Valles Caldera National Preserve
The Valles Caldera is a supervolcano that spans more than 89,000 acres and is home to prehistoric sites, historic cabins, and a plethora of wildlife, including elk.
Growing up in Los Alamos, my husband and I have driven by the Valles Caldera many times and were always impressed by its massive size. Being privately owned at the time, we always just wondered what was down in the valley and how big the Valles Caldera actually was.
The Valles Calders formed over one million years ago when a volcanic eruption in New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains created the Valles Caldera, one of seven super volcanoes found in the world. There are over 54 miles of hiking trails, 30 miles of trout streams, and a plethora of wildlife that call the Valles Caldera home.
About 120,000 visitors come to the preserve each year to enjoy activities such as hiking, biking, fishing, hunting, and simply enjoying this southwest geologic gem. The busy season in Valles Caldera runs from May-October. We were thrilled when the Valles Caldera became a National Preserve and thus became open to the public for tours. We learned we could reserve a backcountry driving permit ahead of time and made sure to do that a few days before our visit to ensure we would see everything we wanted the day we visited.
We visited in early July. We were asked to please arrive by 10am to claim our backcountry driving permit or give them a call if we were running late to guarantee our reservation. They only offer a handful of driving permits per day, so if you are late, you do risk they may not hold your reservation. We never have good mobile service in the Jemez, so I gave them a courtesy call as we were leaving Los Alamos and that worked well. Also, there are no gas stations less than 20 miles from the Valles Caldera, so make sure you gas up in Los Alamos, Albuquerque, or at the gas station near Jemez Pueblo, south of Jemez Springs as you will be driving throughout the preserve.
The drive into the preserve from Highway 4 is stunning. We meandered down the valley and across a picturesque stream bordered by tall green grass and acres of wildflowers. The road ended at a log cabin visitor center with a couple of shuttle vans sitting in front. We checked in, paid our permit fee, and were given a map of the preserve which showed designated parking areas, restrooms (port a pottys), and roads we were allowed to drive on. The ranger pointed out that gates close daily at 6pm and we had to give ourselves about 45 minutes to get from the farthest point of the preserve back to the gate. This was helpful as we were not familiar with the scale of the property.
I inquired about any tours, and the staff was friendly and explained that there was a 6 hour geology tour being offered that day as well as informal shuttle tours that about an hour long in length and take visitors out to the historic cabins on site and back and last about an hour. We decided the shorter hour long tour would be a great introduction to the preserve and we were right. Though there were other visitors at the welcome center, we were the only two that took the tour and had the van to ourselves. Our driver was a knowledgeable and friendly man who had worked at the Valles Caldera for over 8 years. He answered all of our questions and provided us with an abundance of information about the history of this massive supervolcano, the history of land ownership of the preserve, and took us through the historic cabins on site and described what movies and tv series they are used in. He was very patient and told us to just let him know if we wanted him to stop for any photos. He also gave us tips for viewing elk, information on programs they offer in the winter and evenings monthly, and suggested a few parking spots with pretty views up along the further parts of the caldera.
We returned to the visitor center, used the restroom, and headed back the way the shuttle had come and set off to explore this beautiful park at a nice leisurely pace.
We picnicked up along the higher ridge past a picturesque historic cabin and spent about and additional four hours exploring the preserve. Highlights for us included a photo shoot in a meadow of pretty mountain wildflowers where the sound of the bees buzzing was deafening, hiking some of the nature trails high up along the upper meadow, where the elevation soars above 9,000 feet, and seeing one lone elk cross a meadow and up a big hill in front of us on the road. You will want to pack layers and be prepared for changing mountainous weather conditions, be bear aware, stay on designated trails, and slow down and not approach wildlife when you see it. Pets are not allowed in the preserve.
We cannot wait to visit the Valles Caldera Preserve again. Next time, we would like to bring our mountain bikes which are permitted and seem like they would be a great way to explore the preserve. We also want to return to one of their monthly full moon extended hours Saturdays. These days the preserve is open until 10pm and your chances of viewing elk will be greater. They also provide campfire time with stories on these evening, both in summer and winter.
There are many trails of varying lengths and abilities throughout the Valles Caldera. Make sure to pick up a trail map upon checking in at the Visitor’s Center.
Northwest of Albuquerque near Los Alamos, NM