Perched at 6,300 feet and sandwiched between two striking red-rock mesas, the New Mexico town of Jemez Springs has long been a place of...

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Perched at 6,300 feet and sandwiched between two striking red-rock mesas, the New Mexico town of Jemez Springs has long been a place of uncommon natural beauty and a refuge for all manner of pilgrims.

In the 13th century, the Jemez people migrated to the valley, establishing a series of settlements in the area’s canyons. In the 17th century, Franciscan missionaries arrived, forcibly establishing a church in the Guisewa Pueblo — now the remarkably preserved Jemez State Monument. By the 1870s, a bathhouse was built, offering curative soaks in tubs fed by the town’s mineral hot springs.

Today, the bathhouse is restored and open for business; down the road, a Zen meditation center promises austere yogic calm. In Jemez Springs, about an hour and 15 minutes north of Albuquerque, there are artists and drifters and refugees from big-city living. It’s also a draw for hikers, bikers and anglers. Lava flows created the area’s rippling rock forms and bubbling fissures, and, as it has been for many over the centuries, the wrinkled landscape is a balm.

Jemez Springs is situated along State Highway 4, the main part of the Jemez Mountain Trail, a National Scenic Byway that winds 163 miles through this swath of high desert and mountain geography. About 20 miles northeast of Jemez Springs in the Jemez Mountains, Valles Caldera National Preserve is a relatively new addition to the national forests, wilderness areas, state monuments, Indian reservations and other protected lands that parcel up this dramatic slice of New Mexico.

Peaceful wandering

My husband, Matt, and I spent a few days here in the fall, seeking out some peace of our own among hiking trails and hot springs. We began our explorations with a visit to the 89,000-acre Valles Caldera, a former ranch in a collapsed crater that was bought by the federal government in 2000 and given over to a 15-year nonprofit trust as an experiment in parks management.

The preserve offers guided tours, hiking, fly-fishing and horseback riding. Visitor numbers are controlled mainly by reservations — all fees go back into the management of the park — but the preserve has a handful of free day-use trails that give a taste of the solitude one might experience in its deeper backcountry.

With the highest annual number of annual visitors at about 12,000, everyone gets to experience the singular splendor and solitude.

What sets Valles Caldera apart from a volcanic region like Yellowstone is its size, said Rob Dixon, the outdoor-recreation planner at the preserve. “One of the neat things about this caldera is that it’s small enough that you can actually see across the entire volcano,” Dixon said.

The caldera is roughly 12 miles across, formed about a million years ago when a catastrophic eruption obliterated the volcanic cone. Subsequent magma upwellings created domes small and large — like Cerro la Jara and Redondo Peak — along the caldera’s ring fracture, where the cone collapsed.

In photos taken from above, the terrain looks like the paw print of a giant bear. Prairie dogs and chipmunks hop around the grasslands of the Valle Grande, at the southern edge of the preserve, and in the early morning, herds of elk assemble there to graze.

Some of the best vistas can be found at this edge of the preserve, where it borders Bandelier National Monument. On Dixon’s suggestion, we hiked the Coyote Call trail up to Rabbit Ridge, on the southern lip of the caldera.

At first, stands of quaking aspens quivered in concert. As we gained elevation, they gave way to white fir and spruce. At 9,800 feet, perched atop an otherworldly boulder field, we took in the shimmering red, green and gold carpet that covered the valley below. The terrain was captivatingly fitful — pinched and pulled, snatched here and grabbed there as if by a restless giant’s hand.

Neighboring Santa Fe National Forest has its share of spectacular desert hikes, including trails to McCauley Hot Spring and Spence Hot Spring. But even nonhikers can experience the bubbling drama of this region of New Mexico.

Just north of Jemez Springs at the edge of Highway 4 is Soda Dam, an unusual geologic formation on the Jemez River created by hot-spring mineral deposits. The waters that well up here actually start at Valles Caldera, traveling through limestone and shale and mixing with hot groundwater before rising to the surface at the Soda Dam fault.

Streaky with color, the travertine arch feeds a heated fall of water into the river, and visitors can swim or climb up into the cave for a closer look at the rippled surface of the mineral-heavy rock.

In town, the Jemez Springs Bath House is the place to take the waters. The bathhouse, one of the first structures to be built in what is now Jemez Springs, has eight individual concrete tubs for private bathing. After a day of hiking, a mineral bath here — fed by spigots that run water of at least 150 degrees drawn from a hot spring — is a great way to soak up a bit of the town’s history.