Trip reports

Chasing goblins in the Jemez Mountains

One of the perks of working for myself is that I get to tag along on some of Mr. Adventure’s business travel. While he sits in conference rooms and works to make the world a better place, I explore. That’s how I ended up in New Mexico last month.

The light, the landscape, the history — it’s not called Land of Enchantment for nothing. The people are warm and friendly, as exemplified by our friend Teresa, whom we met when we shared her campsite at El Malpais National Monument (this is also where we learned that only noobs place their tent on sand in the desert, but that’s a story for another time).

Earlier this year, when we started to think about our New Mexico trip, we debated whether we should contact Teresa, who’d invited us to stay in her house in Albuquerque. It seemed overly forward, and we hesitated. Two days later, she emailed us out of the blue: “I was just thinking of you guys…” She’d found a remote slot canyon with cliff dwellings and rockitecture she thought we’d love. It seemed like fate. We started making plans.

We arrived in Albuquerque with 36 hours to spare before Mr. Adventure’s conference started, and on Teresa’s recommendation headed into the Jemez Mountains north of Albuquerque. I’d recently finished Rodolfo Anaya’s quartet of magical realism suspense novels and wanted to see the Jemez, the setting for one of them. A 4-mile out-and-back to a colony of weirdly sculpted goblins and hoodoos sounded like a good way to acclimatize to the elevation and see some of the Jemez.

After stopping at Mary and Tito’s Cafe for the requisite carne adovada breakfast, we were ready to hit the trail.

Only we couldn’t find it. We followed the directions in the 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Albuquerque guidebook Teresa had loaned us, parked where it said to park, and started wandering the many social trails in the Santa Fe National Forest. Upside: we talked to a number of women who’d met for a campout with their lightweight fiberglass egg trailers, and we got tours of a cute Perris Pacer and roomy ParkLiner. Downside: we started to feel like idiots. Where the heck was the trail?

Looking for the Paliza Canyon Goblin Colony trail, Jemez National Forest
Where is the trail? (Mr. Adventure photo)

(Yes, we should have brought a better map than that in the guidebook. We know that. We also knew we weren’t going to take unnecessary risks and we weren’t in danger of getting lost — we could see the car, after all. Nonetheless, I’d recommend a decent topo map.)

Finally we simply started up the forest road, and eventually got to a point where we could figure out where to go. A short cross-country bushwhack got us to the correct road, and we started hiking. The mixed Ponderosa pine forest scented the air with vanilla, with a slight afternote of cow dung. Like all national forests, the Santa Fe allows multiple uses, and we shared the road with a few cows and dirt bikers. Both were friendly.

cows on road in Jemez National Forest
National forests allow multiple uses, including grazing. The cows politely cleared the road as we approached. (Lauren Danner photo)
dry wash in Jemez National Forest
The national forest road peters out into a dry wash. On a bluebird day like this one, we had no concerns about flash floods. (Lauren Danner photo)

The road turned into a wash, and we met a group of happy hikers coming down from the goblin colony. “Stay to the left as you approach,” they advised. Up a bit more, and there it was. Time-worn landforms rose above the tops of the giant trees, jumbling the horizon. We climbed to the top, pulled out our lunch, and enjoyed the views.

Goblin colony, Jemez National Forest
The goblin colony, in view at last. (Lauren Danner photo)
Goblins in Jemez National Forest
Also known as hoodoos and fairy chimneys, goblins are spires of eroded rock that form eerie shapes. Most people might think of Bryce Canyon’s iconic hoodoos, but you can find them throughout the Southwest. (Mr. Adventure photo)
Goblin colony in Jemez National Forest
Can’t beat the lunchtime views! (Lauren Danner photo)
Goblin colony in Jemez National Forest
This is what you are NOT supposed to do. Unfortunately, I missed the part in the hike description where it says, “Please do not climb on the goblins, as they are fragile and unstable.” Ack. (Mr. Adventure photo)

From the top, we could see swaths of bare trees, killed by pine bark beetle infestations. As the climate warms, the severity and frequency of forest fires increases, and these destructive pests take advantage of burned trees and higher range. It’s heartbreaking to see stands of barren gray tree skeletons instead of healthy Ponderosa pines. We watched cliff swallows flitting among the goblins for a while, then headed down, found our car, and drove out of the forest.

With plenty of time before we had to be in Santa Fe, we decided to take the Jemez Mountain Trail National Scenic Byway instead of the interstate. We stopped at Soda Dam, a natural dam that spans the Jemez River. It’s formed from calcium carbonate from nearby hot springs. You can cross the road and feel the hot water seeping out from the hillside.

Soda Dam
Soda Dam’s rounded form is definitely worth a stop. (Lauren Danner photo)

We pulled in at Jemez Springs Bath House because it was mentioned in the Rodolfo Anaya book Jemez Spring, one of the quartet I mentioned. A 25-minute soak cost $12. Sign us up! It was a relaxing way to rinse off the trail dust and cap a great first day in New Mexico.

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