The Valles Caldera National Preserve (VCNP) is a new (2015) 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. Facilities for the visitor are 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 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. Second, and as a result, management of the VCNP would be done via a "trust" that included 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 national preserve has also been designated as an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association.
The terrain is volcanic with the caldera rim topping out at elevations around 10,500 feet. (Chicoma Mountain (11,590 ft) and a few other points along the northeastern rim reach over 11,000 ft, but lie outside the Preserve, on the territory of Santa Clara Pueblo.) The caldera itself has a base level at 8700 ft 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. 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 southeast 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.
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 is 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 °F) 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 °F) 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 at the 39 mile marker. 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.
Fees and permits
The VCNP was set up as an autonomous, wholly owned corporation (trust) within the National Forest system. The trust structure, with a board of directors that managed the preserve, was an experiment in land management. The experiment was reviewed by Congress and in December 2015 Congress placed the preserve under the National Park System.
The fee structure at VCNP is typical among United States National Parks. Access to the preserve via SR 4 is on a per vehicle basis, and there are hikes, Nordic ski outings, etc., from trail heads along SR 4 (with a permit). Most activities in the interior of the preserve are free once the entry fee has been satisfied, either by payment for a daily visit ($20) which allows reentry within a seven-day period at no additional cost, or by annual pass for the preserve ($40). All Federal Land Use passes are also accepted, including America the Beautiful annual passes, Senior passes, active military passes, or Access Passes for those with disabilities. There are reduced fees for entry by foot, horse or bicycle, and non-commercial bus ($10 ] per person). There are also several free entry days. The VCNP website contains more details.
The road to the visitor center is driveable (if rough) in ordinary cars.
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 elk tours during the summer on most Fridays and Saturdays that afford opportunities for wildlife viewing, including (possibly up-close-and-personal) encounters with the huge resident elk herd or bears. Departure from the visitor center is at 5:30PM and ends at 7:30PM. 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. For more information visit the VCNP web site.
Most hiking trails in the Preserve are open daily and there is no additional cost. An attractive trail based on defunct logging roads is accessible from SR 4, Coyote Call Trail, leading through meadows to a low pass. The trailhead is at mile marker 41; nice views of the Valle Grande are on the hike, which is 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. Visit the VCNP Visitor's Center for a pass to hike these trails. The only comprehensive trail guide, "Hiking Trails in Valles Caldera National Preserve" by Coco Rae, is available at VCNP's bookstore and locally.
Nordic skiing and snow shoeing is possible, snow permitting, from December to April (in theory, although the snow rarely lasts this long) on a daily basis. All costs are included in the entry fee.
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 have held 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 available throughout most of the preserve. The Rio San Antonio, the East Fork of the Jemez River, Jaramillo Creek, and Rito de los Indios offer challenging trout fishing. Access is by private vehicle, and a back country pass is required. There are 35 passes issued each day on a first-come, first-serve basis.
The fisherman who doesn't wish to pay access fees 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.
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 and turkey hunting, as the resident elk herd is in constant need of culling. The elk and turkey hunting lotteries/drawings for the Valles Caldera National Preserve are part of the draw managed by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish (NMDGF). Information on how to apply for the state drawings can be found on the NMDGF website or by calling +1-888-248-6866. The Valles Caldera National Preserve is Unit 6B. Fishing is also available on most of the creeks in the Preserve but this does require a back country pass. There are 35 backcountry passes issued daily on a first-come, first-served basis.
Horseback riding is permitted during the spring, summer, and fall months, in most areas of the VCNP. The trails are easy, well kept ranch roads. Horse riders are permitted on about 20 miles of trails. Horses are not available for rent in the preserve. 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.
Los Amigos de Valles Caldera, the Preserve's Friends group, operates the bookstore. All proceeds go to the Preserve.
You'll have to bring your own food. 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 will need you must bring with you (the visitor center will have water available to refill your container). There are no night-life-oriented facilities within 20 road miles of the Preserve.
Nearby Los Alamos has a reasonable number of hotel, motel, and B&B rooms. Limited lodging may also be available in or near Jemez Springs.
No camping is allowed on VCNP. 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[dead link].
Overnight backpacking in VCNP is not allowed, but this may change as the preserve develops.
- 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, 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 ft 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.
- https://www.nps.gov/vall/index.htm 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 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.