Trip reports

Valles Caldera National Preserve

Spoiler alert: Bears! Yep, Mr. Adventure spotted bears on this hike. Read on to learn the whole story.

New Mexico, day two. Destination: Valles Caldera National Preserve, high in the Jemez Mountains. We’d driven past it the day before, the 13.7-mile-wide caldera stretching on and on along the driver’s side of the car. A gravel road forked off the highway and faded into the basin. I’d wanted to hike here last year but a late-season snowstorm put the kibosh to that idea.

We passed a herd of elk browsing in the trees along the highway, bumped down the road to the visitor center, and asked the ranger on duty for hiking advice. “We’re looking for maybe 5 to 8 miles,” we told her. Mr. Adventure had to be back in Santa Fe for a meeting later that afternoon.

“You might go up the South Mountain trail,” she said. “I haven’t been up there to see the conditions, and you’ll run into snow on the north slopes at some point and turn back when it gets too deep. Come back and tell me what you find.” Sounded good to us.

Outside the visitor center dozens of prairie dogs popped up from their burrows, squeaking at each other and us. Some colonies in the area have been devastated by plague (yes, like the Middle Ages plague), including one on the preserve that scientists had been studying for several years. Luckily, the colony around the visitor center was healthy.

The visitor center sits in the middle of the Valle Grande, the grand valley, one of several large valleys inside the caldera. To get to South Mountain we headed north on a service road, quickly realizing that when you walk across a caldera, distance and time seem elongated. It was only about 1.5 miles to the first junction, but it felt like it took forever. Hiking in Pacific Northwest forests, we’re not accustomed to being able to see our destination from the trail. Plenty of bluebirds flew back and forth across the road as we walked, keeping us entertained.

Valle Grande, Valles Caldera National Preserve
Walking across Valle Grande, the road feels extra-long. (Mr. Adventure photo)

We arrived at the edge of the Ponderosa pine – Douglas-fir forest, where historic structures look out over the valley.  In the mid-1800s, sheep and cattle from ranching operations ranged here. Today, as a national preserve, the caldera allows uses not allowed in national parks, including grazing. The Park Service issues livestock permits, but grazing is limited to what the agency deems sustainable. The beautiful log ranch buildings constructed by former owners cluster in the Historic Cabin District.

Historic Cabin District, Valles Caldera National Preserve.
Two buildings in the Historic Cabin District, Valles Caldera National Preserve. (Lauren Danner photo)

Of course, for millennia before the ranchers, local indigenous peoples used obsidian from the caldera to make spear points and blades, trading them across the Southwest. As people came to what is now New Mexico from Spain, Mexico, and other areas in the Southwest, the caldera became a popular grazing site. Later, after the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ceded the land to the United States, native peoples and settlers skirmished in the caldera over land and grazing rights.

In 1876, the U.S. government gave about 100,000 acres of Valles Caldera to the Baca family, compensation for terminating a land grant in northeastern New Mexico that the Bacas had owned under Spanish and Mexican rule. What came to be known as Baca Location No. 1 is one of several far-flung pieces of land given to the Bacas by the federal government. Since then, Valles Caldera has had several owners who grazed livestock and logged the forests. In the 1930s, the then-owner ran more than 30,000 sheep in the caldera, causing overgrazing damage from which the watersheds are still recovering. In the 1960s, a Texas oilman with an ecological bent purchased the land, eventually ended the logging, and reduced the grazing.

In 2000, President Bill Clinton signed legislation creating the Valles Caldera National Preserve. The bill provided for the purchase of the land with funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a program started under President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 as a bipartisan effort to conserve land for recreation using revenues earned from government-issued oil and gas drilling permits. Over the past fifty years, the LWCF has paid for national parks, local baseball fields, and everything in between. Yet every budget cycle, Congress debates whether to continue funding the LWCF, and in recent years members of Congress like Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) have actively worked to terminate the fund.

Road in Valles Caldera National Preserve
Paid for by oil and gas drilling permit fees, and your tax dollars. I’d say Valles Caldera National Preserve is well worth it. (Lauren Danner photo)

The 2000 legislation provided LWCF funding for Valles Caldera, and after more than a decade of experimenting with a nonprofit trust management structure, the Park Service took over administration in 2015. Because of this, Valles Caldera has the feel of a place that is just starting up. For example, there is no classic park brochure as you might expect from similar places. It’s so new that it’s not listed in the 2014 NPS brochure “Experience New Mexico’s National Parks.”

As a national preserve, Valles Caldera allows hunting, fishing (the trout in the East Fork Jemez River attracted plenty of fly fishers the day we visited), mountain biking (also popular), guided van tours, horseback riding, non-motorized winter sports, camping, and backcountry access.

South Mountain trailhead, Valles Caldera National Preserve
Finally, 2.5 miles from the visitor center, the South Mountain trailhead. (Lauren Danner photo)

We were there to hike, and we continued along the old ranching road to the trailhead at the base of the mountain, about 2.5 miles from the visitor center. The elk-trampled trail angled gently upward through the cool and fragrant forest. “I could hike on this forever,” I thought. After a couple more miles, it felt like we would be hiking on it forever. Where was the snow? We crossed a few minor snow fields, but most could be skirted without leaving the trail. We kept climbing.

“We should probably turn back if you want to make your meeting,” I reluctantly said. But Mr. Adventure and I share a kind of compulsion to get to the end of the trail. “Let’s keep going,” he replied. The trail grew steeper and narrower. We startled a blue grouse and stopped to watch it, catching our breath.

End of South Mountain marked trail, Valles Caldera National Preserve
The end of the marked trail on South Mountain. (Lauren Danner photo)

A little further up, we stepped into a broad meadow and couldn’t find any more trail blazes. We’d reached the summit, or more accurately, the end of the marked trail. There was no snow in sight. We could see the true summit across the meadow and up another hill. No snow. Pausing on a log to munch Kind bars, we discussed our next move. Then we headed cross-country to the summit plateau, which truth be told, wasn’t that spectacular. No sweeping views except the meadow we’d just ascended, and plenty of burned trees from the devastating 2011 La Concha Fire. But we made it.

End of South Mountain Trail, Valles Caldera National Preserve
View from the true summit of South Mountain. (Lauren Danner photo)

Now we just had to go all the way back.

We figured we’d probably hiked six miles so far. It was clearly going to be a longer hike than originally planned, and my feet were tired. Mr. Adventure moved ahead as I stopped to adjust socks, blister tape, and boots. I had almost caught up to him in the forest about a half-mile below the summit when he suddenly stopped.

“Look!” he hissed. “I think I see a bobcat.” I looked where he pointed. And then we watched two biggish bear cubs climb down out of a Ponderosa pine on the ridge well above us. Holy smokes! No mama in sight, but they headed away from us at top bear-cub speed, so she was nearby. We waited a few more minutes, listening, but didn’t hear or see anything else.

Adrenalin pumping, we again started downhill, marveling over the cubs. We agreed they were probably second-year cubs because of their size. But we disagreed on color; Mr. Adventure said butterscotch, I said cinnamon. Bears were emerging from hibernation, so we felt extra-lucky to have seen these two.

South Mountain trail, Valles Caldera National Preserve
South Mountain trail near the bear-spotting site. (Mr. Adventure photo)

Elation over the bears floated us down the mountain and over the miles back to the visitor center. We strode in and found the ranger who’d suggested the hike. “There’s no snow to speak of,” we said. “We went all the way to the summit.” She was surprised and happy to learn that South Mountain was essentially clear.

Valles Caldera National Preserve
Heading back to the visitor center after leaving the South Mountain trail. (Lauren Danner photo)

Then Mr. Adventure told her about the bears, and her eyes lit up. “That’s great to know,” she exclaimed. “I’ve got to get up there soon.” We agreed. In 12 miles, we’d seen one other person, and that was on the road before we arrived at the trailhead. Solitude, sunshine, and bears — what more could you hope for? We left feeling like we’d gotten a good feel for Valles Caldera National Preserve, and we plan to return to explore even more. If we’re extra-lucky, we’ll see bears.