National Park Getaway: Valles Caldera National Preserve

Valles Caldera National Preserve

By Kimberly DeVall, Chief of Interpretation & Education, Valles Caldera National Preserve
Rainbow over a mountain range and valley

NPS Photo

Among the newest additions to the National Park System, the 88,900-acre Valles Caldera National Preserve is a surprising gem at the top of the Jemez Mountains in north-central New Mexico that helps earn the state its motto—“The Land of Enchantment.”

Valles Caldera National Preserve enchants visitors with its stunning natural beauty and rich human history. Recreational activities include hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, fishing, scenic drives, as well as cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the winter.

The preserve encompasses a dormant “supervolcano” that illustrates and interprets massive explosive volcanic eruptions, caldera formation, and the functioning of active geothermal systems. Its distinct topographic mosaic of expansive valley meadows—or valles (vah-yes) in Spanish, lush forested volcanic domes, meandering valley streams, and old-growth Ponderosa pine groves are in striking contrast to the arid New Mexico landscape at lower elevations.
Bull elk sparring
A pair of male elk spar during fall rutting season. More than 2,500 elk use the preserve for breeding, calving, and foraging.

NPS Photo

Patient observers can spot numerous wildlife species such as elk, coyotes, prairie dogs, black bears, bald and golden eagles, wild turkeys, and other migratory birds. History buffs can travel back in time and experience the pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer heritage and learn how the legacy of early Spanish and Mexican settlements in the region transformed the present-day American Southwest.

Active for over 14 million years, the current 13-mile wide circular caldera depression was created by a spectacular volcanic eruption about 1.25 million years ago. Since that time, additional eruptions and magmatic intrusions have created numerous volcanic domes within the caldera. The caldera is presently dormant (but not extinct) and still displays signs of volcanic life with hot springs and boiling sulphuric acid fumaroles. The unusual geologic and landscape characteristics of Valles Caldera led to its designation as a National Natural Landmark in 1975.
Mountain bikers enjoying the view of a valley
People continue to enjoy and explore Valles Caldera through the many recreational opportunities in the park.

NPS Photo

Prehistoric use of the caldera by Native Americans included hunting all sizes of game; trapping small mammals and waterfowl; fishing; collecting an abundance of seeds, nuts, and berries; and gathering various plants for medicine and ceremonies. The signature resource for these indigenous peoples was obsidian. Native Americans gathered this high-quality volcanic glass at extensive quarries in and near the caldera to create spear points, arrowheads, knives, and scrapers.

Valles Caldera also chronicles the history of New Mexico’s enchantment and exploitation, from 19th-century land use after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and sheep-grazing under the partido system, to subsequent cattle-grazing, timber-harvesting, and geothermal exploration. Beginning as a land grant in 1860, the caldera was held in private ownership by a series of four families for over 100 years until it was purchased by the federal government in 2000. Since then, extensive work has been made to restore the health of the ecosystem to improve wildlife habitat as well as the caldera’s role as a water catchment basin at the top of the watershed.

The amazing views as travelers crest the rim and enter the preserve are well-worth the drive and offer sights most travelers to New Mexico don’t expect. Are you ready to be enchanted? Plan your visit to Valles Caldera National Preserve today!

Last updated: June 1, 2017