Smokin' Road Trip

San Diego Canyon in the Jemez Mountains     Photo: Jim Stein/courtesy New Mexico Tourism

Highway 4 has a story to tell, a real whopper, and I'm driving through the middle of it—the Valles Caldera, a bowl of grass, forest, and streamlets that's a dozen miles wide and boxed in by the 11,000-foot Jemez Mountains. The massive crater and the region's volcanic tuff are the fruits of blasts from a ring of prehistoric volcanoes that were 100 times more destructive than Mount St. Helens' 1980 eruption.

More than a million years later, here I am on a twisty 58-mile road that leads visitors from the sheer canyons of Bandelier National Monument to the yawning meadows of Valles Caldera National Preserve and on to Jemez Springs, where the earth's interior, although quiet, is far from cold.

For four centuries, Bandelier's Frijoles Canyon was home to cliff dwellers who lived in (yes, in) its 400-foot-high bluffs. On the mile-long Main Loop trail, you'll peek inside caves carved into the chalky rock and reflect on what life was like 500 years before the monument was made accessible by road, in 1935.

After leaving the park, Highway 4 skirts Los Alamos and climbs west through a forest of cinnamon-red ponderosa pine before spilling into the remarkable 89,000-acre Valles Caldera National Preserve. Purchased from private owners in July 2000, the preserve is managed by a trust that plans to make it self-sustaining by 2015. Climb halfway up Cerros del Abrigo, a fir-covered volcanic dome that bulges from the crater, and watch a herd of elk graze in the basin some 800 feet below.

Now you're ready for the blink-and-you'll-miss-it town of Jemez Springs (whose geothermal hot pools are steamy indications that the mountains remain volatile) and the end of the road: the charmingly cowboy-kitsch Jemez Mountain Inn.

BONUS: Twelve miles south of Jemez Springs, sample Ponderosa Valley Winery's award-winning 2004 New Mexico Riesling (505-834-7487, www.ponderosawinery.com).

DETAILS: Arrive early at Bandelier (505-672-3861, www.nps.gov); reserve online to hike Valles Caldera (877-851-8946, www.vallescaldera.gov). Jemez Mountain Inn (888-819-1075, www.jemezmtninn.com) doubles run $85–$125.

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