Valles Caldera National Preserve protects 89,766 acres of the volcanic Jemez mountains west of Santa Fe and the Rio Grande in north central New Mexico. It encompasses most of the gigantic caldera at the heart of the massive volcano that is the Jemez Mountains. The Preserve was established by Congress in 2000 with an experimental structure that created a trust to purchase a 95,000-acre privately held ranch. Small portions were incorporated into Bandelier National Monument and Santa Clara Pueblo. The rest was held by the trust until 2015 when it was transferred to the National Park Service.
Late in the afternoon of November 13 , Sean and I drove the twisting, somewhat frightening road from Bandelier National Monument’s Frijoles Canyon to the heart of the volcano.
It was already past 4pm when we arrived.
I immediately pulled over to gape at what we were looking at, which was surprisingly beautiful. I’m not quite sure what I had been expecting, but the view before us definitely surpassed it.
We drove a little further to a proper overlook (instead of the shoulder of the highway that I had pulled over on at first).
What we were looking at was Valle Grande, the largest of several montane grasslands that comprise the floor of the caldera. After the mountain last exploded some 1.25 million years ago, its cone collapsed into this caldera. Just as at Crater Lake, it then filled with water, creating a huge lake. Over the millennia, the ring of mountains surrounding the caldera (the original slopes of the much higher volcano) slowly eroded. Eventually one of the canyons that formed got low enough to drain the lake from the caldera.
The vast grasslands are maintained by a mix of conditions and forces. The lakebed sediment and harsh, freezing temperatures keep young trees from establishing. Any that do are grazed both by reintroduced Rocky Mountain Elk or cattle. Grazing is specifically allowed in the Preserve’s establishing legislation. Before ranching arrived with the Spanish, Native Americans maintained the open aspect of the landscape through frequent burning.
Speaking of burning, in 2011 a massive wildfire spread from private property through both Valles Caldera National Preserve and Bandelier National Monument. The scars on the landscape are still obvious.
We continued down to the valley floor and turned in at the dirt road leading across the valley toward the Visitor Center.
All throughout the caldera there is evidence of continued vulcanism. Most obviously its in the form of cinder cones and domes rising from the valley floor. The largest of which stand in as small mountain ranges within this gigantic mountain.
We parked at the Contact Station, already in shadow at 4:30pm. It would be closing up in half an hour. Inside a little girl was being sworn in as a junior ranger. Then we waited while the Ranger on staff gave some hiking recommendations to a young woman. We stamped our passports, grabbed our “black band” park maps, and made a couple purchases, including a book about the Preserve’s unique development.
Together, Valles Caldera National Preserve and Bandelier National Monument are places I absolutely want to return to. I’d love to do some long hikes in each of them and get a better feel for the landscape.
It felt like a quick afternoon in these Parks was just an amuse-bouche, a little taste of further adventures to come.
With that, we started down.
Google Maps led us on the most direct route from Valles Caldera back to Santa Fe. This route took us through Los Alamos National Laboratory, which was a complete surprise. We were startled when we were suddenly pulling up to an intimidating security gate and sheepishly said to the guard that were were just driving from the Preserve back to Santa Fe and this is the direction the navigation said to go in response to his query about what our business was at Los Alamos.
The guard informed us that no alcohol was allowed and that we were not allowed to take any photos. He instructed us to drive straight ahead and follow the signs to Santa Fe and that under no circumstances were we to turn right.
On we drove and quickly understood why were weren’t supposed to turn right, since many of the compound’s main buildings were on that side of the highway. After passing them and getting a sense of the momentous aura of the place, I got turned around and freaked out for a moment as we were trying to exit the guarded portion of the area. Sean pointed out the correct way to go and soon we were recrossing the Rio Grande and heading south in the dusk back into town.
We stopped at Target because Sean wanted to get a sweater. He also tried on a jean jacket, and although he wouldn’t buy it then, he did buy it back in Chicago.
We had some time to kill before our 8pm dinner reservation. So we relaxed and took our time showering and and dressing for dinner.
When it was time, we walked into downtown Santa Fe.
Dinner was at La Boca, a Spanish restaurant using local New Mexican ingredients to offer interpretations on classic tapas. It was my birthday dinner, and it was delicious. We got chatting with our waiter, who was from Miami, of all places.
It only slowly dawned on us how crowded the restaurant was. It was, for both Sean and me, the first time we were truly in a crowded place without wearing masks since March 2020.
After dinner, we wandered around town for a bit.
On the way back up the little hill to our casita, we encountered a family of Mule Deer.
Then we enjoyed a fire in the kiva fireplace in the bedroom before we went to sleep.