Jul. 25—Bicentennial Pool's closure was the bummer of the summer in Santa Fe, but thankfully New Mexico is a state with diverse topographies, including space for one of my personal favorites: swimming holes.
Jemez Falls was a little more than an hour's drive from the city and well worth the trip. The falls are a short walk from the trailhead.
A lookout point with a protective railing showcases the beauty of the impressive lower falls, and not far from the sightseeing area are the upper falls, where a small pool sits beneath a gorgeous, but less steep, waterfall. It's the ideal place for families to gather as kids play in the shallow water. Along the stream are nooks that have potential to be peaceful sanctuaries for readers looking to escape the library.
For a brief moment Wednesday morning — maybe less than 20 minutes — I had the whole pool at the upper falls to myself. Soon, people of all ages — kids, teens, parents and grandparents — arrived with the same idea of how to spend the day. Children wore water-shoes as they stomped in the muddy water, dug trenches in the dirt and carried sticks across the pond while most of us cooled down by dipping our feet in the water and enjoying the breeze.
Mike Hurley, 63, brought two of his seven grandchildren to the upper falls, a family tradition started by his father. He said the scenery is not only a great way to cool down but provides an opportunity for his grandchildren to safely explore the outdoors.
"There's nothing dangerous here," Hurley said. "The first thing my one grandson asked me was, 'Are there fish in here?' Yeah, occasionally you'll see a fish in there, but they're not going to do anything. I think just being in nature is a value."
The sentiment seemed to be shared by other parents at the falls. The opportunity to get closer to nature, the safety of the water's depth and the entrance fee of zero dollars per person are what brought Rosa Moreno of White Rock and her four children to Jemez on Wednesday.
"It's nice that it's shallow and I don't have to worry about them too much — just keeping an eye on them," Moreno said. "Since ours is a larger family, paying per head or the membership you'd have to have going to a swimming pool — and if it's just me, it's one grown up to four kids — and that's just too much to make sure no one is drowning. This is way better."
Not long after watching kids frolic in the water, I decided to venture into the pool meant for big kids: the lower falls. Hurley had warned me the hike down was tough, but "it's worth it if you're young."
Tough indeed. The trail down was hardly a trail at all; at one point I found myself shimmying down a log and clinging to my backpack like Jack retreating down the beanstalk with his enchanted goose. Was this ordeal an intended part of the trail? Beats me, but it seemed to be the path of least resistance. The rest of the way was the kind of climb over rocks that makes you painfully aware of how delicate your teeth are if you were to suddenly fall forward.
But was it worth it? Most definitely. The lower falls reminded me why New Mexico is called the Land of Enchantment, and for a brief moment I forgot the state bird is the roadrunner instead of the toucan.
The depth of the water at the base of the lower falls was unexpectedly deep, combined with the hike to reach them, I understood why the upper falls were more suitable for families with small children. Off to the side was the entrance to a small cave carved by centuries of unfolding geological processes, and invisible from the lookout point — an added prize for those of us adventurous enough to make the trek down.
Jemez Falls was more than what I expected for a quick trip out of Santa Fe. For families or the solo adventurer, it was a reminder of the natural resources New Mexico has to offer for recreation and the importance of preserving the landscape for future generations.
"It's cool to know that my dad, when he was 20 years old, was in these parts hiking. ... Just that kind of continuity that you have from one generation to the next," Hurley said. "I was teasing my grandson that he needs to get busy and get married so that he can have kids and I can bring them up here too."