The Santa Fe National Forest, an easy drive from both Albuquerque or Santa Fe, New Mexico, offers a wide diversity of recreation opportunities and some amazing camping locations. With elevations ranging from 5,300 to 13,101 feet, the Santa Fe National Forest attracts visitors with its cooler summer temperatures and solitude. But, it is the magnificent scenery, breathtaking vistas, many trails, rainbow trout fishing, and camping that brings folks back year after year.
With forests ranging from pinon-juniper woods (so called Midget Forest because it rarely grows to the towering heights of other species of tree found in the forest), to Ponderosa pine, spruce, fir and aspen, the Santa Fe contains the habitat diversity needed to support a wide variety of wildlife. While some of the developed campground offer wildlife viewing, the most robust populations are found in one of the four areas designated wilderness areas within the Santa Fe’s boundaries. The four Wilderness are Pecos, San Pedro Parks, Dome, and Chama River Canyon. Any one of these wildernesses offer Forest visitors solitude and an opportunity to explore less visited areas of the Forest. (Camping in Wildernesses is permitted but as it is not developed, such locations are not included in this campground review. Contact the Forest Service for specific information.) The Forest also has three Wild and Scenic Rivers – the 24.6-miles of the Rio Chama, 11-miles of the East Fork of the Jemez River and a 20.5-mile section of the Pecos River. Like the wildernesses, each river offers unique and memorable experiences for visitors. (For more information about the Rivers’ rules and regulations, please contact the Santa Fe National Forest.)
There are some 1,002 miles of trails for hikers, horseback riders, mountain bikers, and 4-wheel drivers to explore the Santa Fe National Forest. The Black Canyoncampground, just northeast of Santa Fe on scenic State Route 475, is very convenient to both the 22-mile Borrego Trail and much shorter Black Canyon Trail. These two trails are open to hikers, horseback riders, and mountain bikers. North of the small town of Pecos are Holy Ghost and Jacks Creek campgrounds. Either campground can accommodate car, tent, recreational vehicle (RV) and motorhome camping enthusiasts. From either of these campgrounds visitors will find easy access to a network of trails criscrossing the Pecos Wilderness (foot and horse only).
There is a scarey story behind the Holy Ghost campground. Legend has it Holy Ghost Canyon, where the campground is located , is haunted by a spirit of a priest killed by Pueblo people in the late 1680s. As the only allegedly haunted campground in the Forest Service, it is recommended visitors bring flashlights and lots of campfire ghost stories. For a place with only haunting beauty there is Jacks Creek campground. Set at the furthest reaches of State Route 63 and near the headwaters of the “talking” Pecos River, Jacks Creek campground, with its nearby horse camp, is located in a mountain meadow surrounded by thick aspen groves. The Pecos Wilderness beckons visitors from just over the ridge to come and explore while a breeze through the aspen whispers “set a spell.”
The western segment of the Santa Fe National Forest, known as either Jemez Mountain or simply Jemez, offers some of the most spectacular geology found in the area. Once upon a time, this area experienced several explosive volcanic events but evidence other geological forces can be seen in this section of the Santa Fe National Forest. Vista Linda campground, stretching along the Jemez River, is surrounded by geological layers that tell of a land by the sea, covered by volcanos, than uplifted by enormous forces. Further up the Jemez River and Jemez Canyon are more sights of the area’s dynamic geology, both past and present. A mineral bath can be found at the Jemez Springs Bath House in 54-plus degrees water heated by the remains of the ancient volcano. Nearby Battleship Rock illustrates the quantity of volcanic material that flowed down the mountain side some 100,000-years ago. The Jemez Falls campground, with its spectacular waterfall and mature Ponderosa pine, is convenient to the Bandelier National Monument where Ancestral Pueblo dwellings and more of area’s geological history can be found.
For anglers, the western portion of the Jemez Mountain area is where the best Rainbow trout fishing in the Forest can be found. Campgrounds such as San Antonio, near Jemez Springs, or Clear Creek and Rio de Las Vacas, near Cuba, are located along regularly stocked streams and popular spots for a weekend of fishing or just relaxing.
Without a doubt, the most challenging camping location to reach within the Forest is the Rio Chama campground. Near the end of a narrow, rough, rutted, dirt forest road, Rio Chama campground stretches along the designated Wild and Scenic Rio Chama. All around the campground are multi-colored canyon cliffs worthy of O’Keefe’s attempts to capture the magic and wonder of the place. The sounds of birds and the Rio Chama fill the campground. Because the forest road is in such poor condition, RV and motorhome is not recommended. During inclement weather this road is not recommended for even 4-wheel drive vehicles. This is a delightfully isolated campground in a magnificent setting worth the challenge. A few mile further up the road is the Monastery of Christ in the Desert. Here, a group of Benedict Brothers live, work, and pray. Visitors are welcomed. Check their Web site (www.christdesert.org) for information on the Monastery, the Brothers’ daily life, and their guest house.
From the magnificent beauty of isolated developed campgrounds like Rio Chama and Jacks Creek to the more accessible Black Canyon and Field Tract campgrounds, Santa Fe National Forest attracts a wide variety of visitors. A quiet moment by an alpine meadow to a supremely challenging hike, a perfectly shaped wildflower to hooking a rainbow trout for dinner, or a moment when the sun, clouds, and ancient cliffs form once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunity – all can be found in the Santa Fe and so much more. Come and enjoy the Santa Fe National Forest.