top of page

Carson-Santa Fe Backcountry Discovery Trail

Updated: Aug 25, 2022

The Land of Enchantment and gateway to the Colorado Rockies. The Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico are a hidden gem that is rich in Spanish colonial and pre-colonial history, hot springs, volcanism, and of course the majestic mesas and alpine peaks that form the southern most precipice of the Rocky Mountains.

Route Overview

Adventure Rating: Epic

Trip Length: 227 miles (3-5 days)

Season: Late June - early October (check with the local National Forest regarding snow at higher elevation trails like Brazos Ridge in Carson NF).

Avg Trail Rating: 2

Peak Trail Rating: 4

Typical Terrain: Primarily gravel and dirt forest service roads with minimal pavement. Secondary service roads/trails may be susceptible to erosion and ruts.

Recommended Vehicle: 4x4 w/ AT tires.

Adventure Vans: While most of the route is traversable in a Sprinter 4x4, there are 2-3 sections throughout the route (main erosion and off camber) that may pose issues for thru passage.

Alternative Routes: Yes! See the bottom of the route guide for more details.


Route Details

New Mexico, Land of Enchantment and gateway to the lower 48's most iconic mountain range, the Rockies. The Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico form the sourthern most tip of the Rocky Mountains, which extend thousands of miles north, across the Canadian border and into British Columbia and Alberta. This southern outpost within the Rockies may not be as famous as Colorado's San Juan, but the expansive wilderness of the Jemez Mountains is well endowed with craggy peaks, mesas with red and pink walls, alpine forests, mountain stream streams and rivers, and miles of empty dirt backroads and jeep trails. The Pueblo people are the most well known inhabitants to have called the Jemez mountains home, and the route passes through various historical Pueblo sites, including the Jemez Historic site (DP2, requires slight detour from the main route) and the Poshuouinge Pueblo Ruins (DP10), the latter being an impressive display of the Pueblo's advanced civilization. There are a number o hot springs along the route, especially in the vicinity of the aptly named Jemez Springs. While it's bit of a detour from the main route, Spence Hot springs is certainly worth a visit, especially if you can make the trip on a weekday. And while New Mexico is adoringly referred to as the Land of Enchantment, perhaps a more fitting description (at least n this part of the state) would be Land of Volcanism. The Jemez mountains are a classic example of intra-continental volcanism, creating a circular ridge line of mountains and hills that forms the nearly 14 mile wide Valles Caldera. The numerous hot springs in the region are a result of volcanic activity. The geography and varying elevations along the route create for spectacular contrasts in geology and flora. Ponderosa pine and aspen can be found in the alpine at higher elevations, while the high desert dominates the lower elevations. While the route can be driven in either direction, most travelers prefer to travel from south to north, which leads to the Colorado border and the start of the Rio Grande Backcountry Discovery Trail. Starting from the south, the route begins in the canyon country of the high desert. The cliffs and canyon walls make for a brilliant display or reds and oranges. The route traverses the Rio Guadalupe canyon as it steadily gains elevation over the course of dozens of miles, until it tops out at over 10,400' near the summit of Chicoma Mountain (elev. 11,561'), the tallest peak in the Jemez Mountains. If you're lucky, you may even spot a herd of Elk, who make their home in the Valles Caldera and the surrounding mountains home.

Descending the slopes of Chicoma Mountain, you'll soon find yourself in Abiquiu, a small village rich in Pueblo and Spanish history. Georgia O'Keefe also called Abiquiu home, and you can even visit The O'Keefe Welcome Center, a historic house-museum. The San Tomas chapel, Penitente Morada (DP8), and Poshuouinge Pueblo Ruins (DP10) are well worth the visit and within a few minutes of one another. If you're into geology and rock formations, the short hike to the stunning white rock formations of Plaza Blanca (DP9) is a must see.

From Abiquiu the route leaves the Santa Fe National Forest and enters the Carson National forest. Heading north from Abiquiu, the route ascends back into the mountains, retaining an elevation of between 8,000 to 10,000 feet for most of the journey to the Colorado border. While there are plenty of peaks over 9,000 feet, most of these mountains don't have the sheer prominence or deep canyons and gorges of the San Juans to the north. Needless to say, the vistas, especially of the sky are astounding here. If you can, we recommend taking advantage of the viewpoints from Brokeoff Mountain and Brazos Ridge. The route concludes at the Colorado border, a few miles from highway 17.

Alternative Routes

Consider connecting the Rio Grande Backcountry Discovery trail for an extended journey into the San Juan Mountains of souther Colorado.

Camping Recommendations

Dispersed camping is permitted throughout both Carson and Santa Fe National Forests. Given the relatively light amount of traffic the route sees, we recommend taking full advantage of the wilderness experience the surrounds you in these magnificent wild lands.

Recommended Points of Interest

  • DP1: Mesa de Guadalupe

  • DP2: Jemez Historic Site

  • DP3: Soda Dam

  • DP4: Gilman Tunnels

  • DP5: Blue Bird Mesa

  • DP6: Rio Guadalupe

  • DP7: Chicoma Mountain

  • DP8: Abiquiu

  • DP9: Penitente Morada

  • DP10: Plaza Blanca

  • DP11: Poshuouinge Pueblo Ruins

  • DP12: Potrero Falls

  • DP13: Kiowa Mountain Lookout

  • DP14: Brokeoff Mountain

  • DP15: Brazos Ridge

  • DP16: Colorado-New Mexico Border


Maps + Navigation

>> Always check with local land managers for road closures and conditions.

Gaia Recommended Map Layers

  • USFS 2016 layer, Gaia base layer

Download GPX file



Land Managers

Other Resources



Terms of Use: Should you decide to travel a route that is published on, you do so at your own risk. Always take the appropriate precautions when planning and traveling, including checking the current local weather, permit requirements, trail/road conditions, and land/road closures. While traveling, obey all public and private land use restrictions and rules, and carry the appropriate safety, recovery, and navigational equipment. The information found on this site is simply a planning resource to be used as a point of inspiration in conjunction with your own due-diligence. In spite of the fact that this route, associated GPS track (GPX and maps), and all route guidelines were prepared under diligent research by Overland Trail Guides, the route accuracy and current conditions of roads and trails cannot be guaranteed.

9,412 views7 comments

Recent Posts

See All


J. M. Gwidt
J. M. Gwidt
Jul 26, 2021

End up running this trail over the weekend. FS 144 (31 Mile Rd) is a rock garden between FS 453 and FS 99. Wouldn't recommend anything with low clearance or vans and there isn't a great way to bypass.

J. M. Gwidt
J. M. Gwidt
May 25, 2022
Replying to

Yes should be fine Abiquiu and to the north or Valles Calderat to the south


J. M. Gwidt
J. M. Gwidt
Jul 22, 2021

I went to Jemez last summer and the Gilman Tunnels were closed to vehicles. Does anyone know if this is still true?

J. M. Gwidt
J. M. Gwidt
May 25, 2022
Replying to

Answering my own question, went though the tunnels in August 2021

bottom of page