It could be said that Valles Caldera National Preserve is the closest thing to Yellowstone, minus the geysers and waterfalls . . . and extensive crowds. What can you find at this beautiful location just 90 minutes north of Albuquerque? A dramatic landscape that was also created by volcanic activity, sweeping vistas, centuries of human history, abundant wildlife, a plethora of recreation opportunities, along with peace and solitude.
You may have already seen parts of Valles Caldera in movies and television shows, chosen as a film location due to its natural beauty. For example, when Sheriff Walt Longmire on the Longmire television show sipped a cup of coffee on his front porch, the beautiful view he took in was Valle Grande at Valles Caldera. But you really need to see if for yourself to appreciate all it has to offer. In fact, you can stand in front of Walt’s cabin and enjoy his view!
Valles Caldera’s Geologic History
Valles Caldera, which is up to 15 miles wide, was formed by two separate volcanic events more than a million years ago. A caldera is depression that can form when a volcano erupts and the magma has been released. One expert on calderas calls Valle Caldera “the world’s best example of a resurgent caldera” and it has become something of the gold standard of calderas. There is still a magma chamber miles below the surface that creates hot springs and occasional small earthquakes.
The volcanic activity and later the action of water and erosion formed the landscape you see today. Prehistoric lakes fed by creeks left sediment in Valle Grande that is hundreds of feet thick and which has a mineral content that doesn’t support the growth of aspen, fir, or Ponderosa pine trees that are dominant in the area. Along with the colder winter temperatures in the depression that prevent tree seedlings from taking root, the result is a sweeping area of grassy meadows that has attracted people for centuries.
Human History at Valles Caldera
Early people came to this area for a number of reasons, but one was the abundance of quality obsidian that could be used to create arrowheads, speartips, and tools, as well as trade with other early people in far-flung areas. You can find obsidian quarries and remnants of tool making activity today, but leave anything you find for others to enjoy. In fact, don’t remove antler sheds, plants, or anything else you find here (other than trash left by other visitors). It is illegal to remove them.
Because these early people were hunters and gatherers, another reason they would come to Valles Caldera seasonally was the availability of the hundreds of plants they could use for food, medicine, or ceremonies. Of course, the abundance of elk, deer, and turkeys and eventually the ability to grow crops of corn and squash also made the area attractive. Many of today’s pueblo people had ancestors who may have called Valles Caldera home for at least part of the year from as early as 12,000 years ago.
Later, the Spaniards came and eventually, this land was granted to the Baca family. A long history of various ownership of both the land and timber followed, with some disastrous results of overgrazing by sheep and cattle as well as overlogging by a timber company. While there were efforts to bring the land into public ownership for many decades, it wasn’t until 2000 that the land was purchased by the U.S. government and protection began. As a national preserve, it is now managed by the National Park Service.
When to Visit Valles Caldera
When’s the best time to visit Valle Caldera? Ask David Krueger, chief of interpretation and the public information officer for the preserve, and you’ll find that each season has something delightful to offer.
Depending on snowfall, David says, winter at Valles Caldera can bring cross country skiing and snowshoeing and hiking may still be enjoyed. In spring, the valleys become green and are soon dotted with colorful wildflowers. The elk and migratory birds return and black bears are ending their winter of hibernation.
Wildflowers continue blooming through summer when you can escape the 100-degree temperatures found in other areas of the state and enjoy daytime highs in the 80s. From May 15 to November 15, the backcountry roads are open and the entire park is accessible (a backcountry vehicle pass is required).
Fall, often considered the best season in New Mexico, is special at Valles Caldera. David says “Fall, September through November, you can still have very beautiful days, changing colors, and elk bugling. I’m hard pressed not to say that’s the best season to visit.”
Wildlife at Valles Caldera
Valles Caldera is a nature lover’s paradise. With abundant plant life upon which to graze, large herds of elk are found here, as are packs of coyotes, Gunnison’s prairie dog colonies, black bears, and many species of birds.
Bird watchers shouldn’t miss a visit to Valles Caldera to find ravens, bluebirds, kestrels, woodpeckers, red tailed hawks, harriers, bald and golden eagles, great blue herons, meadowlarks, and many others. Dave points out that this is the highest elevation where you can observe wild turkeys.
Three species that are threatened and endangered can be found at Valles Caldera: the Mexican spotted owl, Jemez Mountains salamander, and the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse. Forty bird species of conservation concern can also be found here. In short, Valles Caldera is an important area to preserve and protect, both for our enjoyment and for the survival of many species of animals.
Activities to Enjoy at Valles Caldera
The season during which you visit will determine what you can enjoy doing while you’re at Valles Caldera. Any time of year, you can enjoy bird watching, nature photography, or exploring the geologic and human history of the preserve.
Ranger programs are available daily from June 1 to October 1, including morning and afternoon hikes and twice-monthly night sky programs. Valles Caldera is an International Dark Sky Park, so stellar views of the stars and Milky Way can be experienced here.
From May 15 to November 15, as mentioned above, the 22-mile backcountry road is open, providing driving access to a larger area of the preserve and to more of the trails. In May, wildflower season starts and goes through September. You can see different wildflowers throughout the whole summer for glorious splashes of color and nature observation.
If you’re interested in hiking the park, check Hiking Trails in Valles Caldera National Preserve by Coco Rae. The author describes trails from short to long and with various levels of difficulty that can be enjoyed in the preserve. Mountain biking is also available along many of the trails and roads in the preserve and several routes are included in the guide. In winter, use the trails for snowshoeing or cross country skiing.
In the preserve’s Cabin District, you can view historic buildings from various phases of the land’s ownership, some of which have been used in films and movies. Continue on the road past the Cabin District and explore the preserve’s old-growth Ponderosa pine grove, with trees that were fortunate enough to be spared from logging and that are from 100 to 400 years old.
Volunteer at Valles Caldera National Preserve
If you live nearby and are enchanted by Valles Caldera, you may wish to volunteer at the preserve. There are plenty of functions a volunteer can fill, such as helping in the visitor contact center or working in the field on maintenance projects, trail rehabilitation, preserving cultural resources, or assisting and educating visitors. Find out more here.
Details for Visiting
There is currently no fee to visit Valles Caldera National Preserve. There are multiple pedestrian pass-through gates where visitors can access the park from dawn to dusk any day of the year. Motor vehicle access is available every day, weather permitting, except Thanksgiving and Christmas. Get details about directions, hours, access, and backcountry permits here.
There is no camping at Valles Caldera, but there are nearby campsites on forest service land in the Santa Fe National Forest west of the preserve and southeast of the preserve at Bandelier National Monument.
Valles Caldera is an easy day trip from Albuquerque, one that takes you from New Mexico’s largest city to one of its most beautiful natural areas. Be sure a visit is on your bucket list!
Find more road trips from Albuquerque here.