Beneath The Jemez Mountains, New Mexico
While on my way to the Jemez Mountains in Northern New Mexico for a long awaited vacation, I found myself in the Sandia Mountains after avoiding a traffic jam in Albuquerque. I soon realized that I was on the road to Sandia Man Cave. I had read about the archeological importance of this cave so I had to stop (being the caver I am) and explore this historic cave with a host of other passers-by.
I grabbed a small backpack and a couple of flashlights from my truck and set foot to trail. The maintained trail from the parking lot leads directly to a spiral staircase and platform fashioned against the cliff where the cave waits. Along the trail, I heard words from people leaving the cave like, "Wish I had a flashlight," and "That guy is smart, he has a light." It made me wonder just what these people were expecting after all it is a cave. I guess the idea of caves being dark places hasn’t quite hit some people but I’m not surprised. When I worked as a park ranger for Carlsbad Caverns visitors constantly asked, "How much of this cave is underground?"
I climbed the stairs to the cave’s entrance which is basically semi-circular in shape. The passage quickly led to a rock wall with a person sized hole gouged through it. I crawled through and was met by a fog of dust which previous visitors had kicked up. The floor of this cave is coated in a thick layer of dust and careful trekking is necessary if you want to see where you are going. Inching my way deeper in to the cave, the only thing I found were cans, bottles, a little breakdown rock material, and more dust. I did see some fossils in the low ceiling but no cave formations to really speak of unfortunately. The entire 600 foot length of the passage is absent of any side passages to explore so no one can get lost in this cave.
As I explored this cave I had an overwhelming sense of the anthropological significance of Sandia Man Cave. With artifacts as old as 10,000 years excavated there, it’s not a hard sense to have. There I was in a cave known to have sheltered so many ancient people before me and now I was briefly using that same shelter from the approaching rain. The parallel of human needs was eerie.
When the rain stopped, I searched the area for other rumored caves and actually found one that was little more than an alcove in the rock. It is a vertical slit leading to a fair sized room. Soot from campfires stained the walls and ceiling of the room. Three passages stray from the room with only one being accessible. I crawled through to a dead end. I returned to the cave’s entrance and hiked back to my truck excited about this small unexpected underground adventure.
Later, I made it to the Gillman Tunnels. Walking through a man made, railroad tunnel in granite is hardly exploration but my stroll through the Gillman Tunnels at the Guadalupe Box in the Jemez Mountains was enough of an underground experience for me. The two tunnels are large enough to fit logging trucks and are impressive among the cliffs and river that surround them.
From the tunnels, I went in search of the new Spanish Queen Copper Mine near Jemez Springs. Marked on the topographic map as being on public land, I soon found that I needed to cross private land to get there. So, I opted to search for the old Spanish Queen Mine. Later a forester told me that the new mine collapsed and the mine was limited to 8 feet. I expected difficulty in the finding the old mine and was surprised to just about walk right to it thanks to the tailings pile at the entrance. The entrance is filled to a level where a crawl is inevitable. Once inside, I could stand and carefully walked down the tunnel. I came up on two drifts heading in opposite directions only to quickly dead end. Farther back, the main tunnel ended at a length of 200 feet. Outside the mine, I found some interesting green copper and blue fossilized minerals in the tailings pile.
Cruising from one underground adventure to another during this trip, my next conquest was a small cave formed under the Soda Dam in the Jemez River Valley. The Soda Dam is a formation built of calcium carbonate from a spring. The dam is 300 feet long, 50 feet high, and 50 feet wide. It naturally blocks the Jemez River flow to a point that a violent waterfall rushes through the remaining opening. Carved in the dam is a shallow cave dissolved from wind and rain. Inside the cave is one of the prettiest sights I’ve ever seen. Flowstone covered in tiny rimstone dams shines in a round, green algae coated room. The water flowing over the flowstone shimmers against the walls creating a reflection that looks metallic. It is very hot and humid in this cave and its small size doesn’t really allow you to linger. This cave was a nice surprise.
Jemez Cave sits 100 feet up in the side of a mountain directly across from Soda Dam. The early occupancy of this cave dates back to 2500 B.C. and many ancient artifacts have been recovered. Even a mummified body wrapped in a turkey feather blanket was found. It’s a steep but short climb to this cave which is really a very large shelter. Soot covers the ceiling and the best thing about this cave other than it’s archeology is the view from it. I didn’t linger long since I had so much more to see and so little time. I climbed around the mountain side to check out some dark holes and found one just big enough to sit inside and take a short break.
Racing down Highway 44 to my next cave, I noticed a couple of springs oozing from the ground just off the road so I stopped to take a look at them. Sure enough, not far from the springs was an opening in the side of a hill. I climbed to it, peered inside, and decided that I would have to come back later. I just didn’t plan on finding so many interesting natural features on this trip.
On a caving roll, I made it to a cave that would be the biggest one I would see on this trip. Alabaster Cave is a true gypsum cave. Close to San Ysidro, this cave was created by a stream. Breakdown and a sandy floor are the main facets of this cave. I did find another entrance and black graffiti arrows pointing out (I hoped) on the walls. But other than seeming to never end, I found little to see in this cave. I was warned by a fellow caver that when I came to the water passage to take the upper passage because the water is too deep but I never found the water. If I would have spent more time inside, I may have managed to find the water and also get myself lost. When I excited the cave, it was dusk and time to make camp.
The Tent Rocks near Cochiti Pueblo are tent shaped Fillers formed by wind and water. The volcanic tuff and pumice wore away around caprocks creating these unusual shapes. In this area is a cave of ancient origin that is carved in the base of the tuff wall. It’s a six foot climb up to its round entrance. Sitting inside feels like sitting inside an egg. Allegedly some of the hundreds of petroglyphs etched on the walls are authentic. Nonetheless, the etchings are impressive and artistic. Soot covers the ceiling here as well. The view from this cave is spectacular and I was really fascinated by this place.
In the Bland Mining District, I found three obvious prospects at the side of a road that were short and sweet. Then I found a mine that was about 250 feet long and had several short drifts. At the end of the tunnel, I discovered that the walls looked fuzzy. Further inspection revealed tiny crystal hairs growing from the mine’s walls. It was an intriguing sight and totally unexpected. After exploring this mine, I headed back to my truck when I noticed a faint road leading around a bend. Naturally I had to follow it. It took me to yet another mine. This mine had an old log frame partially collapsed around its entrance. I peeked inside before deciding to go in a short distance to determine the mine’s safety. It really had the look of doom. I came to a pile of debris that left just enough room for a person to squeeze through but I resisted the urge and backed out slowly.
Later that day, I made it to the McCauley Hot Spring to relax after a busy day of exploration. Just up the hill from it, two rock shelters fooled me in to thinking they were caves. Turns out, the soot covered walls made the entrances look dark and deep which they weren’t.
In the faint light of a fleeting sun, I was staring at a distant jet going overhead when suddenly a familiar shape fluttered over. It was a bat who was skimming the spring for insects barely missing my head on a few passes. Soon there were several bats swirling around me in the darkness of night.
I visited Jemez Falls the following morning and basked in the beauty of nature. I found another rock shelter here with water surging from the falls among huge boulders.
The last cave I visited is carved in the base of Tea Kettle Rock in Jarosa Canyon. This unique sandstone boulder throws out a narrow arch which strongly resembles the spout of a tea kettle hence the name. The cave is just a hole beneath the boulder. A duck walk in one entrance turned in to crawling out the other entrance. Footprints and trash told me that I obviously was not the first explorer.
This trip was too short for me. I found underground experiences in an area not really known for this type of adventure. Most people just explore the surface of the Jemez Mountains but I went much deeper and came up some truly unique and fascinating memories.
NOTE: I took many pictures of this trip but unfortunately I can not share them as they were taken from me during my divorce. However, pictures of many of these places can be found on line. Thanks for reading this hub.