Los Alamos Canyon is one of many long canyons that cut down from the eastern slope of the Jemez Mountains of north-central New Mexico. It is a deep cut canyon with steep walls rising as much as 1500 feet (460 m) above the trail along the floor. The loop route combines several popular trails into a seven miler with roughly equal segments on canyon bottom and mesa top. It’s a visually interesting hike any time of the year, but in the autumn the color variations are particularly stunning.
A clockwise circuit of the route starting at Quemazon Trailhead drops quickly to the bottom of the canyon, follows Los Alamos Canyon Trail up the canyon past Los Alamos Reservoir and through narrows before ascending the Knapp Trail up to the mesa top (nearly 9000 feet altitude, 2700 m). From there, it is a steady descent down Quemazon trail back to the starting point. The route has had its ups and downs over the past twenty years – massive erosion after the huge Cerro Grande wildfire in 2000 wiped out the Knapp Trail and filled the reservoir with debris. The reservoir was just about rebuilt by 2011 when another huge wildfire (Las Conchas) wiped things out again. The reservoir has now been put back in place since 2018 and the Knapp Trail rebuild was completed in 2019.
The fires burned over much of the areas that the hike passes through so the terrain is covered by pockets of older growth interspersed with huge patches of oak and aspen. The reservoir, originally built in 1927 to capture water for the Los Alamos Ranch School, was mirror-like and did a great job reflecting the colors. The trail narrows to a single-track past the reservoir and seems to tunnel into the underbrush in places. The narrows of the canyon features impressive cliff walls. The ascent on Knapp Trail is a series of reasonably graded switchbacks that I guarantee will work up a beer hiker’s thirst. After completing the loop I was glad for the close by Bathtub Row Brewery where I found a thirst-quenching Festbier on tap. The Festbier was a nice, lighter take on marzen that fit my mood perfectly.
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