[Note: There have been some big changes at the Valles Caldera National Preserve since this article was written. It is now be administered by the National Park Service as an NPS preserve. Some of the operating rules are changing, although all the great trail routes are still there to enjoy. Please check their website for specifics on current services and access.]
I love it when I have a chance to hike a trail I’ve not been on before. It’s an added bonus in this day and age when I know that relatively few people at all have ever hiked that trail. The Valles Caldera National Preserve in the Jemez (pronounced “hay-mez”) Mountains of northern New New Mexico offers both kinds of experience owing to it only relatively recently being opened for access to hikers. This 89,000 acre preserve was private property up until about ten years ago so was off limits unless you knew the owners or managers. Since being purchased by the U.S. government to be managed as a preserve, the property has been managed by a quasi-independent non-profit trust that has tried to figure out how to balance and satisfy a variety of interests (recreation, ranching, resource extraction, hunting, conservationists, regulators, etc.) in their management of the property. As you can imagine, there are some rough spots in figuring all of that out (more on that later). The property is a gem — a collapsed super volcano more than 13 miles in diameter with 10,000+ foot mountain peaks rising around its rim and up through the floor of its bowl. Ponderosa pine, fir, spruce, and aspen forests tower above huge expanses of grass lands. A large elk herd resides here along with a rich diversity of other wildlife. Several small streams lace their way through the property, some offering great trout fishing. There is a long human history of the place encompassing Native American, Spanish, and ranching eras so archaeology is a big deal here as it is throughout northern New Mexico.
A “super volcano” represents volcanic events thousands of times the scale of typical volcanoes and results in a collapsed bowl structure rather than a conical shaped mountain feature. There are just a couple dozen such areas in the world and just a few in the United States (most notably the Yellowstone area). The eruptions that formed the Valles Caldera occurred more than 1.1 million years ago and the last eruptions are said to have been more than 60,000 years ago.
Recreational access to the Preserve since its founding has been sorting itself out over the past decade and is still not in a very settled state. If you visit, you will find that it is not the same as visiting a national park, a national forest, or other places owned by the federal government that provide recreational opportunity. It feels to me like it is still a work in progress, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t interesting opportunities for checking it out … in fact, the formative nature of the management of the place translates to it being a lightly used place where you are not battling with any crowds.
The current scheme for recreational access includes several short, easy trails that are available for free access daily. You can drive your car to a gift shop and visitor center (they call this the “Valle Grande Staging Area”) in the heart of the Valle Grande, one of the large grass expanses and along Highway 4 which skirts the southern perimeter of the Valle Grande. On Friday through Monday, a van service drives a big loop through the Preserve which takes about 2.5 hours to complete (it looks to be a 40 mile or so loop on dirt and gravel roads).
There are a variety of trails that can be accessed along the route and you can be dropped off at one trailhead and be picked up at another. The van schedule indicates that a van comes by any given point on the loop about once per hour between 8:30 and roughly 4 pm. The Preserve is currently “open” from 8 AM to 6 PM. There is a $10 per person (less for children & seniors) per day fee for recreational use (other than the “free” trails) that includes use of the van service. You get a disposable bracelet to wear to signify you have paid and are asked to sign a liability release. I found the staff to be quite nice and eager to please within the limits of the various rules they see they need to work within.
Although I am not a mountain biker, this scheme would seem to offer a really cool opportunity for people who enjoy that. As I understand it, a mountain biker could pay their fee at the visitor center and then ride the same loop that the van service travels as well as on other trails all day long on any day of the week. On Friday through Monday, they would additionally have use of the van shuttle service (the vans are equipped with bike racks) that would give the ability to pick and choose segments to travel and to choose a start point other than the visitor center and an endpoint from which to get a ride back to their car.
There are a dozen or so interesting looking hiking trails. Here are links to route maps, pictures, and stories about hiking some of these trails:
Another thing they are trying this summer they call the “Ranch Road Ramble” which is to be offered on the last Wednesday of the month (through September). On those days you can drive your own vehicle around the loop for a $30 vehicle fee. A limited number of vehicles are allowed so you’ll want to make a reservation by calling ahead. You are given a map and a printed guide with interpretive information about what you’ll see along the way. You are not allowed to park for side excursions like hikes or bike rides … you are supposed to stick with your car. This is one of several events and special activities that are offered … you have to check out their website to learn about these.
Los Alamos is the gateway community to the Valles Caldera from the east and Jemez Springs is the nearest community when coming from the west. The Preserve is along the Jemez Mountain Trail National Scenic Byway, a beautiful route through the Jemez Mountains. Bandelier National Monument, a gem of the National Park System and the Santa Fe National Forest are adjacent to the Preserve. Los Alamos is a bit closer and has a broader range of services, lodging, and dining options. Jemez Springs is a cute village with a handful of dining and lodging options.