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Field of Dreams, New Mexico's Valles Caldera

Field of Dreams

Post-hike celebration

T.J., guardian of the Banco staging area
Story by Jeanne Tasker
Photographs by Eva Kingston

[From Winter 2010] My group of hiking gals has gone far and wide in search of great hiking trails – in Utah, Colorado, California, and abroad to France, Spain, Germany and Corsica, even to Reunion Island off Madagascar in the midst of a Dengue fever epidemic.

We knew that a tremendous opportunity existed right in our backyard, in the Valles Caldera, a huge 89,000 acre preserve in New Mexico’s Jemez mountain range. Created by a gigantic volcanic implosion millions of years ago, the land had been in private hands starting with a Spanish land grant, and more recently in the hands of the local Dunigan family. Ranching, cattle grazing, hunting, and fishing had been its primary usage. After much negotiation, the Dunigan family sold it to the Federal government in 2000.

Outdoor enthusiasts hoping for immediate and unrestricted access were sorely disappointed, as studies were undertaken to determine the best use of the land. Access was by lottery only, and very difficult to obtain. Now, at last, the preserve is open to the public, albeit with advance reservations for Elk tours by van, shuttle reservations to trailheads, as well as special tours, such as artist and archeological tours. The distances are so great that one cannot start hiking from the Visitors’ Center to trail heads, and no overnight camping is allowed.

We opted to drive from Santa Fe, about 70 miles north, on a Friday afternoon. We signed on for the 4:30p Elk Tour and saw large herds of cows and bulls, this being the rutting season, bulls bugling and contending for the attention of the ladies, rolling in marked patches of earth with gangly legs flying in all directions, some cows lured and some ignoring all the drama. We also saw flocks of wild turkeys, coyotes, and an infamous badger who had taken over a prairie dog’s burrow and menaces all with his viciousness. Sandy was our great driver and guide.

After our van tour, we stayed overnight at the La Cueva motel, about 15 miles beyond the main Valles entrance. The Ridgeback Café, adjacent to the motel, is famous for its elk burgers, but we brought a picnic supper which we enjoyed in our room along with a good bottle of wine.

The next day, we were signed up for a van shuttle out of the Banco Bonito staging area, 10 miles north of the main gate. Emily, our most knowledgeable driver, a college biology student with five summers' experience in the Valles, dropped us off at the Redondo Border trailhead. It took 40 minutes to get from the staging area to the trail head. We hiked this trail, a ridge top overlooking great valley and mountain vistas to the end and back, roughly ten miles, with elk bugling coming from above and below us, very close by. Cows crashed through the trees and crossed the trail in front of us; where were the bulls, we wondered, anxiously? We looked up the slope to see a huge bull, rack held high, watching us. We were relieved that he decided to ignore us. We encountered grouse along this trail, some calmly rooting on the ground and some startled to noisy flight.

After the ridge hike, we followed the Alamo Canyon trail downhill for three miles, passing bubbling, blue green sulfur ponds, fens (marsh land), and an abandoned, hot springs/mineral water resort. There was major disturbance along this area because of efforts to ameliorate erosion that has caused much damage, so it didn’t seem to be as far from civilization as much of the Caldera. Nonetheless, the Caldera administration must be applauded for its efforts to address the problems that long- term cattle grazing and logging have brought to this now pristine area. Emily picked us up here and shuttled us back to our car.

We will return, and seek further challenges on trails with greater elevation gain and distance. For now, this weekend was a lovely introduction to a fascinating place.

If You Go:
The Valles Caldera Preserve is located about 70 miles northwest of Santa Fe (1.5 - 2 hours drive), and about 80 miles (a little over 2 hours driving time) north of the Albuquerque International airport. For more information on visiting, go to Valles Caldera National Preserve.
La Cueva Lodge (rooms from $75), 38690 Highway 126, Jemez Springs, NM Tel. 866.831.6080
Ridgeback Café (famous for its elk burgers), 38710 Highway 126, Jemez Springs, NM Tel. 575.829.3322

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