The Santa Fe National Forest is a 1.6 million acre mountain forest in New Mexico with over 1,000 miles of streams and rivers, four wilderness areas, and many miles of trails suitable for hiking, horseback riding, and skiing. The forest, established in 1915, is a combination of the original Jamez National Forest to the west and Pecos National Forest to the east. It has elevations ranging from 5,300 feet to 13,103 feet and is mostly made up of coniferous trees. Pinyon and juniper scrub grow at the lowest elevations, with Ponderosa pines in the middle ranges, and spruce and fir trees at the higher elevations. Above 8,000 feet alpine wildflowers abound and aspens become intermixed with the coniferous trees. There is a great deal of wildlife in this forest, and seeing deer and mountain goats wandering through campgrounds is not uncommon. The forest has particularly active bird populations, consisting of songbirds, woodpeckers, waterbirds, and a number of raptors, including several varieties of eagles, hawks, and owls. While only three campgrounds are featured here, there are dozens of smaller campgrounds scattered throughout the Santa Fe National Forest, although the majority of them available on a first-come, first-served basis.
This area is largely unspoiled wilderness and although there are some narrow paved roads, particularly around major recreational sites like Ski Santa Fe, the majority of the roads leading into and through Santa Fe National Forest are two-lane dirt and gravel roads. The paved Santa Fe National Forest Scenic Bypass is worth a gander as it winds its way through the picturesque mountains, but the changes in altitude and horseshoe switchbacks make it a challenging drive, particularly if you are driving a big rig or towing any sort of trailer.
The changes in elevation can be hard on motors and brakes, so you will want to be sure to have your vehicle serviced before visiting this national forest. There are a number of turnouts, many of them with spectacular scenic views, which allow drivers a chance to take a break and stretch their legs. There are several primitive campgrounds scattered throughout this national forest, and while a few can accommodate larger vehicles, many of them have narrow roads and tight turns that would make navigating them difficult for those driving big rigs or towing trailers. Large game animals such as deer, bighorn sheep, and black bears often wander across the road here, so stay alert when driving, particularly during the hours around dusk and dawn.
The Field Tract Campground is one of just a few campgrounds in the forest that is available for reservations. It is suitable for most RVs and campers up to 22 feet in length and is situated along the Pecos River in the heart of the Pecos Ranger District, approximately 10 miles from the small town of Pecos, NM. This small, primitive campground has only 14 campsites, and while they do not have hookups for electricity, water, and sewer, they are well-maintained sites with campfire rings, grills, and picnic tables. Six of the campsites are also equipped with three-sided shelters to provide campers with some protection from inclement or windy weather. The use of generators is allowed during the daytime, but they should be silenced during the campground’s quiet hours, from 10 PM to 7 AM. Additional amenities offered in this campground include drinking water, two vault toilets, and one restroom with flush toilets, as well as a few extra picnic tables. Pets are welcome in the Santa Fe National Forest, but must remain on a six-foot or shorter leash when in developed recreation areas, on interpretive trails, or in parking lots.
One of the largest campgrounds in Santa Fe National Forest, Jemez Falls Campground is composed of 50 single campsites and two double-sized campsites, all available by reservation. The campground is located in the western half of the forest, just a few miles from the Jemez Falls themselves. The closest town is the tiny community of Jemez Springs, just under 15 miles to the southwest of the campgrounds. The campsites are spacious and well-shaded, with beautiful views of the surrounding mountain forests. While they do not have any sort of electrical, water, or sewer hookups, they are well-groomed sites equipped with campfire rings, hibachi-style grills, and picnic tables. Generator use is allowed during the daytime, but generators should be silenced during quiet hours from 10 PM to 7 AM. There are spigots with potable water scattered throughout the campground, as well as several vault toilets. Fairly short, easy hiking trails lead from Jemez Falls Campground to both Jemez Falls and McCauley Hot Springs.
The Jacks Creek Campground, in the heart of the eastern portion of Santa Fe National Forest, is made up of 39 campsites suitable for either tents or trailers, available on a first-come, first-served basis. It is situated high in the mountains, at an elevation of 8,800 feet, and is a little over 20 miles north of the town of Pecos, NM. The campsites are rustic, without access to hookups, but they are large, well-spaced sites with mature trees providing a sense of privacy. Each site is equipped with a fire ring, grill, and picnic table and potable water, three compost vault toilets, and trash cans are available for the convenience of visitors to the campground. There are several trailheads that start at this campground, including equestrian trails. While campers with horse trailers are not allowed at Jacks Creek Campground, there are eight units available for equestrian camping, as well as five 12 x 12 corrals at the adjacent Jacks Creek Horse Camp, just a half-mile down the road.
Horseback riding and camping are very popular activities in the Santa Fe National Forest. There are several companies that offer guided horseback rides into the forest, and a handful of the campgrounds and trail heads are equipped with corrals or tie-outs to make your adventure a little easier if you choose to bring your own equine companion. Horses are allowed in all of the designated wilderness areas, but horseback riders should make an effort to protect the ecosystem. Graze pack animals at lower elevations, far from water sources, avoid tying your horse directly to trees, and ensure that you use only weed seed free feed when traveling through wilderness areas.
There is an extensive network of hiking trails to help any level of hiker to better explore this gorgeous national forest. Hikers looking for an easy scenic stroll may enjoy trails like the .7-mile Jemez Falls Trail, which leads to the waterfall it was named for, the 2.6-mile Los Alamos Canyon Rim Trail, a paved trail with a bridge overlooking the canyon, or the 1.9-mile Dorothy Stewart Trail, a pleasant loop that provides spectacular sunset views. Hikers looking for a more challenging adventure may enjoy the Lake Peak Trail, a challenging six-mile hike with several changes in altitude, as well as stunning views of the lake, or the Lower Nambe Lake Trail, a mountainous 6.4-mile hike to Nambe Lake. The Lower Nambe Lake Trail can be combined with the Upper Nambe Lake Trail as well to create a 9.5-mile loop with a total elevation gain of 3,625 feet.
Birdwatching enthusiasts will want to bring their birding kits along in their rig. There are 542 species of bird to be found on New Mexico’s state bird list, and many of them can be found in the Santa Fe National Forest. The Rio Chama River is a great place to spot many species of bird, including water birds like mergansers, herons, geese, as well as swallows nesting on the riverside cliffs and a number of different raptors hunting for a dinner of fish or rodents. The Santa Fe Ski Basin is also a favorite spot for local birders, where they can find nuthatches, jays, woodpeckers, grouse, and goshawks.
Santa Fe National Forest boasts over 1,000 miles of rivers and streams along with nearly 20 fish-bearing lakes. The diversity of the forest gives anglers the choice to seek out either cold-water fish, such as several species of trout including the New Mexico state fish, the Rio Grande cutthroat trout, or warm-water fish, like black and striped bass, catfish, northern pike, perch, and tiger muskies. Cold weather fishing, including ice fishing, is often particularly worthwhile in this national forest.
If you are visiting Santa Fe National Forest in the wintertime, you will want to ensure you have your snowshoes, skis, or snowboard along with you in your campervan. The Santa Fe Alpine Ski Area, located less than 20 miles from the state capital, is a winter wonderland that alpine skiing enthusiasts won’t want to miss. This ski center includes 83 trails of varying difficulties, seven different ski lifts, and a place to rent or buy any equipment that you might be missing. In addition to the Ski Santa Fe area, many of the trails that are open for hiking during the warmer months make fantastic nordic skiing or snowshoeing trails when the snow flies.
Make sure to pack your swimwear and your water shoes in your trailer when visiting the Santa Fe National Forest. There are several charming natural hot springs that can be found in the forest, particularly in the Jemez Springs Ranger District. The hottest springs, the San Antonio Springs, have temperatures that hover around 129 degrees. The Spence Hot Springs tend to hover around 95 degrees, and the McCauley Warm Springs are around 85 to 90 degrees. When enjoying any natural warm or hot springs, visitors should avoid getting water in their noses as nasal passages are the only known vector for infection from the amoeba Naegleria Fowleri.