Valles Caldera National Preserve
The Valles Caldera National Preserve (VCNP for short) is a new (2000) and unusual unit of the United States national park system in the Jemez Mountains of north central New Mexico. It preserves a huge volcanic structure of great scenic and scientific value, under a novel, pioneering arrangement that allows it also to function as a working, money-making cattle ranch. Facilities for the visitor are still being developed and are undergoing rapid change.
The Valles Caldera has had an unusual history that has given it a unique position among United States national parks. After a long pre-history of occupation by ancestral Puebloans and later Spanish settlers, the caldera and the surrounding Jemez Mountains passed into United States control after the Mexican-American War. At this time it wasn't viewed as particularly significant: a remote, if scenic, area of what seemed to be grazing land within a newly acquired territory, of little commercial interest to anyone but the old Spanish families that had already settled and pastured livestock there, sometimes in the face of considerable hostility from nearby Indian populations. Consequently, when a bill was passed in the United States Congress in 1860 to compensate the Baca family, a pioneering family in New Mexico with significant land holdings, for the federalization of some of their land, a large tract of land in the Jemez, including most of the caldera, was handed over to the Bacas, along with some other tracts elsewhere in the Southwest. This tract became known as "Baca Location No. 1" and would retain this name long after the Baca family sold it to other investors.
The Baca Location changed hands a few times in the 19th and 20th centuries before winding up in the hands of James P. (Pat) Dunigan, a wealthy Texan who had a good sense for the history and aesthetics of the property. Dunigan was horrified by the environmental damage inflicted on his property by prior holders of the timber rights. He therefore bought out the holders of those rights, and placed most of the Baca Location off limits to development while he negotiated with the United States government to sell the land back to the government under terms that guaranteed its preservation in perpetuity. The negotiations literally took decades, but finally, in 1999, Congress authorized the acquisition of the Baca Location from Dunigan's heirs, as he had died by this time.
The terms of the acquisition called for the resulting "Valles Caldera National Preserve" (VCNP) to differ from practically any other national park land in the United States, in two related senses. First, in recognition of not only the history of the Baca Location but also the fact that the grazing there is economically significant to the region (which cannot exactly be called wealthy), Congress decreed that the Preserve would continue to function as a working ranch, and that it would eventually become self-sustaining through the revenues thus generated, even as resources for public recreational use came on-line. Second, and as a result, management of the VCNP would be done via a "trust" that includes representatives of not only the agencies that contributed land to the Preserve but also members of nearby communities. These factors together explain why visitor facilities have been slow in developing.
The beautiful terrain has led to the area being used as background for a number of movies (some quite recent), and old, decaying movie sets are scattered around the valleys. Some are accessible via trail rides or hikes, but please don't touch; they're scenic, but generally in such rickety shape as to be hazardous.
The terrain is volcanic with the caldera rim topping out at elevations around 10,500 feet. (Chicoma Mountain (11,590) and a few other points along the northeastern rim reach over 11,000', but lie outside the Preserve, on the territory of Santa Clara Pueblo.) The caldera itself has a base level at 8700' and is broken into a collection of valleys by resurgent domes and post-caldera eruptive centers. The largest valley is the Valle Grande, on the southeast side of the caldera; the highest summit within the caldera, and the highest in the Preserve, is Redondo Peak, with a summit elevation above 11,200 feet. Note that Redondo Peak is considered a sacred mountain by a number of the American Indian tribes of the region, and its summit is off limits to hikers. El Cajete is a relatively recent (~60,000 years old?) eruptive center southwest of Valle Grande that is reachable by an attractive Nordic ski trail.
Most of the mountains in VCNP are fairly gentle, although there are a few basalt outcroppings that produce cliffs. These cliffs are not yet open to the public for rock climbing, but similar formations in the surrounding Santa Fe National Forest and in nearby Los Alamos are popular attractions for the technical sport climber. The territory outside the caldera features a vast region of eroded tuff known as the Pajarito Plateau, with spectacular canyon-mesa scenery. Los Alamos is built on the Pajarito Plateau, and many of the formation's canyons are preserved in Bandelier National Monument which abuts VCNP on the south. The drive to VCNP from the east (Los Alamos) side shows this terrain to breathtakingly good advantage.
Flora and fauna
The valleys are grasslands, while the mountains are covered with coniferous forest and aspens. New Mexico's largest herd of elk spends its summers in the Preserve, migrating to lower elevations for winter. Deer and black bear are also encountered, and there are a few mountain lions, although they are almost never seen by visitors. Smaller animals include the ubiquitous coyote, porcupine, skunk, raccoon, and all manner of rodents.
Birdwatching in VCNP is good, although not as diverse as along the nearby Rio Grande. Many species of raptors are present and can often be seen perched on dead timber or gliding above the valleys looking for prey, as can black vultures. Two of the most characteristic birds of VCNP, at opposite ends of the size scale, are the huge black ravens that compete for offal with the vultures, and several species of hummingbirds that may zing past you as you hike or ride. The raptors, vultures and ravens are residents year-round, but the hummers are migratory and head south around the beginning of September.
There are few snakes in VCNP, as the elevation is too great for most of them. However, timber rattlesnakes have been seen on occasion even near the top of the ski runs on Pajarito Mountain (elevation 10,409') on the eastern rim above Los Alamos. The endangered Jemez Mountain salamander is present and could lead to occasional closures of parts of VCNP to preserve its habitat. Trout swim in the streams that have their headwaters in the region, some of which are suitable for fishing (permit system).
Valles Caldera has a continental climate with four distinct seasons. Winter weather is highly variable, with some years producing a great deal of snow (over four feet of snow has fallen in a single storm) and other years producing almost none at all. Winter highs in the valleys are typically around 35-40 degrees (Fahrenheit) and lows in the single digits, although there are isolated cold pockets from cold air coming off the mountains. December is often the coldest month and can see sub-zero temperatures at night. Snow in the valleys usually melts completely around April, and spring characterized by high winds. This combination can create nasty forest-fire hazard in May and June, particularly following a dry winter. Winds die down somewhat by June, which is warm (highs in the 70s-80s) and dry. Monsoon conditions develop in July and persist until around the beginning of September, leading to cooler temperatures (highs in the 70s, lows around 50) and spectacular afternoon thunderstorms that urge the hiker to be off the trails by early afternoon. This is a great time to visit, but make sure you bring raingear and start your day early. The thunderstorms usually die out by Labor Day or so, leading to autumn conditions that are temperate, dry (apart from the occasional frontal storm system) and generally very pleasant. The first snowfall is commonly in October, but snow doesn't start to stick until Thanksgiving or so. Conditions on the mountains are similar but 10 degrees cooler, with more rain and snow.
Access is via New Mexico state highway 4 between Los Alamos and San Ysidro. This paved road is usually open year-round, although it may close briefly during particularly severe snowstorms. The nearest major airport is in Albuquerque, about 70 miles away by road. There is no bus or rail service nearby.
The VCNP was setup as an autonomous wholly owned corporation within the National Park system. The Trust structure, with a board of directors that manages the Preserve, is an experiment in land management. The experiment will be reviewed in 2015 by Congress. One of the criteria of success for the Preserve is that it be self-sufficient by 2015. Another is that appropriate public access be established.
The fee structure at VCNP is one of its many unusual features among United States national parks. Access to the preserve via SR 4 is free, and there are free hikes, Nordic ski outings, etc., from trail heads along SR 4 (free permit). Most activities in the interior of the Preserve, however, are on a fee basis, with fees ranging from $6 for half a day of Nordic skiing, all the way to $150 for birding, painting and other classes that combine with overnight stays at the Casa de Baca Lodge. Most fees for unguided day use are of order $10–15 (youth and senior discounts apply), with some additional cost for guided hikes and skis. The VCNP web site, http://www.vallescaldera.gov/, has details.
Another unusual feature of VCNP is that it is one of very few major national park/preserve sites at which hunting, on a restricted basis, is allowed—specifically, elk hunting, as the resident herd is in constant need of culling. A limited number of permits are issued each year, on a "lottery" system: would-be hunters buy lottery tickets ($5 each) that provide a chance of getting to hunt, with the actual hunters chosen before the beginning of hunting season (and paying an additional fee for the actual hunt) according to a complicated allotment system and a random draw of lottery entries. The web site has additional details. Fishing is also on a lottery basis.
The road to the "visitor center" (really just a couple of huts with offices for reservations, etc.) is driveable (if rough) in ordinary cars, except during winter. Many winter activities, and some in other seasons, will require you to leave your car at one of the parking areas on NM SR 4 and take a Preserve shuttle to the starting point for your activity. Don't feel too skittish about doing so; this park doesn't have significant problems—yet—with vandalism of or theft from parked vehicles. (Lock up, anyway.)
If you're doing something that involves travel on foot, hiking boots are a good idea. If Nordic skiing, be braced for highly variable conditions. The Jemez Mountains are notorious for snow conditions that place perfect powder, hard ice, and milk-shake-like slush all within 100 feet of each other. Choose your equipment accordingly; this is a good place for waxless skis, as they're relatively tolerant of changing conditions.
VCNP is more of a "Do" place than a "See" place, but expansive views of the preserve can be found all along NM SR 4, which runs along the southern edge of the Valle Grande. Bring good binoculars and a telephoto lens; the valley is much bigger than you think it is. If passing by during the summer, you'll probably have a chance to see elk grazing in the Valle, right alongside (and sometimes intermingled with) the cattle that spend the summer there as part of the preserve's money-making mandate.
The Preserve operates van tours during the summer that afford opportunities for wildlife viewing, including (possibly up-close-and-personal) encounters with the huge resident elk herd. Tours cost $30 per person and are reserved via the VCNP web site. Note: some sources give a departure time of 2:30 p.m. for these tours - this is incorrect. Departure from the visitor center is at 4:30 p.m., with check-in at 4:00. Since many of the larger animals of the Preserve are crepuscular (i.e., active at dawn and dusk), you wouldn't be likely to see much of interest in the middle of the day even if a tour was operating, so accept the later departure time in the interest of seeing more wildlife.
Most hiking trails in the Preserve are open only on a pay-per-visit basis, and some require guides. However, two attractive trails based on defunct logging roads are accessible for free from SR 4: Coyote Call Trail, leading through meadows to a low pass, and Rabbit Ridge Trail, to a ridge end on the caldera rim. The trailheads are at mile marker 41; nice views of the Valle Grande on the hikes, which are each about a 3-mile round trip. Another pleasant trail leaves SR 4 at mile marker 43 and descends to the edge of the Valle Grande (2.5-mile round trip). Hikers on this trail sometimes have stirring encounters with the VCNP elk herd.
As of summer 2006, there are two trails in the interior of the Preserve that can be hiked on a pay-per-visit basis: Cerro Seco on the west side, and Cerros del Abrigo nearer the rudimentary visitor center. The Preserve is considering adding one or two other routes, so stay tuned. Fee for access is $10/person (discounts for seniors and students) and only a limited number of hikers are allowed per day (Friday, Saturday, Sunday only). Reservations can be placed via the VCNP web site. Note that the drive to the trailheads (via VCNP-operated shuttle, as interior roads are closed to visitors' vehicles) can take up to an hour from the scheduled departure time; allow time accordingly.
Nordic skiing is possible, snow permitting (it didn't permit during the winter of 2005-6), from December to April (in theory, although the snow rarely lasts this long) on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, plus some holidays. Fees $10/adult, discounts for youth and seniors, for routine daytime skis (no reservations required, pay and get permit at the visitor center); $15 (discounts) for moonlight and dark-night skis, which are held a few times during the winter (check the site for details, reservations a good idea but not essential).
An interesting Nordic trip is to El Cajete, one of the more recent eruptive features in the caldera. This is a round trip of just a few miles on old logging roads, with relatively little elevation change, and should be feasible for the inexperienced Nordic skier. Longer trips lead into the interior of the caldera. It's easy to underestimate distances here owing to the immensity of the Valle Grande and the lack of features for scale; make sure you're up to the trip you choose.
Since 2006, New Mexico Orienteers holds a ski and snow-shoe orienteering meet in Valle Grande each February. Spectacular views of Valle Grande can be seen from the top of the Pajarito Ski Area and from the Canada Bonito trail in the Santa Fe National Forest.
Fishing within VCNP is presently sharply limited but there are three satisfactory fishing streams: the Rio San Antonio, the East Fork of the Jemez River, and Jaramillo Creek. New for the 2009 season, trout fishing on the Rio San Antonio is by reservation and the river has been divided into four "reaches" that are about 2 miles long. Each reach has a limited number of slots available each day and any slots not reserved are available for "walk-ins" on that day. Access to a reach is $35 per person ($21 for 16 years and younger). There is no public access to the river so a shuttle is provided to take anglers to the stream. However, the shuttle leaves at 7 a.m., so walk-ins must be at the VCNP's public staging area before then. It's a 45 drive to the water and the shuttle picks everyone up starting at about 2 p.m., so plan for a full day in the back country.
Access to the East Fork and Jaramillo Creek is by reservation but available slots on any day are open to anyone who shows up. The cost for East Fork/Jaramillo Creek access is $50 per person ($40 for 16 years or younger). On each day there are six slots available to the public and four slots for guided trips. Anglers may hike from the staging or park on the public access road near the river.
Details on the web site. VCNP also offers fly-fishing clinics that combine with an overnight stay at Casa de Baca Lodge; again, see the web site (reservations are necessary far in advance).
The fisherman who doesn't wish to pay access fees, or just wants more time on the stream than the permit offers, can go to any number of public-access areas (free, but NM fishing license required) downstream of the Preserve in Santa Fe National Forest. Access is convenient from SR 4 on the west side of VCNP.
One of the primary money-makers for VCNP is the annual elk hunt. The resident elk herd is the largest in New Mexico, is reproducing vigorously (hearing the bugling of the bulls in the fall rutting season is a stirring experience), and would rapidly exceed the carrying capacity of the terrain, resulting in starvation and disease, without culling. A limited number of hunters each fall are therefore allowed on the Preserve each year, via a lottery system similar to the one for fishing. Tickets for the lottery cost only $5 each, but do not guarantee the purchaser a hunt—only the possibility that the ticket will be drawn when the small number of annual hunting permits are allocated. If you hold a winning ticket and get to hunt, you'll have to pay considerably more for the privilege of actually doing so. See the VCNP web site for details.
The less athletically inclined can take advantage of sleigh rides in the winter and wagon rides in the summer (and maybe in the winter too, if snowpack is insufficient to run the sleigh). Rides are on a reservation basis ($30/adult for sleigh, $25/adult for wagon, senior and youth discounts apply; reservations placeable via web site) and run on the weekends, usually with four scheduled rides a day starting at 10 am. The vehicles are drawn by a pair of enormous Percheron horses that are scenic attractions in their own right. Dress warmly for the sleigh rides; the purveyors provide blankets, but they're insufficient to keep you warm if the winds come up.
Horseback riding is permitted during the spring, summer, and fall months, in a restricted area of the VCNP. At the Banco Bonito trailhead horse riders have reserved, secure trailer parking and access to a network of dedicated trails to scenic Redondo Meadow and El Cajete. The trails are easy, well kept ranch roads. Horse riders are permitted on about 20 miles of trails. Horses can be rented from local outfitters (not connected with VCNP) who deliver the horses to you at the trailhead. Overnight horse camping is allowed as of June 2008, as part of an Interim Camping program; details of this to be determined. Horse layovers are welcome at a private camp 4 miles away in Vallecitos, 45 minutes away at Fenton Lake State Park, and 1 hour away in Los Alamos at Camp May and at the Rodeo Grounds. Los Alamos has an extraordinary network of hundreds of miles of horse-friendly trails linking the town to the surrounding Santa Fe National Forest, Pajarito Ski Area, and Bandelier National Monument. Some of these trails overlook Valle Grande. Santa Fe National Forest also has many forest roads and trails, including Trail 119, Turkey Spring Trail (from a SFNF portion of the Valles Caldera to Bandelier National Monument) and Trail 126, Peralta Ridge Trail.
The visitor center has standard souvenirs (T-shirts, sweatshirts, pins, etc.) as well as bottled water and munchies for hikers and other tour participants. Los Alamos, about 25 miles away, has supplies of all denominations, along with more memorabilia.
For most visits, you'll have to bring your own food, although you'll be able to get trail munchies at the visitor center if it's open. Food services within VCNP are restricted to special events such as the overnight classes on birdwatching, painting, etc. There are no restaurants in the Preserve. Los Alamos, about 20 miles east, and smaller Jemez Springs, a similar distance west, are the nearest communities with reliable restaurant and grocery-store service, although the village of La Cueva, en route to Jemez Springs, sometimes has a restaurant and/or convenience store.
What you bring with you (the checkin sites will have water and, during the winter, maybe hot cocoa). There are no night-life-oriented facilities within 20 road miles of the Preserve.
Casa de Baca Lodge & the Bunkhouse are the preserve's only on-site options for lodging, and are available in conjunction with classes and other special events. However, they can also be rented for weddings, family reunions, and overnight stays, etc., if there are no scheduled classes or other events using it at the time. The entire lodge is rented as a single unit that sleeps 20, for $1200/night. Kitchen facilities are included. Reserve far in advance; see VCNP web site for details.
Nearby Los Alamos has a reasonable number of hotel/motel/B&B rooms. Limited lodging may also be available in or near Jemez Springs.
At the present time, no camping is allowed on VCNP except for special events. This may change as facilities develop, so check back on occasion. Surrounding Santa Fe National Forest has a number of developed campgrounds in the Jemez Ranger District. The ones along NM SR 4 are convenient to VCNP. In order of proximity to the VCNP main entrance, they are Jemez Falls Campground, Redondo Campground, and San Antonio Campground. Also convenient are Camp May (see Los Alamos) and Fenton Lake State Park.
VCNP is unusual in that its backcountry lodging options apply in the winter, not the summer. A small number of yurts are available to Nordic skiers and snowshoers on a lottery/reservation basis. The yurts are expensive ($180/night for up to 3 nights) but accommodate up to 6 people each and are reasonably comfortably equipped. See the VCNP web site for details on accommodations, entering the lottery, etc. The Preserve is considering opening the yurts for summer use as well, so check back from time to time. At the present time, overnight backpacking in VCNP is not allowed, but this may change as the preserve develops. (Because of rodent problems, the Yurts are being phased out.)
- Most of VCNP's hazards are weather-related:
- Lightning is a common hazard during the monsoon season (July–September) when you are on ridges or in open land, and can occur during other seasons as well. Be sure you know what to do when lightning threatens.
- Winter storms can roll in quite suddenly and can produce not only several feet of snow in short order, but also precipitously dropping temperatures that can easily reach below zero (Fahrenheit). If engaging in winter sports, make sure you're well equipped.
- VCNP and the surrounding mountains have been the site of a number of disastrous forest fires in recent years, particularly in the spring (when precipitation is minimal and winds are high) following a dry winter (of which there have been many lately). The Preserve administration is understandably cautious about closing facilities when fire hazard is significant; please honor the closures, as the Valles grasses burn like tinder and a wind-driven fire can travel a lot faster than you can run.
- Of course, make sure to use sun screen.
- Dangerous encounters with wildlife are rare, but an elk in rut can do a lot of damage to you (closures during mating season will probably keep you away from this hazard, but bear it in mind), and one on the road can do a lot of damage to your car. Drive cautiously, particularly in twilight. Rattlesnakes are scarce owing to the high elevation, but can be found occasionally in the summer, even on the ridges.
- Violent crime is a non-problem, and there are few if any reports of theft from parked automobiles in the preserve. However, some of the neighboring forest land has seen some pilferage. If you're camping in Santa Fe National Forest campgrounds, make sure to secure valuables before heading into VCNP.
- Visitors from sea level may have problems with altitude sickness, as even the Valle Grande is at an elevation near 8000 feet and the mountains range up to 11,000' and above. If you're prone to altitude problems, spend a day or two acclimatizing in Albuquerque or one of the other New Mexico cities before you do anything active here, and plan a slower hiking/skiing pace than you would at home.
- Valles Caldera National Preserve This is the official website of the Valles Caldera National Preserve.
- Los Amigos de Valles Caldera or "Friends of the Valles Caldera." The purpose of Los Amigos is to support the Valles Caldera National Preserve for present and future generations through outreach, education, restoration, collaboration, volunteer and fundraising activities. The group is currently working on a wetlands restoration and water improvement project as well as raising funds to restore the Historic Bond Cabin. The group sponsors activities at the VCNP including Geology Tours, Wildlife Tours, an Old Timer's BBQ and a spring Headquarters Cleanup Day. Los Amigos is recruiting volunteers to assist in these project.
- Caldera Action! The organization fosters active citizen participation in the restoration, protection, and appreciation of the Valles Caldera National Preserve, for the long-term benefit of the place itself, the American public, and visitors from around the world. The group keeps it's membership appraised of any proposed activities and action of the Valles Caldera Trust Board and provides opportunites for input into the public decision making processes of the Trust, including those based on National Environmental Policy Act(or NEPA) process activities.
- Adjacent Bandelier National Monument has more scenery, hiking trails, etc., and is more fully developed to support the casual visitor. Although the parks share a boundary, the Bandelier main entrance and visitor center are about 25 miles away from Valle Grande along NM SR 4.
- Los Alamos is nearby, with some in-town activities (it's a small town but has more than its share of amenities) and more hiking, including many trails (affected by the 2000 forest fire, alas, but since then substantially repaired). These trails include some that reach the rim of the Valles Caldera and have nice views of Valle Grande and Redondo Peak. Other interesting areas in the Jemez Mountains include Jemez Springs, with an interesting archaeological site and accessible hot springs, and a number of developed campgrounds in Santa Fe National Forest, some with access to trails and fishing holes. About 45 minutes away is Fenton Lake State Park.
- Santa Fe is one of the world's great travel destinations and is about 60 miles away by road.