The Valles Caldera is a special place, one of my favorite places on the planet. For years it has been a place of serenity for me, a place to hit the ‘reset’ button when my stress level hits critical mass. Gazing across the expansive meadow from highway 4 puts life in perspective, even on a less than ideal day, because no matter how bad a day might seem, it would be far worse if this caldera wasn’t dormant. It would be fatal.
The 13.7-mile wide caldera, for which the preserve is named, is one of three “supervolcanoes” in the United States. A supervolcano is capable of producing eruptions thousands of times larger than a typical volcano. These eruptions are rare and catastrophic, altering weather patterns for years and raining ash across vast areas. The last time the Valles Caldera erupted it emitted 150 cubic miles of lava, propelling ash as far as Iowa. That was 1.2 million years ago.
The Valles Caldera has been a unique experiment in public lands management for over a decade. The property was part of a Spanish land grant, operated most recently as the Baca Ranch, until being sold to the federal government in 2000 for $101 million. The goal was to continue operating the property as a working ranch while developing recreational opportunities for the public. Congress declared it a preserve, to be run as a nonprofit ranch, overseen by a board of trustees.
In December, 2013 the 89,000 acres of the Valles Caldera Preserve became accessible to the public, with most of the preserve’s forests, meadows and streams open on a limited basis for hiking, mountain biking, fishing and other activities. What motorists see from highway 4 is only a small portion of the caldera. The large meadow familiar to travelers on highway 4, the Valle Grande, is the largest of several grass valleys and it is the only one accessible by a paved road. The visitor’s center is in the middle of the Valle Grande. Shuttles are available to access the backcountry, with a daily quote on the number of private vehicles allowed.
Hot springs, streams, fumaroles, natural gas seeps and volcanic domes dot the caldera floor, with a variety of igneous stone, from pumice to obsidian, bearing witness to a variety of volcanic activity in the past. The highest point in the caldera is Redondo Peak at 11,253-feet (3,430 m). It is a resurgent lava dome located entirely within the caldera. The preserve encompasses vast grasslands, supporting an abundance of wildlife, including 17 rare species and one of New Mexico’s largest elk herds.
Today the Valle Caldera is a glorious landscape of mountains, grassy meadows and streams. It is home to one of the largest elk herds in the state as well as bears, coyotes, cougars and other critters. Alert motorists traversing highway 4 in the Jemez often see the herds of elk grazing in the vast meadow. However, magma lurks three miles beneath the surface of this pastoral vista. The aspen and conifer forested hills are actually resurgent volcanic domes, earthen lava bubbles, that emerged in the aftermath of the massive eruption that created the caldera.
A supervolcano is a volcano that disperses magma and rocky particles over an area greater than 240 cubic miles (1000 cubic kilometers). This is thousands of times more powerful than a normal volcanic eruption. To put that in context, Mount Vesuvius produced 100,000 cubic yards of magma per second during the massive explosion that buried Pompeii in A.D. 79. If Mount Vesuvius had been a supervolcano, it would have produced 100 million cubic yards of magma per second. Modern mankind has never witnessed the eruption of a supervolcano and might not survive the spectacle. It would be a devastating, extinction inducing event.
There are 3 supervolcanos clustered in the western United States: Yellowstone Caldera in Wyoming, Long Valley Caldera in California and the Valles Caldera in New Mexico. Fortunately, as apocalyptic forces of nature go, the Valles Caldera is one of the smaller volcanoes in the supervolcano class. It is also one of the oldest.
A caldera is formed by the collapse of a volcano into itself, usually triggered by a large eruption emptying the magma chamber beneath the surface, with the earth’s crust caving into the void, creating a large crater. The Valles Caldera is the younger of two calderas at this location. When the Valles Caldera formed, the process of collapsing buried an older caldera, the Toledo Caldera, which in turn may have collapsed over yet older calderas.
These calderas and associated volcanic structures lie within the Jemez Volcanic Field. This volcanic field lies above the intersection of the Rio Grande Rift, which runs north-south through New Mexico, and the Jemez Lineament, which extends from southeastern Arizona northeast to western Oklahoma. The volcanic activity is related to the movements of the earth’s plates at this intersection.
The caldera and surrounding area continue to be shaped by ongoing tectonic activity. The Cerros del Rio volcanic field, which forms the eastern Pajarito Plateau and the Caja del Rio, is even older than the Toledo Caldera. The lower Bandelier tuff, which can be observed along canyon walls west of Valles Caldera, including San Diego Canyon, is related to the eruption and collapse of the Toledo Caldera. The upper Bandelier tuff is believed to have been deposited during the eruption and collapse of the Valles Caldera. The El Cajete Pumice, Battleship Rock Ignimbrite, Banco Bonito Rhyolite, and the VC-1 Rhyolite were also created during the most recent eruption of Valles Caldera, which was approximately 50,000–60,000 years ago. An active geothermal system with hot springs and fumaroles exist today, which is a clear indication that this volcanic hotbed is dormant…not dead.
The Valles caldera and surrounding volcanic structures are one of the most thoroughly studied caldera complexes in the United States. The main caldera has a diameter of 13.7 miles (22.0 km), which encompasses a field of volcanoes, with the many resurgent domes partitioning the 22-kilometer-wide caldera into five sections. The sections are refered to as “valles”, which is Spanish for valley without trees. The largest of these, Valle Grande, is a beautiful, bucolic meadow over 6 miles long and 3 miles wide.
The main entrance is open daily except Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Severe winter weather may impact operating hours. Please visit the Valles Caldera National Preserve's website for the most up-to-date information.
Sunday: 8:00 AM - 8:00 PM
Monday: 8:00 AM - 8:00 PM
Tuesday: 8:00 AM - 8:00 PM
Wednesday: 8:00 AM - 8:00 PM
Thursday: 8:00 AM - 8:00 PM
Friday: 8:00 AM - 8:00 PM
Saturday: 8:00 AM - 8:00 PM
Sunday: 9:00 AM - 5:00 PM
Monday: 9:00 AM - 5:00 PM
Tuesday: 9:00 AM - 5:00 PM
Wednesday: 9:00 AM - 5:00 PM
Thursday: 9:00 AM - 5:00 PM
Friday: 9:00 AM - 5:00 PM
Saturday: 9:00 AM - 5:00 PM
From Jemez Springs, NM: Follow Highway 4 north. Preserve is about 22 miles from Jemez Springs. Look for the Main Gate at Mile Marker 39.2.
From Los Alamos, NM: Take Trinity Drive to Diamond. Take a left on Diamond, then a right on West Jemez Road to the intersection with State Highway 4. Take a right [away from Bandelier National Monument], following the highway up and into the Jemez Mountains.) The Preserve is 18 miles up Highway 4 from Los Alamos. Look for the Main Gate at Mile Marker 39.2.
Entrance Fee - By Vehicle - $20
Non-commercial car, van, pickup truck, motorcycle or RV (no per-person fee)
Entrance Fee - By Foot - $10
Entry into the preserve by foot, bicycle, horse, or non-commercial bus: $10 per person aged 16 and older (academic fee waivers may be available for curriculum-based educational trips)
Spending a day in the quiet expanse of the Valles Caldera National Preserve is worth the effort of booking reservations and traveling to this remote location. Hidden beyond Los Alamos in the Jemez Mountains, the preserve is a secret garden nestled inside a geologic wonder.
Camping is also available in the national forest bordering the preserve. Please see options below. Less rustic accommodations are available in Jemez Springs or Los Alamos.
Certain types of activities require a special use permit. A special park use is defined as a short-term activity that takes place in a preserve area, and that:
Examples include: weddings, ceremonies, public assemblies, etc.
Examples of a First-Amendment Activity include: a church service, political event, or Freedom of Speech act.
For more information regarding Special Use Permits or to determine if your activity requires one, please call 575-829-4100, select option #4.
Applications for permits should be submitted well in advance, preferably 2-3 months before event, for consideration and processing.
The Valles Caldera is an amazing place with 54 miles of hiking trails of varying difficulty, 30 miles of trout streams and a variety of activities, including climbing, mountain biking, horseback riding, hunting, cross-country skiing, snow shoeing, sleigh rides and wildlife viewing. There are over 51 mammals, 117 birds, 6 reptiles, 3 amphibians and 6 fish species thriving in the caldera. Most trails are accessible by shuttle. Guided hikes are available.
There are several special events hosted throughout the year, including a marathon, an 80 mile mountain bike ride, moonlight skiing, and the Jemez Mountains Elk Festival. When exploring this vast volcanic wonder, practice “leave no trace” principles. Go prepared. Don’t remove vegetation, rocks, animals, natural or historic objects. Pack out all trash. If you see trash that isn't your own, pack that out too.
Open daily from mid-May to mid-October.
Open daily from late December to mid-March.
For cross country skiers, the Valle is a pristine paradise of powder. There are 29 miles of groomed trails and 11,000+ acres of snow for trailblazers. Snowshoes are also welcome! When the weather cooperates, the Preserve hosts moonlight skiing and snow shoeing activities, complete with bonfires for warmth and navigation, and horse drawn sleigh rides.
Backcountry Vehicle Permit
Home to both brown and rainbow trout, the East Fork of the Jemez River begins its journey at the eastern end of the Valle Grande, meandering southwest to be joined by Jaramillo Creek. The confluence of the East Fork and Jaramillo waters provide an ideal feeding area for trout and creates a near perfect fishing hole. The narrow Jaramillo is an excellent hiding place for large trout, who seek shadows under the grass banks that overhang the narrow creek.
The East Fork is the river crossed when traveling to the visitor center in the Valle Grande. The river continues its journey under the main road and into a secluded valley where it exits the preserve. At that point the river widens, deepens, and slows, creating an excellent habitat for large trout. The East Fork presents the same challenges as the San Antonio in terms of having to sneak up on the fish. It is home to brown and rainbow trout that grow as large at 18".
San Antonio Creek and Rito de los Indios
Below the north rim of the volcanic caldera lies 12 miles of the San Antonio Creek. The creek meanders through the lush mountain meadows of the Valle San Antonio and is home to thousands of brown trout. Elk, bear, coyote and mountain bluebirds are often spotted along the creek banks.
The northern stretch is only two feet wide in some areas, with few trees and shrubs to cover a fisherman's approach. The river widens at the lower end and flows over long, gravel bed shallows. The crystal clear water and lack of cover require stealth and an accurate cast to catch brown trout. The Rito de los Indios is a small stream located in the northeast corner of the preserve and flows into San Antonio Creek.
Historic Ranch Headquarters
Headquarters was the base and residential site used by the prior owners for large scale sheep and cattle ranching operations since the 1860s. Today, the historic structures left by the previous land owners are used to interpret the colorful ranching history of the 88,900 acres once known as Baca Location No 1.
The north rim offers visitors, who are willing to put in the effort, breathtaking views of the Valles Caldera. From within the preserve, La Garita is the route of choice for hikers and mountain bikers to enjoy spectacular views of mix conifer forests and the many mountain meadows and valleys below.
The south rim provides some amazing views of the Valle Grande to the north and Dome Wilderness to the south. The easiest access to south rim is from the Coyote Call Trailhead. Hike ¼ mile counterclockwise on the Coyote Call loop trail and then take the Rabbit Ridge spur an additional 2 miles to the ridge. The route is well signed.
Use extreme caution when riding on preserve roads; roads are winding and narrow while shoulders are either narrow or nonexistent. Vehicle traffic can be heavy at times. There are no bicycle paths along roadways. Bicycles are subject to the same traffic rules as automobiles. Bicycling is permitted on established public roads and designated routes. Cyclists must ride single-file. Commonly accepted road courtesy in the mountains calls for slower traffic to pull over and stop to allow congestion behind to pass where appropriate shoulder space is available. Stay on designated open trails and roads. Backcountry trails and roads are maintained to provide identifiable routes that concentrate and support traffic. Concentrating travel on established and maintained paths reduces soil erosion and the likelihood that multiple routes will develop causing future environmental impact.
A backcountry vehicle permit is required if you wish to access the backcountry with your vehicle. No permit is needed to bike into the backcountry from the Valle Grande Visitor Center.
Tips for Riders
There is no camping available in the caldera, though visitors can apply for a special use permit. There are numerous camping options available in Bandelier and the Santa Fe National Forest.
Bandelier National Monument
Santa Fe National Forest
Coyote Ranger District
Cuba Ranger District
Jemez Ranger District
Coyote Ranger District
Cuba Ranger District
Jemez Ranger District
Coyote Ranger District
1971 Shoot Out
1977 The Medicine Hat Stallion (TV)
1982 The Gambler (TV)
1995 Buffalo Girls (TV)
1997 Last Stand at Saber River (TV)
2003 The Missing
2007 Seraphim Falls
2013 The Lone Ranger
2014 Longmire (TV)
A backcountry vehicle permit is required to drive personal vehicles into the backcountry. No backcountry vehicle permit is required to fish any preserve waters accessed by foot, bike or horse.
Fishing Outfitters and Guides
Valles Caldera National Preserve allows but does not provide outfitter or guide services. Only authorized outfitters or guides are permitted to conduct business within the preserve. To work with a guide, please visit their list of permitted fishing guides.
Given the history of ranching in the area, horses have been part of the Valles Caldera landscape 100s of years. There are equestrian trails available for horses, mules, ponies, llamas, and burros.
Each group of riders will need to check in at the Valle Grande Visitor Center to be issued a horse permit. There is no additional fee for the permit beyond the preserve entrance fee. Access to the trails at the Banco Bonito area will be available through the special use permit process for the 2016 season. A backcountry vehicle permit is required if you wish to drive your vehicle and trailer into the backcountry before beginning your horseback ride. Much of the preserve is over 8,000 feet in elevation. Acclimation of stock is advisable.
Rules of the Trail
Elk Hunting Overview
Between 2,500 and 3,000 elk occupy the caldera, making it one of New Mexico's premier elk hunting locations. .
Turkey Hunting Overview
The Preserve is home to an estimated 400 Merriam Turkeys from April thru December. Merriam Turkeys, one of the three subspecies found in New Mexico, are noted for their striking plumage, wariness and keen eyesight. Turkey hunting, whether with bow or shotgun, can be a challenge for all skill levels.
How To Apply For Hunts
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 (888) 248-6866. The Valles Caldera National Preserve is Unit 6B.
Special Use Permit to Hunt the Valles Caldera Required
After being issued a NMDGF hunting license, each hunter must obtain a special use permit with the Valles Caldera National Preserve prior to their hunt. Permits will be issued as early as two days prior to the hunt start date through the last day of the hunt. In addition to entrance fees, hunters are required to pay a $35 special use permit fee.
Drink plenty of water
1 gallon (4 liters) of water per person per day is recommended. Take high energy snacks.
Take frequent breaks out of the sun to avoid heat stroke.
Know where you are
Stay on designated trails. Carry a compass and fully charged cell phone. Keep landmarks in sight. Cell phone service is available in the Valle Grande area of the preserve.
Wear a hat and sunglasses. Apply sunscreen even in winter.
Beware of lightning
During a lightning storm, take cover in a solid, closed-door building or in your vehicle. If you are not near any of shelter, squat low to the ground and place your hands over your ears and your head between your knees.
Temperatures are hot during the day in the summer and drop drastically after sunset, from 20 to 30 degrees. Be prepared for changing weather conditions, i.e. wear loose, light-colored clothing to help keep your body cooler in the summer, but have a light jacket on hand for when the sun goes down.
Be bear aware. Please slow down and use pullouts to watch wildlife and do not approach wildlife.
Control your pet. Pets are not allowed on most trails, in the backcountry or along streams.
The nearest gas station is 20 miles from the main entrance.
Guided hikes are led by rangers or volunteers that have an in-depth knowledge of the preserve. In addition, each guided hike focuses on a different topic or theme. Some guided hikes are only offered once while others are offered more frequently. Please check the calendar for dates and times. Guided Van tours are also available for 1–6 hours. Topics include wildlife, geology, history, artists and archaeology.
Fly Fishing Clinics
Volunteers from New Mexico Trout conduct fly fishing clinics, giving up to 20 participants the opportunity to fish the waters of the preserve. Participants spend a half day learning about equipment, tackle, knots, stream insect sampling and identification. Participants have time to practice casting in the morning and then head for the stream in the afternoon. Pre-register for the clinics by calling (575) 829-4100, ext. 3.
Fly Fishing Clinics
Pre-register by calling (575) 829-4100, ext. 3.
June 18, 2016 (8:30 AM - 4:00 PM) - Youth Clinic
July 23, 2016 (8:30 AM - 4:00 PM) - Adult Clinic
August 20, 2016 (8:30 AM - 4:00 PM) - Youth & Adult Clinic
Preserve Birthday Bash–July 23, 2016
On July 25th, 2000, President Bill Clinton signed the Valles Caldera Preservation Act, which created the Valles Caldera National Preserve.
NPS Centennial Celebration - August 25-28, 2016
The National Park Service turns 100 on August 25, 2016. Entrance is free throughout the weekend.
Jemez Mountains Elk Festival–September 24, 2016
The 8th Annual Jemez Mountains Elk Festival includes elk viewing, hiking and elk education booths.