Valles Caldera, a National Preserve and Place of Intrigue

Updated on January 25, 2023 by Meg
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The Valles Caldera National Preserve in the heart of northern New Mexico is a refuge from the confusion of humanity that surrounds it, locally and nationally. The wall of mountains that surrounds this grassland and forested area protects it both from light, noise, and casual trespass.

This place holds tremendous intrigue for people because of its inaccessibility and its unusual but gentle nature. Like so many places, you can lose yourself within it and the desire to do so can be overwhelming at times.

Northern New Mexico is by far one of the most unusual places in the United States with its old Spanish villages tucked into high cold valleys and Indian Pueblos scattered through the high desert. Complicated cultural history overlays a more complex natural history. The more you learn about the place the more you want to learn as social and natural reality intertwine. The millions of tourists who come here may get a glimpse of this enchantment, but even long-time scholars and locals are confounded by the place.

Jemez Mountains in Valles Caldera

Seen from the air, northern New Mexico‘s landscape seems to draw toward a circular mountain range perched among long valleys, broad basins and the spine of the southern end of the Rocky Mountains. The Jemez Mountains form a focal point of history in New Mexico, surrounded as they are by Indian Pueblos, Hispanic villages, Santa Fe, and the so-called Atomic City, Los Alamos. Though the Sangre de Cristo Mountains closer to Santa Fe are higher, the Jemez Mountains to the west of Santa Fe across the Rio Grande have attracted people for centuries. The Jemez (pronounced Hey-mez) Mountains have long had a sublime draw, from the hundreds of Pueblo Indians who left extensive abandoned villages on the plateaus at the range’s feet, to Adolph Bandelier who in the 1880s studied those ruins and the descendants of their inhabitants, and then J. Robert Oppenheimer who led the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos from 1943 to 1945.

The Jemez Mountains are a huge volcano, one of the largest in North America, which erupted many times over the last three million years, spewing ash hundreds of miles to the east and left extensive beds of ashfall at its base. Today, that hardened ash forms sculpted plateaus of tuff, a soft rock easily carved by streams and the hands of the ancestral Pueblo Indians who dug caves into south facing cliffs, storing their corn in some, and living and worshipping in others

From Volcanoes to Calderas

When you stand on this ash plateau, the Jemez Mountains themselves look like rolling high hills immediately to the west. This is the rim of the great Jemez Volcano, worn by years of snow and rain and cloaked in a heavy forest of Ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, spruce and aspen. Looking from Bandelier National Monument or Los Alamos a visitor has little idea of the scene that awaits anyone who climbs over the rim of the volcano and looks down into the yawning remains of the vast caldera at its top.

The Jemez Volcano erupted in a series of great explosions from four different major vents at its top. After each eruption, the expelled magma created a void into which the land above collapsed creating large craters or calderas. Once filled with a vast lake similar to that at Crater Lake National Park in Oregon, the Jemez calderas today are filled with grasslands and wildlife and warm springs. The calderas of the Jemez Mountains are among the youngest and best-preserved in the world.

Valles Caldera

Read: Learn about another one of America's historic national landscapes, the Skyline Drive at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia!

Valles Caldera Spans 15 Miles

I’ve spent many hours talking to people who come up on New Mexico Highway 4 and see the Valles Caldera for the first time. People looking out across the caldera are struck by its expanse, which span 15 miles rim to rim; the sea of grass, coursed by streams and a few small ponds, rolls away deceptively. You can spot elk, part of the 3,000 member Jemez herd, far away and they look like tan specks against the green. Domes of forest rise from the grassland here and there, and the whole of it is rimmed by forested slopes like a great bowl of time.

Forests Maintained by Frost

Valles Caldera
Winter can be fierce at Valles Caldera but for the outdoors-lover, the preserve has miles of trails for the adventurous skier and snowshoer. Photo: BFS Man, Creative Commons

In winter the Valles Caldera is a frigid place. Scientists believe that the forest ends uniformly at the edge of the great grasslands because of the cold winter air pools in the calderas, freezing the earth hard and keeping trees from moving into the bottom lands. While many southwestern grasslands are maintained by frequent fires that clear away trees and nurture grasses, these grasslands are also maintained by frost.

Winter at 10,000 feet at the Valles Caldera is snowy. This past winter the snows piled to five feet in places, drifting against the beautiful rhyolite cliffs where blue spruce gather in little crowds. The Jemez River exits the Valle Grande and heads toward the gaping Jemez Canyon to the west. Winter nights often fall below zero — the sharp cold crystalline in the silence.

Walled off from the rest of New Mexico by its rim mountains, the Valles Calderas seems a secret place even in its expansiveness. This place is a retreat. Hiking into its forests you can feel timeless serenity as the male hermit thrushes sing their dreamy song.

Valles Caldera
Valles Caldera National Preserve encompasses 95,000 acres and is about a 13.7-mile wide area. Photo: Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble, Creative Commons

Read: Interested in more of New Mexico's culture? Check out the New Mexico Fiber Arts Trail!

A Sacred Connection in Valles Caldera

The Spanish who came into New Mexico in 1540 looking for gold never reached the Valles Caldera. But the Pueblo Indians traveled here for centuries to hunt and to make tools from obsidian, the excellent black volcanic glass that lies about in great quantities in the Valles Caldera. This obsidian was better than gold for the Pueblos, useful for both tools and trade. The scatters of chips left from their tool-making tell a story, as do the eagle traps and shrines on various peaks around the caldera rim.

Today the Jemez Pueblo Indians and other Pueblo tribes consider the Valles Caldera a deeply sacred place and their connection to it runs more than a thousand years in their collective experience. Their secret pilgrimages to many places within the caldera continue throughout the year. Their ancestors shared this place with grizzly bear and wolves, two species exterminated in the Southwest by the federal government on behalf of ranchers in the early 1900s.

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Steep Slopes and Rolling Domes

The Valles Caldera was granted to a local Spanish American family in the 1870s to settle a land dispute. A court later ordered its sale when too many conflicting parties claimed pieces of it. It fell to a series of wealthy ownerships, most notably Frank Bond, who brought up to 30,000 sheep to graze on the land in the 1930s, reducing the lush grasslands to dust and filling the streams with silt as the topsoil washed away.

Its steep slopes and rolling resurgent domes were logged heavily starting in the 1880s until the final private owner Pat Dunnigan bought himself some peace in the 1970s when he purchased the timber rights others controlled on his 100,000 acre ranch.

spear points
Use of Valles Caldera dates back to the prehistoric times: spear points dating to 11,000 years ago have been discovered. Photo: Jason Bechtel, Creative Commons

The Beauty of Valles Caldera Threatened

Gone are the days when Navajo and Apache hunters kept Spanish settlers out of the Valles Calderas. Gone too are the private land owners. The Dunnigan heirs sold their Baca Ranch in the Valles Caldera to the federal government in 2000 following a concerted campaign by local activists to see it become public land. It then became the Valles Caldera National Preserve.

The VCNP purchase by the federal government occurred amidst a political battle between those who felt New Mexico had too much public land already and many others who saw the exceptional beauty of the Valles Caldera threatened by continued private ownership, ranching and real estate development. As a compromise, rather than setting up the Preserve under an agency like the US Fish and Wildlife Service or the US Forest Service (which manages most of the land surrounding the Valles Caldera), a “trust” was created to manage the Preserve as a “government corporation” (like the Post Office) overseen by a board of term-limited, politically appointed private-sector trustees.

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These trustees have been reinventing public land management in largely closed meetings as they struggle under a mandate to become “financially self-sufficient” by 2015. No other piece of wild western land has this structure and few people believe it works, least of all the trustees themselves.

On to The National Park Service

Conservationists, led by a group called Caldera Action, have pressed New Mexico’s congressional delegation to introduce legislation closing the VCNP Trust and transferring the Valles Caldera National Preserve to National Park Service management. Hunting and fishing would continue but national park standards would apply. VCNP would become the 19th national preserve managed by the National Park Service.

Although the VCNP has not yet been transferred to the National Park Service, it seems likely it will be. Everyone from elk hunters to plant lovers anticipate the end of access restrictions that have frustrated the public since 2000.

The Migration of Elk in Valles Caldera

elks in action
Magnificent elks in action. Photo: Larry Lamsa, Creative Commons

Photo: Larry Lamsa, Creative Commons

Spring brings a migration of elk to the Valles Caldera from the tuff plateaus where they winter. The females will give birth and tend their young among the caldera’s wildflowers and summer rains. Solitary bull elk move through the forest with their huge antlers, readying for the fall rut and the chance to dominate a harem of cow elk. The bulls fill the fall air with “bugling” that sounds like an eerie wooden flute. Spring brings welcome warmth for the mountain lions, coyotes, deer, bears, prairie dogs and birds of the Jemez Mountains.

Spring also welcomes those who have long fought for stable federal protection of this central feature in the Southwest’s most alluring landscape.

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Header Photo: John Mizel, Creative Commons


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