For most of my life, the Valles Caldera in the Jemez mountains has been one of my favorite places on the planet. It is the third largest super-volcano in the United States. The caldera stretches 13-miles across. There is something about hiking miles of meadows, knowing there is magma lurking just a few miles underneath the otherwise pastoral landscape, that makes the hike more exciting, like “hold off on a repeat until I get out of here.” The Valles Caldera is beautiful, with abundant wildlife. However, Highway 4 through the Jemez mountains has become very popular with locals in both Santa Fe and Albuquerque. As a result, it has become more challenging to get away from human beings, which is often my primary motivation when heading for the hills.
Fortunately, I found another location several years ago, the Valle Vidal. The pristine area provides many of the same appealing elements, with additional perks, like some of the best campsites I have found in the state of New Mexico. Based on the amount of traffic (almost none), it seems like a popular area for locals on the Enchanted Circle, but otherwise remote and unknown to the general population. It isn’t unusual to be the only human for miles.
Valle Vidal | Remote Rocky Mountain Paradise
The Valle Vidal, Spanish for “Valley of Life,” is a spectacular stretch of wilderness in the Carson National Forest, near the Colorado border. Located in the Moreno Valley, between Costilla and Raton, New Mexico, the 102,000-acre pristine, wilderness area is home to the largest elk herd in the southwestern United States, numbering approximately 2500. The region supports a diverse variety of fanged, furry, finned, feathered, four-legged, and flying creatures, including mule deer, bobcat, black bear, bison, mountain lions, turkeys, bald eagles, and native Rio Grande cutthroat trout. Actually, the bison aren’t native to the area. They are stragglers that wander over from Ted Turner’s herd at Vermejo Ranch, which borders the Valle Vidal.
The area is Rocky Mountain magnificent, occasionally referred to as the “Yellowstone of the Southwest.” The terrain ranges from 7,400-12,584 feet in elevation, with a horizon defined by the towering, majestic peaks of the Sangres de Cristo mountains. The elevation generally increases from east to west, culminating in Little Costilla Mountain, which rises above the timberline. The immense, open meadows are surrounded by dense forests of aspen and conifer, which blanket the hillsides.
Miles of Meadows
The expansive grasslands are awe-inspiring. Based on the lack of tree stumps, the grasslands are considered natural meadows, rather than a result of clearing for pasture land. Grassy meadows feed on the major drainages, the tiny streams of water and creeks, blanketing most of the flat lands to the horizon, creating a sea of wildflowers in the summer months. It is a feast for the eyes, almost overwhelming in scope.
At an elevation of about 9,500 feet, the Big Valle is the heart of Valle Vidal. You can’t miss it…3,800 acres of extensive rolling grassland surrounded by conifer and quaking aspen forests. It is impressive. When looking south, the view follows the axis of the Valle Vidal itself, from the headwaters of Comanche Creek. The northeast side of Wheeler Peak can be seen to the southeast.
As a source of fresh water, wildlife, firewood, and grazing lands, the Valle Vidal serves as an important resource for the ranching and agricultural communities of northern New Mexico. The spectacular scenery provides valuable timber, mineral, and grazing resources. However, it is federally recognized and protected as a preserve. No oil or methane gas drilling allowed.
The headwaters of numerous streams and tributaries of both the Rio Grande and Canadian Rivers are located in the area. These are critical water sources for farmers and ranchers downstream. Both McCrystal Creek and North Ponil Creek have been recommended for Wild and Scenic Rivers protection.
The vegetation varies based on elevation, ranging from mid-elevation forest to sub-alpine to a small alpine section on top of Little Costilla Peak. Forests include dense copses of quaking aspen, Ponderosa pine, lodgepole pine, bristlecone pine, Douglas fir, Colorado blue spruce, Engleman spruce, juniper and sub-alpine fir. The best time for wildflower viewing is June-August when afternoon thunderstorms turn the meadows into a lush, vibrant carpet of wildflowers.
The Folsom people were the first known inhabitants. In fact, the first Folsom point was found east of Valle Vidal, near Folsom, New Mexico. These paleo-indian lived here more than 10,000 years ago. They were hunter-gatherers, surviving based on gathering native vegetation and hunting. Their primary prey was a now extinct species of Bison. The Folsom people are known for their distinctive stone arrowheads and spear points.
About 400 AD, these cultures began planting crops, domesticating corn, beans, and squash, with the earliest evidence of the Ancestral Puebloan culture emerging, which later spread throughout the Southwest. The early pueblo people dominated the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and upper Rio Grande Valley, extending into Colorado.
By the 1500’s, the peaceful Jicarilla Apache settled in the Valle Vidal, following the migrating bison and antelope herds from the Great Plains. They lived in semi-permanent villages. However, Ute and Comanche raiding parties forced the Jicarilla to seek safety in Taos and Pecos Pueblos. By the late-1500s, the Spanish had arrived and they claimed the land on behalf of Spain.
Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821. A flurry of land grant petitions ensued. The Mexican Governor, Manuel Armijo, granted almost 2 million acres in northern New Mexico to Guadalupe Miranda and Carlos Beaubien in 1841. Beaubien was a successful trader from the Hudson Bay Company who had settled in Taos. Miranda was the Secretary of the Provincial Government in Santa Fe. It was the largest land grant in American history, though it technically occurred shortly before the region became part of the U.S.
Lucien Maxwell, a fur trapper who served as a guide with Kit Carson on General John Fremont’s Western Expedition, married Beaubien’s daughter, Luz. After Carlos Beaubien’s death, Lucien and Luz bought out the other heirs, amassing 1,714,765 acres by 1865. Their fiefdom was known as the Maxwell Grant. The parcel was about the size of Rhode Island. It encompassed some of the territory’s most beautiful country, including the Moreno Valley.
The land, and Lucien Maxwell, were an integral part of the gold, silver, and copper mining boom in the 1870s. He lived in a palatial home in Cimarron, a community he founded with his entourage. He put settlers on the land to supply U.S. Government forces during the “westward expansion.” At one point he had over 500 people cultivating thousands of acres, with thousands more allocated to ranching. Maxwell’s fortunes declined due to some poor investments during the gold mining boom. He sold his kingdom to the Maxwell Land Grant and Railway Company in 1866.
Keystone Mining District
The Moreno Valley was once home to numerous remote ranches, mining towns, and homesteads, including the Keystone Mining District. The district included numerous mining towns and mining camps in the late 1800s through the early 1900s, mostly gold, some silver. They sprang up overnight and disappeared a few years later, with the remnants melting back into the mountains. Keystone’s heyday came and went so quickly that it was barely a blip. Area towns, like Anchor, Midnight, Jellison City, Gysin City, and LaBelle are rarely mentioned and don’t appear on maps. The ruins and remnants of the Keystone Mining District can be found on both sides of FR 1950, including cabin ruins, open pits, and scattered artifacts. Usually the only people that venture into the steep canyons these days are hunters in the fall.
Located in the Keystone Mining District, LaBelle was home to 600 or more people, most of them gold miners. The short-lived boom town had stores, hotels, saloons, and a local newspaper, the LaBelle Cresset, which published from 1894-1898. The post office was open from 1895-1901, a whopping 6 years. Though a few miners lingered until 1910, most of the town moved on by 1900.
Frankly, there isn’t much left to see. There are no signs or roads. In fact, the only reference to the location is the LaBelle Lodge, which appears on Google Maps. The lodge was built in the 1950s or 1960s, long after the town was abandoned. However, it was built near the center of the ghost town and named for its predecessor. Once you identify the right place, it becomes easier to find other artifacts.
The sale of the Maxwell Grant initiated a lengthy period of conflict, punctuated by violence. Disputes over land titles and resource rights led to a series of altercations collectively known as the Colfax County War. Settlers and squatters revolted against the new landlords, with sporadic, violent confrontations from 1869 to 1887. Eventually, the US Government ruled in favor of the company.
Valle Vidal, Vermejo, and Philmont
William Bartlett, a grain speculator from Chicago, bought a large chunk of Maxwell’s land in 1902. He named it Vermejo Park. From 1926 to 1973, the area served as a playground for the rich, wealthy and famous, with an illustrious guest list, like Douglass Fairbanks, Herbert Hoover, FW Kellogg, Thomas Warner, and Cecil B. DeMille. The invitation fee was $5,000.
Oklahoma oilman Waite Phillips bought another enormous swath of the Maxwell Grant. He named his estate Philmont. When he left the property to the Boy Scouts of America to be used as a wilderness ranch, they kept the name, Philmont Scout Ranch.
Pennzoil acquired Bartlett’s Vermejo Park Ranch in 1973. They were hoping to find fossil fuels. However, the surveys and drilling were a disappointment. The company donated 101,794 acres to the U.S. Forest Service in 1982, to be added to the Carson National Forest. The agreement stipulated that there would be no mining or drilling allowed in the area. The Forest Service opened the area to the public as the Valle Vidal Unit.
Ted Turner bought the remaining 588,000 acres, less mineral rights, in 1996. He sold the cattle herds and introduced bison, establishing a luxurious, wildlife-centered guest ranch, Vermejo, to fund conservation and preservation efforts.
The southwestern United States has a lengthy, active history of volcanoes and earthquakes. Whereas people often think of geology as slow, planetary processes, stretching over millions of years, the reality is that often nothing happens for thousands, or millions, of years and then one day all hell breaks loose. The process of creating the Rocky Mountains was Mother Nature engaging in a sculpture class that went on for millions of years.
Northern New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains are located between the Rio Grande Rift to the west and the Raton basin to the east. The Rio Grande Rift extends 800 miles from Colorado to northern Mexico. It is one of five active continental rift zones in the world. It formed 35 to 26 million years ago when the Earth’s crust began to rip apart. About 3 million years ago the Rio Grande began to cut through the sediments and lava, forming the Rio Grande gorge. Some time after 600,000 years ago the Rio Grande expanded its headwaters to the mountains in southern Colorado through the San Luis Valley.
Sangre de Cristo Mountains
The Sangre de Cristo Mountains of northern New Mexico include the western Taos Range and the eastern Cimarron Range, separated by the Moreno Valley. The Taos Range includes numerous peaks with peaks between 12,000-13,000 feet, as well as the tallest peak in New Mexico, Wheeler Peak at 13,161 feet. Cimarron Range altitudes range from 11,000-12,500 feet. The floor of the Moreno Valley is 8,238 feet at the village of Eagle Nest, rising to well over 8,500 feet along its edges.
Valle Vidal | Moreno Valley
Valle Vidal separates the Taos Range of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains from the Raton basin to the east. The area is part of a north-south alignment of grabens (see above) that include the Mora and Moreno Valleys to the south and the Costilla Valley to the north.
The Valle Vidal fault borders the eastern margin of Valle Vidal in the eastern Sangre de Cristo Mountains of northern New Mexico. There are a series of igneous dikes (volcanic) cutting across the basin that are 28-33 million years old. The most prominent one is the Rock Wall, which separates the Valle Vidal Unit into the east and west sides. Much of the land east of the Rock Wall is below 8,500 feet, with consistently higher elevation to the west.
When descending into the eastern part of the Valle Vidal, there is an overlook at the first switchback with a fantastic view over eastern New Mexico. The dark mountain on the horizon to the northeast is near Trinidad, Colorado.
The primary use of Valle Vidal is outdoor recreation; hosting outfitters, hunting and trekking guides, backpackers, horseback riders, and fly-fishermen. Outdoor recreation contributes $3–5 million every year to local economies, which supports dozens of jobs and local industries.
Whether hiking, camping, bikepacking, backpacking, fishing, wildlife watching, photography, ghost town hunting, or elk hunting, this region has an enormous amount to offer. Valle’s Vidal’s waters were designated as Outstanding National Resource Waters in December 2005. Additionally, McCrystal Creek and North Ponil Creek are eligible for designation as Wild and Scenic Rivers. Most fishing in Valle Vidal is catch and release. Trout in the streams are small but abundant.
Given that the area is extremely remote and, often, there aren’t many humans around. I take a first aid kit, LOTS of water, sunscreen, maps, extra clothes (layers), my mountain bike (in case anything goes wrong with the car), snacks, and bear spray. In terms of my canine cohort, The Forest Service requires pets to be on a leash at all times.
Otherwise, there are no facilities…no gas, food, lodging, or retail facilities. Nada. If you get a cell phone bar, be thankful and be fast, because you will lose the signal almost immediately. Find a cattle grate on a hill to boost the signal a bit.
Summer storms can cause drastic temperature changes. They often produce dramatic lightning storms that are very dangerous for hikers on peaks or exposed ridges. If you are hiking a high peak, get an early start in the morning and try to be off the peak by 2 PM, before storms build up in the afternoon. If you see a storm approaching, move to lower elevation. Hypothermia is possible year around.
When hiking, it is a good idea to take a small pack with protective clothing, compass, flashlight, first aid kit, water, and snacks. For more tips on traveling New Mexico, click here.
There are 330+ miles of maintained trails in the Carson National Forest, including lots of options for hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking/bike-packing, and 4WD vehicles.
One of the unique aspects of the Valle Vidal is there are no maintained trails. It is a wilderness area. Minimal development, minimal amenities, maximum beauty. However, there are user-made trails that are visible. Most visitors pick their spot, park their vehicle (in a designated parking area), and trek into the meadows and hills to find their own path. Due to the mining, ranching and homesteading in the area, there are remnants of mining and ranching roads that are easy to follow.
The Valle Vidal includes the headwaters of numerous streams and tributaries of the Rio Grande and the Canadian Rivers. Both McCrystal Creek and North Ponil Creek have been submitted for Wild and Scenic Rivers protection
The Forest Service and New Mexico Department of Game and Fish have implemented special hunting and fishing seasons and bag limits in the Valle Vidal. In addition to regular hunting and fishing licenses, Habitat Improvement Stamps are required. Fishing is open July 1-December 31, daylight hours from 30 minutes before sunrise until sunset. Additionally, fishing within the Valle Vidal requires specific lures/bait. For the most part it is catch-and-release, with the exception of Shuree Ponds, which has a 2 trout limit.
Fishing season is July 1-December 31, daylight hours from 30 minutes before sunrise until sunset. Additionally, one of the ponds is reserved for children under the age of 12.
The daily bag limit is two trout, 15-inches or longer. Use artificial flies or lures with single barbless hooks.
Rio Costilla is also special trout water. Comanche, Cordova, Casias, Latir, Ute, and Sanchez creeks flow into Rio Costilla. Flowing northwest, the creeks form part of the larger upper Rio Grande watershed. North of the New Mexico/Colorado state line, the Rio Costilla merges with the Rio Grande. Camping on Rio Costilla is allowed in designated areas with permission from the Rio Costilla Cooperative Livestock Association.
Comanche creek is about 10 miles from the Colorado state line. The landscape is reminiscent of Wyoming or Montana. The creek bends, folds, twists and tumbles north from 10,400 feet to 8,940 feet before joining the Rio Costilla. Comanche Creek is known for native Rio Grande cutthroat and Rainbow trout. Due to their wariness and the scarcity of cover, most trout are found lurking in deeper parts of the creek, along the water’s edge. Also, due to the modest size of Comanche Creek, small rigs work well.
Valle Vidal is managed as a wildlife habitat. Primitive, dispersed camping is permitted. The crystal clear rivers, rolling grass covered hills, and towering tree-covered mountains will keep hiker or horseback rider entertained for days.
You need to backpack at least a quarter mile off of a forest road. Park in one of the designated parking areas throughout the area. The Forest Service asks campers to set up their campsite 200 feet from any trail or stream. Contact the Carson National Forest for more information about this type of camping.
Cimarron and McCrystal are the only two developed campgrounds in the unit. The Cimarron Campground is just west of Shuree Lodge and Shuree Pond. The McCrystal Campground is east of the Rock Wall that separates the east and west side of the Valle Vidal Unit. At either location, guests have the amenities associated with a developed/maintained campground, with the vast wilderness of the unit easily accessible.
Cimarron campground has been selected by the Great Outdoor Recreation Pages (GORP) as one of the 10 best campgrounds in the United States. Located at 9,400 feet elevation, this campground provides a rustic camping experience in an area known for wildlife. Horses are welcome
The campground has 36 campsites for tents and trailers, tables, fire places, toilets, corrals, and drinking water. They can accommodate trailers 32’ and under.
$20 per night
$34 for a double site
$5 per extra vehicle
$10 for day use
Reservations: Available at recreation.gov. Reservations can be made six months prior to the first day of your camping stay.
McCrystal Campground sits at 8,100 ft. and is 10 miles past Cimarron Campground on FR 1950. It has 60 campsites for tents and trailers, tables, fire places, toilets, and horse corrals. There is no drinking water at this site. They can accommodate trailers that are 32’ and under. Also, there is a self-guided tour to a pioneer cabin, with a trailhead at the campground entrance.
From McCrystal, it’s 7 miles to the eastern border of Valle Vidal. At that point, you travel across Vermejo Park Ranch, a 500,000-acre private ranch owned by Ted Turner, to get back to Highway 64/the Enchanted Circle.
You can see additional campgrounds by clicking here.
Another option, mentioned above, is Rio Costilla Park. Owned and operated by the Rio Costilla Cooperative Livestock Association, Rio Costilla Park is just west of the Valle Vidal Unit boundary on State Route 196. The park has 40 campsites distributed over 10,000 acres of mountains, meadows, lakes, and streams. The entrance/camping fee is $20 per vehicle per day, which includes an overnight stay. For an additional $7 a day, you can fish in the park. They are open from May 1 through September 7.
From January 1- March 31, the east side of the Valle Vidal is closed to all off-road activities for the protection of wildlife populations. The west side of the Valle Vidal is open to cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Snowmobiles are allowed south of Forest Road 1950, with access available from the southwest side via Mallette and Cabresto through Chuck Wagon Canyon. Bring extra gas. There are no gas stations nearby.
Please keep in mind the forest service does NOT maintain roads in the winter and cell phone reception is virtually non-existent. The roads are pretty much impassable after it snows.
For hunting and fishing information, contact New Mexico Dept. of Game and Fish at (505) 476-8000 or visit their website. Elk hunting is by lottery.
Questa Ranger District
184 State Hwy 38
P.O. Box 110
Questa, NM 87556
From Taos: Travel north on U.S. Highway 64 to the junction of State Highways 552 and 150. At this intersection, go straight on State Highway 552 through Questa.
Turn east on State Highway 196. This road becomes gravel right after you pass through the village of Amalia and turns into Forest Road 1950. Travel on FR 1950 east to the junction with Forest Road 1900. Stay to the right. You can’t miss the main parking area for Valle Vidal. There are a lot of corrals, with an expansive, open valley stretching to the south.
You can either go back the way you came or continue on the dirt road to Cimarron. The stretch of road to Cimarron is not as well maintained as the road between Amalia and the corrals. It can be rough, unsuitable for 2WD. However, if you opt to continue towards Cimarron, continue on 1950 until you come to a junction with Forest Road 1910. Cimarron Campground is about a mile up the hill on FR 1910. They have 36 campsites for tents and trailers, with tables, fireplaces, toilets, and drinking water. Road access from the east is from the town of Cimarron, NM.
From Cimarron: Travel 5 miles east on U.S. Highway 64 and turn onto the signed Valle Vidal gravel road. Travel north approximately 20 miles to the east entrance of the Valle Vidal.
Valle Vidal Seasonal Closures
Two seasonal closures, one winter and one spring, have been implemented on the Valle Vidal for the protection of wildlife populations. When there is a closure on either side of the area, you can drive through. However, you cannot get out and hike on the side where the closure is in effect.
Winter Closure: January 1 to March 31. East Side Winter is the time when most species, including elk, suffer losses. Animals expend an enormous amount of energy to maintain body heat at a time when forage is neither as abundant nor as nutritious as in other seasons. Protection from freezing wind and snow is key to survival. Elk spend the winter in areas where cover is available and they can forage. Disturbances force them to flee to less desirable areas where they are more vulnerable to disease, predation and exposure.
Spring Closure: May 1 to June 30. West Side for calving, usually in May and June. Elk cows seek areas that have suitable cover and plenty of food, like tall grassy areas. The cow and calf will remain in an area for about 10 days after birth, or until the calf is strong enough to follow the cow to higher country. Disturbances could cause the cow to abort or to abandon her calf. Forcing a cow elk to a less than adequate site for birthing could result in a weakened calf with lower odds for survival.
- Ouachita Map
- Carson National Forest
- Information about the Valle Vidal and its conservation efforts
- Wildflower Viewing
- For a topographical map of the Valle Vidal, PDF
- Download road map PDF