It is tough to get tourists to visit the city of Zacatecas, much less get them to explore. I know this because I have been doing those two things for 40 years. Most people will visit the attractions to the south of Zacatecas city because more are going to Guadalajara, Chapala or Pto. Vallarta. I understand that. The northern attractions are more suited to someone driving down from Durango or Gomez Palacio.
If you are driving a car, pickup, motorcycle or small RV, this is a great route.
Although this is set up as an itinerary from the city of Zacatecas going south to Guadalajara, if you are towing or in a big RV, you may want to go as far south as Paraíso Caxcán and then double-back to Jalpa and take the circuitous route back to Aguascalientes. I don't encourage that, but should let you know that after Caxcan, MEX-54 is curvy. The road has been re-graded in recent years so it is no longer the knuckle-buster it used to be but you will probably curse me for about an hour. Then it is smooth sailing. The return to Aguas will probably take you as long. Your call.
Jerez de Garcia - This small town is a Pueblo Magico, which means it has to have outstanding cultural, historical or natural attractions. It attracts a very independent type of expat, a group of whom invited me to visit long ago and treated me like I was some sort of celebrity. It was most appreciated since I had quit Mexico writing for a few years to concentrate on my nonprofit support group I'd founded. The Mexico biz was pretty-much nonprofit too, though that was not the intention. Those kind folks gave me a confidence boost that kept me at the Mexico stuff since. They are probably all moved or dead now, but I think kindly of them whenever I pass by Jerez.
Jerez is very scenic, with ornate churches like in Zacatecas city, buildings of the same pink stone and hewn-stone streets, some of which are closed to vehicles. It is worth a look-see and a stop for lunch before heading to La Quemada. There are artesanias shops and a generally pleasant feel. The bloggers Jim and Carole Cook did a fine job of documenting Jerez in photographs.
La Quemada (also known as Chicomóztoc) - This is Zacatecas' main archaeological site. It is also a very pleasant surprise out in the middle of nowhere on the drive to Guadalajara or Pto. Vallarta via the scenic route of MEX-54. La Quemada is 36 miles (56 KM) south of the city of Zacatecas on MEX-54 (the scenic route to Guadalajara) in Villanueva. It's on a hill and according to some, sometimes during the rainy season, water flows over it like a waterfall. I have never seen this phenomenon, but it is a matter of timing. La Quemada was a staging place for the Toltecs (think Mexico, Hidalgo), Perépechas (think Morelia). There is an on-site museum and security. There are tall columns in the middle of a field that reminds me of the Toltec site of Tula Toltec, near the town of Tula, Hidalgo. There is no reason not to visit it.
Paraiso Caxcán - The biggest thermal spring in the area is a commercial enterprise, south of Teocalli Zacatecas near San Miguel, Apozol (there are signs), 118 Miles (190 KM). Full disclosure, the water is not "hot". It is more like "warm." But I still like it and it does have mineral content. There are several pools with varying temperatures. The warmest, with a sign testifying to the mineral content is the farthest away from the lobby/restaurant. The grounds are lush, emerald green, thick grass and tall desert palms all around. The rooms are first-class. The price is surprisingly reasonable, in the moderate range. There is a good restaurant and a full-service spa. My last (final) ex-wife appreciated the luxury of this place after a rough-road bouncing dusty day of hot spring hunting.
Relationship / Travel advice - if you want to keep the one you're with with you, always have a backup nice place in mind for when your plans don't pan out.
GPS: 21°30'02.8"N 103°05'04.3"W or 21.500778, -103.084528. Reservations are an absolute must Friday-Sunday. During the week maybe not, except for summer and winter vacations.
Attractions Near Caxcán
Apozol has some worthwhile rock formations and canyons.
No statewide list of attractions would be complete without those in the northern part of Zacatecas. Other than during Semana Santa and Christmas seasons, it can be pretty lonely and deserted. Whether it's worth a special trip to the area is debatable. Still I put the info in for those who might be heading that way anyway.
Unless you are going to Durango / Mazatlan or north to Chihuahua, you'll probably not explore these sites. If you are coming from or going to Saltillo or the Texas border, you might enjoy visiting Concepción del Oro.
Concepción del Oro is an old mining town (what a surprise!). It is a good place to break a trip if you are coming from Zacatecas and will spend the night in Saltillo. If you are going to N. Laredo or Reynosa, fuggitaboutit. It is 162 MI - 262 KM and will take you about 3 hours to get there. There is a decent truck-stop restaurant at the turn for the town. I've eaten the food there for 30 years and it has never been bad.
The town itself is pleasant enough, though not super-scenic. Some travel writers who probably were under the influence once called it "the new Taxco". Nope, it ain't. It's charms were lost on me, but it may appeal to some. It is small-town Mexico and there are tours to the mine. It's only worth a night's stay if you aren't in a hurry to get anywhere. The GAS on the highway is good. The one on the way into town cheated me.
Villas Paraiso Resort is near Atotonilco, Zacatecas, which is near Valparaiso. I have always wanted to visit here, but never made it. So I am depending on those who have and their web page. The waters are are thermal with minerals. The surroundings are mountainous and forested. The accommodations are cabins, but of modern construction. If only you didn't have to go through Fresnillo, an area best avoided. However, people drive through there all the time. Your call. 96 MI - 155 KM. Ask locally which is the better route.
Parque Nacionál Sierra de Órganos is a wild nature area with camping and hiking. It is near Sobrerete, in the NW section of the state, near Durango. The good news is that the highway goes straight through this national park, Parque Nacional Sierra de Órganos. So you could get a taste of the area without spending the night.
You've probably seen the Sierra de Organos on the big screen. Many a Western movie (US and Mexican) has been shot here. Among them: Dragonball: Evolution (Japanese) in 2009. Wagons East (John Candy) in 1994. Some John Wayne films like: Big Jake (1971), The Undefeated (1969), The War Wagon (1967), The Train Robbers (1973). A recent (2012) movie, For the Greater Glory: The True Story of Cristiada was an interesting portrayal of the Cristeros War in Mexico from 1926-1929. In this little-known war, supporters of the Catholic Church fought the federal government troops. Few Mexicans talk about this complicated conflict.
It has eerie-looking rock column formations which sorta look like organ pipes. There are "balancing rocks" aplenty and an archaeological site. There is one area with three single-drop waterfalls (rainfall permitting). After a rain the ground is carpeted with wildflowers. It is near Sombrerete. Aug-September is the best time to visit.
Alta Vista-Chalchihuites is the other archaeological zone. It is near Chalchihuites, which is well north of the city. It is near the Durango state line, near Sombrerete, Zacatecas It is little developed or visited. Lying as it does on the Tropic of Cancer, archaeologists suppose that it was used for astronomical calculations. Among the features are petroglyphs and a walkway probably used for ceremonial processions. The Hall of Columns is striking. Overall, I don't recommend this side-trip. 138 MI - 222 KM.
Aguas Termales El Vergel are 7.5 MI -12 KM north of Chalchuihuites. The water is warm, not hot. Don't have the mineral content. It is a big balneario and if you visit the archaeological zone, then it would be worth it to soak afterwards.
El Ejidal is a balneario in the same area, more for families with two big swimming pools, thermal water with minerals but private Roman baths, which are rooms with private tubs that you can pipe in the thermal waters in privacy. I like those. El Ejidal also has rooms for rent like a hotel. I've been there and it was okay if you are in the neighborhood, but not worth a special trip.
Balneario Ojo Caliente in Ojocaliente or Sain Alto is 79.5 - 128 KM from Zacatecas city on MEX-45 towards Durango.
Balneario La Caldera del Diablo in Miguel Auza is 130 MI - 210 KM on MEX-49 towards Gomez Palacio. I gather that this is comparable in temperature to La Caldera in Abasolo, Guanajuato. But I have not been there yet.
Balneario Almoloya in Rio Grande is 128 MI - 152 KM from Zacatecas city on MEX-49 towards Gomez Palacio. Mineral waters.