Valles Caldera National Preserve
The Valles Caldera National Preserve  (VCNP for short) is a new (2015) and unusual unit of the United States national park system in the Jemez Mountains of north central New Mexico. It preserves a huge volcanic structure of great scenic and scientific value, under an arrangement that allows it also to function as a working ranch. Facilities for the visitor are still being developed and are undergoing rapid change.
The Valles Caldera has had an unusual history that has given it a unique position among United States national parks. After a long pre-history of occupation by ancestral Puebloans and later Spanish settlers, the caldera and the surrounding Jemez Mountains passed into United States control after the Mexican-American War. At this time it wasn't viewed as particularly significant: a remote, if scenic, area of what seemed to be grazing land within a newly-acquired territory, of little commercial interest to anyone but the old Spanish families that had already settled and pastured livestock there, sometimes in the face of considerable hostility from nearby Indian populations. Consequently, when a bill was passed in the United States Congress in 1860 to compensate the Baca family, a pioneering family in New Mexico with significant land holdings, for the federalization of some of their land, a large tract of land in the Jemez, including most of the caldera, was handed over to the Bacas, along with four more tracts of 100,000 acres each elsewhere in the Southwest. This tract became known as "Baca Location No. 1" and would retain this name long after the Baca family sold it to other investors.
The Baca Location changed hands a few times in the 19th and 20th centuries before winding up in the hands of James P. (Pat) Dunigan, a wealthy Texan who had a good sense for the history and aesthetics of the property. Dunigan was horrified by the environmental damage inflicted on his property by prior holders of the timber rights. He therefore bought out the holders of those rights, and placed most of the Baca Location off limits to development while he negotiated with the United States government to sell the land back to the government under terms that guaranteed its preservation in perpetuity. The negotiations literally took decades, but finally, in 1999, Congress authorized the acquisition of the Baca Location from Dunigan's heirs, as he had died by this time.
The terms of the acquisition called for the resulting "Valles Caldera National Preserve" (VCNP) to differ from practically any other national park land in the United States, in two related senses. First, in recognition of not only the history of the Baca Location but also the fact that the grazing there is economically significant to the region (which cannot exactly be called wealthy), Congress decreed that the Preserve would continue to function as a working ranch. Second, and as a result, management of the VCNP would be done via a "trust" that includes representatives of not only the agencies that contributed land to the Preserve but also members of nearby communities. In 2015, the trust was terminated and the Preserve transferred to the National Park Service. These factors together explain why visitor facilities have been slow in developing.
The beautiful terrain has led to the area being used as background for a number of movies (some quite recent), and old, decaying movie sets are scattered around the valleys. Some are accessible via trail rides or hikes, but please don't touch; they're scenic, but generally in such rickety shape as to be hazardous.
The terrain is volcanic with the caldera rim topping out at elevations around 10,500 feet. (Chicoma Mountain (11,590) and a few other points along the northeastern rim reach over 11,000', but lie outside the Preserve, on the territory of Santa Clara Pueblo.) The caldera itself has a base level at 8700' and is broken into a collection of valleys by resurgent domes and post-caldera eruptive centers. The largest valley is the Valle Grande, on the southeast side of the caldera; the highest summit within the caldera, and the highest in the Preserve, is Redondo Peak, with a summit elevation above 11,200 feet. Note that Redondo Peak is considered a sacred mountain by a number of the American Indian tribes of the region, and its summit is off limits to hikers. El Cajete is a relatively recent (~60,000 years old?) eruptive center southwest of Valle Grande that is reachable by an attractive Nordic ski trail.
Most of the mountains in VCNP are fairly gentle, although there are a few basalt outcroppings that produce cliffs. These cliffs are not yet open to the public for rock climbing, but similar formations in the surrounding Santa Fe National Forest and in nearby Los Alamos are popular attractions for the technical sport climber. The territory outside the caldera features a vast region of eroded tuff known as the Pajarito Plateau, with spectacular canyon-mesa scenery. Los Alamos is built on the Pajarito Plateau, and many of the formation's canyons are preserved in Bandelier National Monument which abuts VCNP on the southeast. The drive to VCNP from the east (Los Alamos) side shows this terrain to breathtakingly good advantage.
Flora and fauna
The valleys are grasslands, while the mountains are covered with coniferous forest and aspens. New Mexico's largest herd of elk spends its summers in the Preserve, migrating to lower elevations for winter. Deer and black bear are also encountered, and there are a few mountain lions, although they are almost never seen by visitors. Smaller animals include the ubiquitous coyote, porcupine, skunk, raccoon, and all manner of rodents.
Birdwatching in VCNP is good, although not as diverse as along the nearby Rio Grande. Many species of raptors are present and can often be seen perched on dead timber or gliding above the valleys looking for prey, as can black vultures. Two of the most characteristic birds of VCNP, at opposite ends of the size scale, are the huge black ravens that compete for offal with the vultures, and several species of hummingbirds that may zing past you as you hike or ride. The raptors, vultures and ravens are residents year-round, but the hummers are migratory and head south around the beginning of September.
There are few snakes in VCNP, as the elevation is too great for most of them. However, timber rattlesnakes have been seen on occasion even near the top of the ski runs on Pajarito Mountain (elevation 10,409') on the eastern rim above Los Alamos. The endangered Jemez Mountain salamander is present and could lead to occasional closures of parts of VCNP to preserve its habitat. Trout swim in the streams that have their headwaters in the region, some of which are suitable for fishing (permit system).
Valles Caldera has a continental climate with four distinct seasons. Winter weather is highly variable, with some years producing a great deal of snow (over four feet of snow has fallen in a single storm) and other years producing almost none at all. Winter highs in the valleys are typically around 35-40 degrees (Fahrenheit) and lows in the single digits, although there are isolated cold pockets from cold air coming off the mountains. December is often the coldest month and can see sub-zero temperatures at night. Snow in the valleys usually melts completely around April, and spring characterized by high winds. This combination can create nasty forest-fire hazard in May and June, particularly following a dry winter. Winds die down somewhat by June, which is warm (highs in the 70s-80s) and dry. Monsoon conditions develop in July and persist until around the beginning of September, leading to cooler temperatures (highs in the 70s, lows around 50) and spectacular afternoon thunderstorms that urge the hiker to be off the trails by early afternoon. This is a great time to visit, but make sure you bring raingear and start your day early. The thunderstorms usually die out by Labor Day or so, leading to autumn conditions that are temperate, dry (apart from the occasional frontal storm system) and generally very pleasant. The first snowfall is commonly in October, but snow doesn't start to stick until Thanksgiving or so. Conditions on the mountains are similar but 10 degrees cooler, with more rain and snow.
Access is via New Mexico State Highway 4 between Los Alamos and San Ysidro. This paved road is usually open year-round, although it may close briefly during particularly severe snowstorms. The nearest major airport is in Albuquerque, about 70 miles away by road. There is no bus or rail service nearby.
The VCNP was originally setup as an autonomous wholly owned corporation, but it is now within the National Park system. The original Trust structure, with a board of directors that managed the Preserve, was an experiment in land management. The experiment was reviewed in 2015 by Congress and the VCNP placed under the National Park System at that time.
Access to the preserve via SR 4 is based on the typical NPS fee system, with a standard entry fee of $20 per vehicle, good for reentry within seven days. Also available is an annual pass for this Preserve only, good for 12 months from date of purchase, which is $40. Additionally, all Federal Fee Area passes are honored: America the Beautiful—National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Annual Pass, Annual Pass for US Military, Access Pass for disabled, and Senior Pass. All passes are available for purchase at the visitor's center. Once the entry fee has been satisfied, all activities within the Preserve are free. Visitors may hike, Nordic ski, mountain bike, drive through the Preserve, or hike, either within the Preserve or from trail heads along SR 4 (free permit). The VCNP web site, https://www.nps.gov/vall/index.htm, has details.
Another unusual feature of VCNP is that it is one of very few major national park/preserve sites at which hunting, on a restricted basis, is allowed -- specifically, elk hunting and turkey hunting, as the resident elk herd is in constant need of culling. A limited number of permits are issued each year, on a "lottery" system managed by New Mexico Game and Fish. The web site has additional details at http://www.wildlife.state.nm.us/hunting/applications-and-draw-information/. Trout fishing is also available but requires a back country pass which can be obtained at the visitor's center. There are 35 passes available daily on a first-come, first-serve basis.
The road to the visitor center is driveable year-round (if rough) in ordinary cars.
If you're doing something that involves travel on foot, hiking boots are a good idea. If Nordic skiing, be braced for highly variable conditions. The Jemez Mountains are notorious for snow conditions that place perfect powder, hard ice, and milk-shake-like slush all within 100 feet of each other. Choose your equipment accordingly; this is a good place for waxless skis, as they're relatively tolerant of changing conditions.
VCNP is more of a "Do" place than a "See" place, but expansive views of the preserve can be found all along NM SR 4, which runs along the southern edge of the Valle Grande. Bring good binoculars and a telephoto lens; the valley is much bigger than you think it is. If passing by during the summer, you'll probably have a chance to see elk grazing in the Valle, right alongside (and sometimes intermingled with) the cattle that spend the summer there as part of the preserve's mandate.
The Preserve operates elk tours during the summer on most Fridays and Saturdays that afford opportunities for wildlife viewing, including (possibly up-close-and-personal) encounters with the huge resident elk herd. Tour cost is included in the entry fee and are reserved via the VCNP web site. Departure from the visitor center is at 5:30 p.m., with check-in at 5:00. Since many of the larger animals of the Preserve are crepuscular (i.e., active at dawn and dusk), you wouldn't be likely to see much of interest in the middle of the day even if a tour was operating, so accept the later departure time in the interest of seeing more wildlife.
The hiking trails in the Preserve are free. However, two attractive trails based on defunct logging roads are accessible from SR 4: Coyote Call Trail, leading through meadows to a low pass, and Rabbit Ridge Trail, to a ridge end on the caldera rim. The trailheads are at mile marker 41; nice views of the Valle Grande on the hikes, which are each about a 3-mile round trip. Another pleasant trail leaves SR 4 at mile marker 43 and descends to the edge of the Valle Grande (2.5-mile round trip). Hikers on this trail sometimes have stirring encounters with the VCNP elk herd.
There are many miles of trails in the interior of the Preserve that can be hiked, weather permitting. The fee for access includes all activities within the Preserve, including hiking.
Nordic skiing is possible, snow permitting (it didn't permit during the winter of 2005-6), from December to April (in theory, although the snow rarely lasts this long) on a daily basis. Cost is included in the entry fee.
An interesting Nordic trip is to El Cajete, one of the more recent eruptive features in the caldera. This is a round trip of just a few miles on old logging roads, with relatively little elevation change, and should be feasible for the inexperienced Nordic skier. Longer trips lead into the interior of the caldera. It's easy to underestimate distances here owing to the immensity of the Valle Grande and the lack of features for scale; make sure you're up to the trip you choose.
Since 2006, New Mexico Orienteers holds a ski and snow-shoe orienteering meet in Valle Grande each February. Spectacular views of Valle Grande can be seen from the top of the Pajarito Ski Area and from the Canada Bonito trail in the Santa Fe National Forest.
Fishing within VCNP is excellent in all of the streams. Great fishing is found at the Rio San Antonio, the East Fork of the Jemez River, and Jaramillo Creek.
Access to the East Fork and Jaramillo Creek is also easy. Anglers may hike to the streams from the staging or park on the public access road (VC01) near the river. Additional details are on the web site.
The fisherman who doesn't wish to pay access fees, or just wants more time on the stream than the permit offers, can go to any number of public-access areas (free, but NM fishing license required) downstream of the Preserve in Santa Fe National Forest. Access is convenient from SR 4 on the west side of VCNP.
One of the primary money-makers for VCNP is the annual elk hunt. The resident elk herd is the largest in New Mexico, is reproducing vigorously (hearing the bugling of the bulls in the fall rutting season is a stirring experience), and would rapidly exceed the carrying capacity of the terrain, resulting in starvation and disease, without culling. A limited number of hunters each fall are therefore allowed on the Preserve each year, via a lottery system. Tickets for the lottery cost only $5 each, but do not guarantee the purchaser a hunt -- only the possibility that the ticket will be drawn when the small number of annual hunting permits are allocated. If you hold a winning ticket and get to hunt, you'll have to pay considerably more for the privilege of actually doing so. Turkey hunting is also permitted via the same lottery system.
Horseback riding is permitted during the spring, summer, and fall months in the VCNP. At the Banco Bonito trailhead horse riders have reserved, secure trailer parking and access to a network of dedicated trails to scenic Redondo Meadow and El Cajete. The trails are easy, well kept ranch roads. Horse riders are permitted on about 20 miles of trails. Horse layovers are welcome at a private camp 4 miles away in Vallecitos, 45 minutes away at Fenton Lake State Park, and 1 hour away in Los Alamos at Camp May and at the Rodeo Grounds. Los Alamos has an extraordinary network of hundreds of miles of horse-friendly trails linking the town to the surrounding Santa Fe National Forest, Pajarito Ski Area, and Bandelier National Monument. Some of these trails overlook Valle Grande. Santa Fe National Forest also has many forest roads and trails, including Trail 119, Turkey Spring Trail (from a SFNF portion of the Valles Caldera to Bandelier National Monument) and Trail 126, Peralta Ridge Trail.
The visitor center does not at the present have a gift shop or store. Current plans are to contract with a concessionaire in the near future. Los Alamos, about 25 miles away, has supplies of all denominations, along with some memorabilia.
You'll have to bring your own food. There are no restaurants in the Preserve. Los Alamos, about 20 miles east, and smaller Jemez Springs, a similar distance west, are the nearest communities with reliable restaurant and grocery-store service, although the village of La Cueva, en route to Jemez Springs, sometimes has a restaurant and/or convenience store.
You will need to bring with you whatever you want to drink. There is water available at the visitor's center to refill your own container. Remember to stay well hydrated. Visitors can become dehydrated quickly at the elevation of the Preserve. There are no night-life-oriented facilities within 20 road miles of the Preserve.
There is no lodging or camping permitted in the preserve.
Nearby Los Alamos has a reasonable number of hotel/motel/B&B rooms. Limited lodging may also be available in or near Jemez Springs.
At the present time, no camping is allowed on VCNP except for special events. This may change as facilities develop, so check back on occasion. Surrounding Santa Fe National Forest has a number of developed campgrounds in the Jemez Ranger District. The ones along NM SR 4 are convenient to VCNP. In order of proximity to the VCNP main entrance, they are Jemez Falls Campground, Redondo Campground, and San Antonio Campground. Also convenient are Camp May (see Los Alamos) and Fenton Lake State Park.
At the present time, overnight backpacking in VCNP is not allowed, but this may change as the preserve develops.