figured since we were actually getting in the truck and driving somewhere, we might as well start our day with a workout. After we attempted to get buff, we hopped back in the truck with Knox The Navigator, grabbed some coffee, and headed for the Sandia Crest Scenic Byway to take us way up into the clouds.

Sandia Crest

Our WorkAway hosts live near Sandia Crest, so we’d seen the sign for the byway several times coming and going. Even though it was 15 miles back towards the house from the gym and away from the Jemez Mountains, we decided to start our driving there. The base of the byway is at about 7,000 ft. From there, we climbed up the curvy mountain road to the peak, just a tad shy of 10,700 ft.

The roads went from perfectly clear with wide shoulders and barely any snow to no shoulder with 2 foot deep snow banks lining the road. The views from up that high are incredible, though we actually climbed high enough that the view got worse due to the clouds.

Just up this one little road, there are numerous options for outdoor recreation, from hiking and picnicking to downhill and cross-country skiing. If you’re in Albuquerque, it’s definitely worth taking the trip to go to the peak and back.

Time For Breakfast

The plan was to drive up the byway and through Placitas to The Range Cafe in Bernalillo, just north-east of Albuquerque. What we didn’t realize was that there are actually two roads. One goes to the peak, one goes through Placitas and onward to Bernalillo. Obviously we took the high route to the peak and found that it was a dead end.

Assuming that the other side of the mountain was closed due to winter weather, we flipped our trusty truck back around and took the Interstate to Albuquerque and up to get some breakfast at The Range Cafe…at 1pm.

The Jemez Mountains

After that, we picked up NM-4 and headed north for Jemez Springs, driving through the red rock regions. We probably didn’t go more than 2 miles at a time without stopping to take more pictures. The scenery was constantly changing and constantly amazing. The road through this area runs primarily through a valley surrounded by high, sheer cliffs of varying shades of color with scrubby brush and thinly spread pine trees, right next to a small babbling brook.

In Jemez Springs, the idea was that we’d see the Jemez State Monument. Unfortunately, the monument is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. So onward we drove. From there, the plan was that we’d head up to the Valle Grande, the remains of a volcano that erupted 1.4 million years ago. So further north we went, leaving behind the bright red rocks and entering very dense, old growth pine tree forests with snow everywhere (except on the road, thankfully!).

Along the way, we saw Battleship Rock and took advantage of the opportunity to climb into a little cave at a sulphur spring. At the back of the cave was a small pool of really warm water. Even the air around it was humid from the heat coming off the water, while outside it was about 35 degrees.

Unfortunately, our directions to Valle Grande took us to an office building in Los Alamos. With the amount of snow on the ground in the area, we probably couldn’t have actually gotten to the crater very well. By the time we reached this point, it was already 4:30, clouds had moved in, and the sun was setting, so we nixed the final stop at Bandelier National Monument. With the snow on the ground, getting to that probably would have been a feat as well, though we might give it a shot when we head up to Santa Fe in a few days.

Jemez Recreation

Just like on Sandia Crest, there’s so much recreation just on NM-4 in the Jemez Mountains that you could hike everyday for a month and never hike the same trail. There are hot springs that you can just get out of the car and jump right into. Beyond that, there are picnic areas, campgrounds, and fishing holes. Basically, if you want to do something outside, NM-4 can accommodate you.

The Tally For The Day

Over the course of the day, we drove over 200 miles through some of the most incredible scenery we’ve seen. Having been through southwestern, central, and parts of northern New Mexico, we can definitely say it’s one of the most amazing states to see.

Along with the different types of terrain we drove through, we saw a range of temperatures. It was about 35 when we departed in the morning. And it was 22 when we hit the peak of Sandia Crest. Then it was 51 when we hit the Jemez Mountains, dropping to 29 with snow above Jemez Springs, and rising back to 40 on our downward decent from Los Alamos. We also got snowed on several times, though only once was the temperature actually below freezing.

We saw an overall elevation range of between 5500 and 10,700 feet, give or take. All in all, this was an excellent way to spend a day. We saw red rock regions, dense forest, snow, and canyons so deep that we can only imagine what the Grand Canyon is going to look like.

Here Are The Pictures

It’s unfortunate that even Edie’s amazing photography skills can’t truly present the scenery to you in a picture. There’s just no way to capture the level of detail and depth of color that we saw. But nonetheless, here are some of the hundreds of pictures we took that should at least whet your appetite to get out here and see more for yourself.