Valles Caldera is a 13.7-mile wide volcanic bowl in the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico near Los Alamos. About 1.25 million years ago, a spectacular volcanic eruption created this circular depression now known as the Valles Caldera. The Valles Caldera Preservation Act of 2000, signed by President Clinton, created the National Preserve. The preserve is known for its huge mountain meadows, abundant wildlife, and meandering streams. The area also preserves the homeland of ancestral native peoples and embraces a rich ranching history. The good news for all of us is the abundance of hiking trails in the preserve. My brother Dave and I took VC Trail 12 on Monday, October 4, 2016 beginning at 10:30AM and ending about 2:45PM. Our plan was to climb to the crest of the Cerro de la Garita ridge from the valley floor. Unfortunately, we didn’t quite make it all the way.
Hike Length: 8 miles Hike Duration: 4.25 hours
Hike Rating: Difficult. Approximately 600 feet per mile of climbing.
Hike Configuration: Up and back Blaze: None available
Elevation Change: 1,800 feet Elevation Start: 8,550 feet
Trail Condition: Very good. Double track road. Some rocky areas, but mostly grassy.
Starting Point: Trail 12 trailhead on backcountry road 9.
Trail Traffic: We saw only bovine creatures on the trail.
How to Get There: From the Valles Caldera Visitor Center, take backcountry road 2 to the t-stop (about 45 minutes). Turn right on backcountry road 9 and go a little more than a mile. Trail 12 trailhead is on the left.
Use of Valles Caldera dates back to prehistoric times: spear points age tested to 11,000 years ago have been discovered. Several Native American tribes frequented the caldera, often seasonally for hunting. Eventually, Spanish and later Mexican settlers as well as the Navajo and other tribes came to the caldera for grazing.
Later as the United States acquired New Mexico as part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, the caldera became the backdrop for the Indian wars with the U.S Army. Around the same time, the commercial use of the caldera for ranching, and its forest for logging began.
The caldera became part of the Baca Ranch in 1876. The Bacas were a wealthy family given the land as compensation for the termination of a grant given to their family near Las Vegas, in northeastern New Mexico. It traded hands several more times over the next century, before finally being sold to the U.S. Government by the Dunigan family to become the Preserve that exists today.
In July 2011, the Las Conchas Fire started by a power line on nearby private land, burned 30,000 acres within the Preserve. The wildfire burned a total of 158,000 acres in the Jemez Mountains, including most of neighboring Bandelier National Monument. Scars from this disaster are still quite visible throughout the area.
About two miles after you enter the Preserve on a dirt road you reach the Visitor Center. You must stop here to obtain a backcountry permit to continue on the road into the heart of the Preserve. Only 35 permits are issued each day, preventing overcrowding and offering a sense of wilderness and serenity. So you may want to arrive soon after their 8:00 AM opening time.
Once you have the permit in hand, you are welcome throughout the backcountry. The preserve road splits the largest of the open meadows known as Valle Grande. Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife as you wind from meadow to forest and back. We saw probably two dozen elk and a lone coyote as we made our way deep into the caldera. There are still several cabins located along the road, tributes to the 19th and 20th century homesteaders who lived here.
As you drive through the backcountry you pass valles (valleys) (pronounced va-yay) and cerros (hills) (pronounced sare-oh). The valles are massive and the cerros dominate the landscape. We were in luck arriving in early October as the aspen groves in the forests were dutifully displaying their golden autumnal glow, particulary on Cerro San Luis and Cerro Seco.
Before even looking for the trailhead that the ranger at the Visitor Center had helped us choose, we drove to both ends of the backcountry road simply to see what everything looks like. The northern reaches of the Preserve are especially appealing to anglers. There are several creeks and streams that flow down from the cerros.
With the assistance of the ranger, we chose trail 12 for our hike because it was about the right length (8 miles), had not too much elevation gain, but enough for a workout (1,800 feet), and because there is a promise of a grand vista once you reach the top.
There was just one problem. Dave and I were both sick. We started feeling poorly a couple days prior as we were working our way south from central Colorado into northern New Mexico. We both had sore throats, sinus congestion, coughing and wheezing. We would soon find out how it would affect our stamina.
The first mile of trail 12 is almost flat and treeless, passing through the northeastern reaches of Valle San Antonio. About the same time the trail enters a pine forest, it also begins a nonstop climb to the crest of Cerro de la Garita. It’s a fairly steep grade, climbing at 600 feet per mile on average.
It didn’t take too long for me to notice the congestion in my chest was contributing to labored breathing. Besides being nearly 10,000 feet elevation, the exertion was taking a toll on my lungs. But I soldiered on, and on, and on.
Evidence of the 2011 fire can be seen on both sides of the trail with some completely burned out groves, and others that only had a handful of trees impacted. It definitely changes the appearance of the forest.
We didn’t see anymore elk on the hike portion of our day, but we did see cows, including two that were grazing on the trail just ahead of us. Fortunately, they moved on as we continued to approach. It became apparent that some ranchers must still have grazing rights with the Valles Caldera Preserve.
The last mile is the steepest of all. By now I was really laboring. We reached a saddle just a half mile below the crest and I simply couldn’t go any farther. My breathing was really affected by the altitude and the sickness. So I took my pack off and used it as a pillow as I laid down for several minutes to rest. I ate a snack for some energy while Dave climbed farther up the grassy hill to survey the vista.
After about 15 minutes of rest, I was able to go far enough to see the same vista that Dave could, but I still didn’t have it in me to go all the way to the summit. I hate to leave hikes unfinished, but I just didn’t have the energy left to do anymore climbing. When you’re planning a vacation you never even consider that you might get sick.
Fortunately, the descent was uneventful. Since I didn’t have to breathe as hard, it was a whole lot easier on the lungs. Nor did I stumble any because of fatigue. We paused occasionally just for rest, and to eat some more food, and were back to the car within about 90 minutes… a lot quicker than the ascent.
Before heading back to the Visitor Center, we walked about a half mile up trail 13 just to see what was there. It follows Rito de los Indios in Valle Toledo, but all of the forest that we observed was burned. It probably used to be a lot more scenic than it is now.
It took us a little less than an hour to drive back on backcountry road 2 to the Visitor Center. Since they only allow 35 permits per day, they want to know when you leave. As we checked out, we thanked the fine folks at Valles Caldera for their wonderful hospitality.
Summarizing Valles Caldera, it is amazing how large this super-volcano is. It’s no wonder you still find volcanic rock scattered all over northern New Mexico more than a million years later. When it blew its top you could probably feel it and hear it on the other side of the world. It explains why there is so much volcanic rock in the Rio Grande del Norte Gorge 50 miles away.
The meadows and hills of Valles Caldera are beautiful, and there is plenty to see and do. Because of the very large open meadows, the wind tends to blow constantly, so you probably want to bring a jacket… even in summer. There are some hikes that are even harder than the one we did, but most are no more than moderate excursions. If you lived nearby, you could spend an entire season checking out all the available trails. If you happen to be in northern New Mexico, be sure to treat yourself to Valles Caldera.