Park Stop #8 - Valles Caldera National Preserve
In a one of the more remote areas of New Mexico, nestled along the Jemez Mountain Trail Scenic Byway, you’ll find one of the newest additions to the national parks system, Valles Caldera National Preserve. Bursting into existence, about 1.25 million years ago, by way of a spectacular volcanic eruption, is a created the 13-mile wide circular depression known as the Valles Caldera. One of only 7 super volcanos in the world, the rim of the crater stretches for miles in a panoramic view. The far northern border is hidden by Cerro del Medio and Redondo Peak, two volcanic domes that formed within the immense bowl after the main crater collapsed. The preserve was transferred to NPS in October of 2015 and is known for its vast mountain meadows, varied wildlife sightings, and pristine fishing areas.
Originally privately owned lands known as the Baca Ranch, this is an area of New Mexico that holds significant geological, ecological and cultural value. As such it was dedicated as a national preserve in July of 2000 by President Clinton. It encompasses 89,216 acres that, until 2015, was administered by the Valles Caldera Trust. The area is home to 30 miles of trout streams (both brown and rainbow), huge swaths of conifer forest, several endangered plant and animal species and over 25,000 acres of grassland that serves as home to the second largest elk herd in New Mexico.
Some areas of the Baca Ranch, including the headwaters of Santa Clara Creek, considered sacred by the Pueblo, are steeped in of cultural significance. The preserve also contains numerous other Puebloan religious sites, particularly of Jemez Pueblo. So far, there are over 600 documented archaeological sites in the preserve, with artifacts dating as far back as the Paleo-Indian period 10,000 years ago. Some sites were used by ancient southwestern peoples specific activities, while others show evidence of village life.
Operating Hours - General Info
The Valles Caldera National Preserve may be visited any time of year. 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.
Located two miles from main entrance off Hwy. 4 at mile marker 39.2 you will find the Valle Grande Contact Station. It is a rough ride in from the main road, the road is very rustic and rocky. A small car can navigate all of this but regardless of your vehicle it will be slow going. The station’s hours are:
Summer (May 15 to October 31); daily; 8 AM to 6 PM
Winter (November 1 to May 14) daily; 9 AM to 5 PM (closed Thanksgiving and Christmas)
NOTE: A backcountry vehicle permit is required if you wish to drive your personal vehicle into the backcountry before beginning your hiking adventure. Permits are limited and available seasonally as conditions allow. No permit is needed to hike into the backcountry from the Valle Grande Contact Station
Non-commercial vehicle entry fee is $20 per vehicle; with no per person fee. A per person fee of $10 is charged for those arriving by foot, bicycle, horse, or non-commercial bus. Anyone 15 years or younger is exempt from paying an entrance fee. America the beautiful passes are accepted, and there are discount passes for military, seniors, and those with permanent disabilities. Most holidays are free entrance.
Except for service animals, pets are allowed only on designated trails. All animals must be leashed at all times.
Location Coordinates 35.9°N 106.533°W
Things To Do
Day hikes, mountain biking, horseback riding, with cross country skiing and snowshoeing in the winter months., There is also trout fishing (with permit) as well as elk and turkey hunting (limited season by lottery). There are also Ranger led activities as well as companies that provide guided tour services. The NPS web site and the AAA site have detailed information on these types of activities.
A backcountry access pass will allow you to take your vehicle into the preserve for some deep exploration of this super volcano. It is a great way to really see the variety of conifers, including Old Hickory Grove an area containing of some of the only remaining old growth Poderosa pines.
Throughout the preserve it is not uncommon to see elk, black bears, deer, racoon, coyote and many variety of small rodents. Also in the area, though less likely to be seen are porcupine, mountain lion and skunk. Birdwatching in VCNP is good, especially for raptor sightings. Hummingbirds are likely to be zipping willy nilly around the area during the spring and summer months. In all there are 51 species of mammals, 117 birds, 6 reptiles, 3 amphibians, and 6 fish.
The Valles Caldera National Preserve has miles of hiking trails. They range from flat valley strolls to steep climbs.
East Fork of the Jemez River
Home to both brown and rainbow trout, the East Fork of the Jemez River is a popular destination for anglers, hikers, and sightseers alike. Trail leaves from the Valle Grande Contact Station form there either head to the headwaters 4 miles to the east, or 2.4 miles downstream to a secluded Hidden Valley where the river leaves the preserve to the southwest.
San Antonio Creek
Below the north rim of the volcanic caldera lies 12 miles of the San Antonio Creek running through the mountain meadows. Wildlife sightings are quite common through this area.
Vehicle access to the San Antonio Creek is limited and available seasonally as conditions allow. Access to the creek via hiking, biking, horseback riding, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing is available year-round as conditions allow.
Historic Cabin District
The cabin district was used by previous land owners for sheep and cattle ranching operations since the 1860s. Learn about the ranching history of the 88,900 acres once known as Baca Location No 1.
The north rim offers, breathtaking views of the Valles Caldera. The hike involves some effort but it is well worth it for the views and the wildlife. Vehicle access to La Garita is limited and available seasonally as conditions allow. Access to the creek via hiking, biking, equestrian riding, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing is available year-round as conditions allow.
The south rim provides some amazing views of the Valle Grande to the north and Dome Wilderness to the south. The easiest access to south rim is from the Coyote Call Trailhead.
Campgrounds (in the park or nearby)
Valles Caldera does not have any established campgrounds, lodges or backcountry camping permits available. (Groups may have the option to apply for a special use permit.) Camping can be accessed nearby at the Bandelier National Monument and near Santa Fe National Forest. Bandelier also offers backcountry camping.
Jemez Falls Campground – Open May- October
The campground is located in a stunning Ponderosa Pine and forest meadow near the East Fork Jemez River. Jemez Falls, largest waterfall in the Jemez Mountains, is close by. The campground has 52 camp sites with picnic table and fire ring. Paved access which allows trailers and RV’s up to 40 feet. Vault toilets, no dump station available. Drinking water is available. $10/vehicle/night for single unit.
Juniper Family Campground – Open all Year
Located near the entrance to the Bandelier National Park, just off Highway 4. After passing through the park entrance station take the first right turn. Juniper Campground rarely fills to capacity and are first come first served, no reservations are taken, and rarely needed. There is also a small section of walkout campsites ($12/night). Cost for family camping is $12/night with a fifty percent discount for holders of federal senior or federal access passes. Fees are paid at a self-registration kiosk located near the entrance to the campground.
A restroom with running water is centrally located in each campground loop. Each site has a picnic table and a grill. There are no electrical hook-ups or showers available. Most sites are appropriate for tent, RV, or trailer camping. Several sites can accommodate vehicles as long as 40 feet.
San Antonio Campground – Open May – October
Located along the San Antonio River, the campground is situated in Ponderosa Pines and forest meadows. Campground elevation is 7,600 feet above sea level. The campground features a lovely paved walking trail along the river. Fees are $10/vehicle/night for single unit; $15 per night for hook-up sites. Reservations strongly recommended.
The campground has 21 single sites and a group site with nine walk-in camp sites. The campground has six camp sites with electric and water hook-ups for trailers and RV’s up to 35 feet. Drinking water available. The campground has vault toilets; no dump station available so be prepared to pack.
Forks Campground – Open All Year
The Forks Campground provides primitive camping opportunities along the West Fork of the Gila River. The Forks Campground is a U.S. Forest Service campground located approximately five miles south of the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument just off NM State Highway 15 and just north of the Gila River Bridge. The only water available at the campground is from the river and must be either filtered, boiled, or chemically treated. No tables or grills provided. Vault toilets are available on site. Camping is free of charge and first-come, first served.
Grapevine Campground – Open All Year
The Grapevine Campground provides primitive camping opportunities along the East Fork of the Gila River. The Grapevine Campground is a U.S. Forest Service campground located approximately five miles south of the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument just off NM State Highway 15 and just south of the Gila River Bridge. The only water available at the campground is from the river and must be either filtered, boiled, or chemically treated. No tables or grills provided. Vault toilets are available on site. Camping is free of charge and first-come, first served.
Upper and Lower Scorpion Campgrounds – Open All Year
Scorpion Campgrounds provide primitive camping opportunities along the West Fork of the Gila River. The Scorpion Campgrounds are U.S. Forest Service campgrounds located approximately one-half mile south of the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument just off NM State Highway 15. Drinking water is available at the RV station located at the parking area for the Gila Visitor Center (approximately 1 1/2 miles away). Tables and grills are provided. Vault toilets are available on site. Camping is free of charge and first-come, first served.
Lake Roberts Campgrounds – Mesa Is Open All Year
The District offers several campgrounds on the Lake Roberts that are equipped with restrooms, drinking water, tables, and campfire grills for a nominal fee of $7 on a first come, first serve basis. The Upper-End campground has 12 units and is open year-round. The Mesa campground has 24 units, 12 have water & electrical hookups, the remaining are dry-camping units.
Food & Gas
You’ll need to bring whatever you will need during your stay, including plenty of water, as the preserve doesn’t currently provide any goods or services. There are gas stations and a variety of restaurants in Los Alamos, which is about a 30 minute drive. Home to Los Alamos Laboratories, and with stunning views of its own, the town has a lot to offer for restaurant choices.
Best Time To Visit
Late spring to early fall.
Each season offers a different experience: budding springs, moderate summers, the golden colors of fall, and powder snow winters. The busy season in Valles Caldera runs from May-October.
The climate is usually dry with July and August as the rainy months with a possibility of short but intense rain each day.
During the summer daytime highs average in the 90s (F) while nighttime lows can reach into the 50s (F). During the winter daytime highs can be in the 50s (F), while nighttime lows can reach into the teens.
Drives & Scenic Overlooks
There is one main access road through the monument.
My Trip Report
There was snow and mud on the main road during my visit; I saw some cars sliding a little and did not want to chance getting stuck on the entrance road. There were a few folks exiting that had been cross country skiing. I will definitely go back to revisit this monument during better weather.
Have you been to Valles Caldera National Preserve? Did I leave any must-dos or must-see sights off the list? Let me know in the comments below.
By The Numbers
Service animals are permitted.
We Are The Parks - Get Involved!
We all have the responsibility to help protect and preserve this important legacy. Here are five things you can do to minimize your impact and help protect the parks for future generations:
- Follow the Rules. A new story about bad behavior in our national parks comes out almost every day. With people regularly doing things like walking on geothermal features, getting far too close to wildlife, illegally using drones, and vandalizing priceless natural and cultural treasures, NPS resources are stretched. We can all help the NPS and protect valuable natural resources by following established rules.
- Practice Leave No Trace principles. With visitation to NPS sites at an all-time high, it is even more important for all of us to be good stewards of the places we visit. An easy way to reduce your personal impact in learning about and practicing Leave No Trace principles.
- Petition & Vote. In addition to supporting petitions and sending letters to your congresspeople. Consider the preservation, protection, and adequate funding of public lands when voting for local, state and federal officials consider. If these things are a priority for you as well, check in with your local and national conservation organizations to see how politicians in your community view the protection of public lands before you cast your votes.
- Get Involved. There are many ways to volunteer including artists-in-residence and citizen science programs.
- Support. Consider making a donation to the National Park Foundation. The NPF is the official charitable partner to the National Park System.