Waterfalls in the Desert


photo by Melyssa Holik

Imagine yourself walking in the woods. The sun blazes high in the sky and patches of dappled light slip through to the forest floor. Trees whisper a hushed lullaby as the wind ruffles their leaves. Here and there, a butterfly drifts on the breeze and squirrels flit across the trail. Nearby, a brook gurgles a melody as robins and jays chorus overhead.

As you stroll along, the brook grows more insistent. It swells from a soft trickle to a rolling stream and you begin to hear a gentle roar in the distance. Your pace quickens as you move toward the sound of falling water. As you draw nearer the roar gets louder, until it’s all you can hear.

Finally, you see it—a cascade of water tumbling over a rocky precipice with untamed exuberance. It crashes over the ledge with rushing fury, then calmly swirls in shimmering pools below.

A dewy mist caresses your face and you make your way toward the mossy bank. At last you arrive at the water’s edge, sun-scorched and sweaty, to savor the singular joy of peeling sticky socks from dust-ringed ankles. You slip one foot, then another, into the brisk water and rejoice as your tiredness and your troubles float downstream.

This is not a dream: it’s well within reach. Even in our desert environs, these hikes are closer and more numerous than one might think. If the magic of falling water is what you seek, here are several of the closest and most accessible waterfall hikes.

Holik-waterfalls-3881Little Chasm Falls
One of the most popular nearby waterfalls is Little Chasm Falls, and for good reason. It’s one of the larger falls at approximately 20 feet high—it feels private but it’s not too remote (the hike is 6.7 miles)—and it’s gorgeous in every season. The lower pools are deep enough for a proper dip, or you can hop along the rocks downstream and keep your pants dry. To get there, take Bishop’s Lodge Road through Tesuque until you reach the intersection with NM 592. There is no stop sign or road sign at this intersection, but if you turn right, a narrow road will lead you to the village of Rio en Medio. Parking is very limited and this is a very popular trail, so if you find a parking spot, take it. Then walk on the dirt road until you reach the trailhead on the right. The trailhead is marked and almost immediately crosses the river. Follow the trail, sticking close to the river, until you reach the canyon and the falls.

The Waterfall Trail from Hyde Park
The Waterfall Trail is a ¼ mile leg off of the Hyde Park Circle trail. This shallow but tall waterfall flows year-round, and is surprisingly under used.


Nambe Falls
Nambe Falls is easily accessible via two ¼ mile trails that start at the Nambe Falls Recreation Area ramada. One trail leads to the top of the falls, the other will take you to the bottom. Nambe Falls Recreation Area requires a day-use fee and, although it’s a short drive from Santa Fe, you’ll want to check that the recreation area is open.


 Jemez Springs
The Jemez area has by far the most impressive and accessible waterfall viewing, offering a half dozen waterfall hikes. The shortest hike leads to the impressively large Jemez Falls. Towering around 70 feet, it’s the tallest waterfall in the Jemez Mountains. To get there, start from the Jemez Springs Campground, following the road to the farthest parking lot. From the parking lot, a well-marked ¼ mile trail will lead to an overlook of the falls. You can return by the same route or continue on the East Fork Trail, Trail #137.


JEHolik-waterfalls-3875Travertine Falls
Waterfall hikes are harder to come by in the Albuquerque area because several have dried up in recent years, but Travertine Falls is a rare exception. It’s only a thin trickle of water, but the hike is a serene and pleasant escape from daily life. To get there from Albuquerque, take I-40 toward Tijeras. Take exit 175 and keep right on the off-ramp. Turn left to go under the freeway, then turn right onto Arrowhead Trail. Take the left fork and continue through Canyon Estates until the road dead-ends. The trailhead will be on the left and the well-marked trail takes you directly to the falls in half a mile. Return by the same route.




Off-Trail Hikes
For the really adventurous, there are a number of off-trail waterfalls dotting the New Mexico landscape. If you have excellent navigation skills and can dependably find your way with a compass and topographical map, secret waterfalls await in nearly every corner of the state. However, these treks are absolutely not to be taken lightly. It’s best to go with someone who knows the area and can guide you safely. Luckily, there are a number of local meetups and clubs where you can meet new friends to hike with!

Hiking Clubs

Sierra Club Outings

New Mexico Mountain Club

Outdoor Adventures of New Mexico

Albuquerque Hiking and Outdoor Meetup

The Santa Fe Hiking Meetup Group

Santa Fe Moderate/Social Hiking

Santa Fe Lite/Social Hiking

Taos Light Hiking


Story & Photos by Melyssa Holik

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