A one-day dual sport ride in New Mexico's Santa Fe National Forest near the towns of Jemez Springs and Jemez Pueblo turned out to be motorcycling nirvana.
On the trip, we take a hard look at the Gilman Tunnels that were carved to get a road into a dead-end canyon, ride down narrow single track and explore Bandelier National Monument.
The Santa Fe National Forest covers 1.6 million of acres and comprises five forest districts. The Jemez Forest District is in the Jemez Mountains, which are known for their rich Native American history. It is 45 miles from Albuquerque and 30 miles west of Santa Fe.
From Albuquerque, take Highway 25 north to Exit 242. Go west on U.S. 550 through Bernalillo for another 23 miles to San Ysidro. You are now accessing the Jemez Valley. At 5,000 feet, there are many shear multicolored cliffs throughout the valley.
The town of Jemez Springs offers hotels, dining facilities and, best of all, hot springs. Many hot springs can be found within the Jemez Forest District with little hiking. These springs provide a popular and relaxing getaway.
On our ride, my riding buddies and I went to the start of a graded dirt road that wandered between tree-covered slopes. Gradually, the mountains closed in until we were picking our way through a narrow, rocky canyon carved by the Rio Guadalupe. The scenery was spectacular, with the river hemmed in by vertical walls hundreds of feet high.
Unexpectedly, in the tightest part of this remote canyon, we came upon pavement, and a pair of tunnels blasted through the rock, allowing the road to follow the river south.
Who would carve tunnels just to get a road into a dead-end canyon? No one, as it turns out. The Gilman Tunnels, as they’re known, were created for another purpose entirely. They were cut to make way for a railroad line nearly a century ago. And the railroad was built to provide access to a natural treasure in this area.
We’re not talking gold or silver here, but timber. Workers poured into this area by the hundreds, feeding a sawmill constructed on the river’s banks. They logged the whole valley, and when they finished, the tracks were pulled up and the route abandoned.
The whole logging thing seems out of character, since we’re used to thinking of New Mexico as a desert state. But, in fact, the mountains in the north are covered in dense forest. Now, the trees have returned, and it’s hard to tell the loggers were ever here, except for this pair of tunnels, marked by century-old soot, that lead to the remote, otherworldly canyon where the loggers worked and lived.
The paved road took us south to a gas stop within the Jemez Indian reservation, one of dozens of pueblos remaining in New Mexico. Originally, these pueblos formed a group of independent city-states of native people who were loosely affiliated. Now, they are essentially tribal reservations of adobe homes and meeting houses.
The combination gas station/convenience store on Jemez land is entirely modern, but there are traces of the heritage preserved here. Between ringing up purchases, the clerks behind the counter talk to each other in the Jemez dialect, a language so obscure it may be spoken by no more than a few thousand people on Earth.
The paved road led to Ponderosa, where we picked up a dirt two-track heading generally east. The trail headed up and down, following every contour line on the topo map, but the trend was definitely in the up direction.
It was also in the more rugged direction. What started as a dirt highway that could easily accommodate a pickup truck narrowed to a rocky Jeep trail, with the emphasis on “rocky.”
We then take a left, dropping onto a narrow single-track downhill trail. It’s really rough going before finally bursting out of the trees into a clearing. We are almost glad it’s over.
We left the pavement at an elevation of about 7,000 feet and now we’re at just over 10,000. Ahead is an overlook of Valles Caldera, which is an enormous volcanic cone.
We follow the rim for a while, soaking up the endless views, then start down mostly on a mix of two-tracks and dirt road.
We finally reach a gravel road in a corner of Bandelier National Monument, which preserves cliff dwellings from some of New Mexico’s ancient Native American inhabitants. It’s the closest thing to a real road we’ve seen in hours, but it’s still pretty remote. Over the next 10 miles, I see more coyotes (two) than cars (zero).
Finally, we come out to the asphalt of New Mexico Route 4 for the run back to our motel. With a gorgeous sunset ahead of us, it’s a perfect way to unwind after a full day of riding. We cruise in, savoring the images of the day.
From pavement to gravel, rocky two-track to narrow ribbons of dirt, staggering overlooks to tight woods, New Mexico has it all. We’ve been privileged to see a little bit of it.