The stunning Jemez Mountains of Northern New Mexico were created by volcanic activity over thirteen million years and once stood higher than Mount Everest. An eruption, estimated at 500 times greater than the 1980 Mount St. Helens event, caused the super volcano to collapse. A 12-mile wide crater formed, known as the Valles Caldera, and gradually filled with about 5,000 feet of ash and debris.
The Grand Valley existed as a home to Pueblo people for centuries until they eventually fled. Between 1860 and 2000 it functioned as the privately owned Baca Ranch. In 2000, Congress purchased 94,000 acres, deeding 5,000 acres to the Santa Clara Pueblo and designating the remaining 89,000 as the Valles Caldera National Preserve. Under the terms of the Act, the Preserve is managed by a trust and must produce sustaining income, a new and demanding policy as opposed to being protected as a National Park.
On a recent trip to New Mexico, my group explored Bandelier National Monument in the morning (see previous blog post here) then headed, by car, up a pass into the Jemez Mountains. Upon partial descent an enormous field of gold suddenly appeared. The 180 degree head turning sight was so unexpected and vast, it justifies the term jaw dropping gorgeous. Everyone in the van gasped with oohs and aahs. The hollowed out valley looked like a former test site for an atomic bomb now overgrown with grass resembling melted butter. Unfortunately rain started to fall and low lying clouds and fog crept in, limiting the visibility and photo opportunities.
Nonetheless, we met with guides who shared their telescopes permitting us to spy on an elk herd of 2,500-3,500 in the distance. Seeing hundreds of animals as tiny specs put the enormity of the area into perspective. The majestic acreage including Redondo Peak at an elevation of 11,254 feet encompasses forests, grasslands and wetlands which are open to the public.
We drove down into the Preserve through a flourishing grove of ponderosa pine and seized the opportunity to get out of the rain and picnic inside a three bedroom bunkhouse.The rustic but upscale rental property felt log-cabin cozy and the living room offered panoramic views of the valley. The bunkhouse, another lodge which sleeps sixteen people, as well as primitive campsites can be reserved- think family reunion.
The Valles Caldera Trust is experimenting with methods to use, sustain and fund the Preserve with activities and events such as: cross country skiing , snowshoeing, sleigh/wagon rides, fly fishing, turkey hunting, equestrian trail riding, hiking, van tours, photography workshops, mountain biking, marathon races and archery contests. They also run educational workshops and camps while continually watching for ecological change.
Rob Dixon, Recreation Program Manager said, “We keep the numbers of visitors small so you’ll feel like you have the place to yourself. This means you can really experience a sense of solitude. I’m sure you’ll find the visit unlike any other you’ve had in a park or national forest.” I was impressed with the park and the dedicated staff. Let’s hope this type of national preservation program works.