Had a rough week? Feel like jumping off a cliff? Well, have I got the cliff for you. Except, sorry, you can’t jump off of it. You can, however, gaze at this majestic lime, rust and sand-streaked stone precipice while soaking in the velvety hot mineral waters of San Antonio Hot Springs across the valley. Doesn’t that sound nicer than plummeting to a grisly end?
From Albuquerque, start by driving through Bernalillo into the sculpted peaks and sweeping mesas of Highway 550 N. Turn right then left onto NM-4 E. and NM-126 N. respectively, going through Jemez Springs, an excellent option for post-soak refreshments. (I'm dreaming about the Los Ojos patio right now.) When you turn right onto Forest Service Road 376 about an hour later, the gate will be unpredictably open or closed.
If you’re smart, you’ll park your car right there and treat yourself to a scenic five-mile stroll-hike full of mountain vistas, towering trees, wildlife and other forest delights. If, on the other hand, you are tempted by a seductively open gate, something like the Devil may whisper in your ear and convince you to test your vehicular mettle against the trenches, craters, boulders, fallen trees and steep drop-offs of this initially innocent-looking mountain track. You might get stuck; you might have to maneuver an awkward 20-point turn when you finally give up or run into a returning vehicle; you might bottom-out your poor car, or pop your tires, or fill-in-the-blank with potential disasters. Or you might make it. You might just trade 1 to 2 hours of guaranteed high-on-life hiking for approximately 20 minutes of nail-biting, white-knuckle driving with fair chance of misfortune. That is, unless you have ample ground clearance and 4-wheel drive, in which case rules don’t apply to you, so do as you will.
I do suggest bringing a friend to join you on this pilgrimage, especially for the long walk back to the parking lot. Dreamy sighs will replace the happy chatter of the hike in. You’ll find shared meaning in the purr of the wind and the crunch of pine needles under your feet. And as your legs begin to ache, it’s nice to have company for distracting each other through those final curves of the trail, then basking together in the blissful ride home.
I also suggest choosing your friend(s) carefully. Do bring the excited first-timer, the best friend, the lover. Do not bring the man-baby that will complain about his feet hurting the whole time and clumsily sneak peeks at your boobs.
Also choose your timing. Weekday mornings have the highest chance of solitude while weekends draw a crowd. Maybe try both to know your preference, because although I ultimately prefer the solitude, I happily discovered this past weekend that the Saturday afternoon crowd, far from spoiling my soak, felt a little like watching a good movie in a full theater. You quietly enjoy the camaraderie of everyone sharing an experience.
In regards to your trusty daypack, make sure to bring lots of water and bonus points for bringing snacks. Bathing suits are often utilized, but what happens when you’re there alone stays there. Sunscreen, sunglasses and a big hat are helpful, good walking shoes are essential. If you go after rain or snow, be prepared to sacrifice your favorite pair of pink leopard Converse to the thick red mud, and also to walk back with wet feet.
This day trip will require a token of effort on your part, but it is always undeniably worth it. The splendor will overwhelm your being, leaving you relaxed, refreshed and rejuvenated.