Frequently Asked Questions



What types of wildlife do you have here?

Valles Caldera's high-elevation ecosystems support a great diversity of wildlife including several thousand elk and healthy populations of mountain lions, bears, bobcats, and coyotes. Additionally, at least 40 bird species of conservation concern and 3 endangered wildlife species are known to occupy Valles Caldera.

The park's central location within the Jemez Mountains provides landscape connectivity among a mosaic of protected lands like Bandelier National Monument and the Santa Fe National Forest. This ensures that wildlife corridors and habitat are preserved across manmade boundary lines for holistic ecosystem protection and function.

Wildlife viewing at Valles Caldera is a highly memorable experience. While elk are the most popular animal to observe in the park, visitors may also delight in witnessing the shenanigans of a Gunnison's prairie dog colony, the intense concentration of a coyote on the hunt, and the symphony of birdsong on an early-morning hike. Please remember to maintain a safe and respectful distance when watching wildlife. If their behavior changes because of your presence, you're too close!

Where are the elk?

As with any wild animal, the elk herds at Valles Caldera move around quite a bit from day to day, so a sighting is never guaranteed. However, elk are among the most commonly spotted wildlife in Valle Grande, so next time you're looking for them, consider these tips:

๐Ÿ‘€ Am I scanning the landscape with an accurate sense of scale? In other words: Valle Grande is HUGE (๐˜จ๐˜ณ๐˜ข๐˜ฏ๐˜ฅ๐˜ฆ, if you will). The immensity of this landscape can dwarf even the largest of animals. A herd of 200 elk can look like a cluster of tiny specks when they're 2 miles across the valley. Use binoculars or a camera lens to get a closer look.

๐Ÿ‘€ Have I checked the public spotting scopes at the Entrance Station and/or Ranger Station? As time allows, the rangers at these facilities work to keep the spotting scopes focused on interesting things throughout the day. If you take a look through the scope and don't see any wildlife, feel free to move the scope around until you spot something.

๐Ÿ‘€ Is it the right time of day to spot wildlife? Many animals at Valles Caldera are crepuscular. This means that they're most active at dawn and dusk. If you arrive when the sun is high and hot, you're less likely to spot these creatures than if you arrived earlier or later in the day.

๐Ÿ‘€ Am I maintaining a safe viewing distance? Wildlife can behave unpredictably when feeling nervous or threatened. To ensure that you're staying safe and respecting wildlife's space, practice the rule of thumb. Extend your arm out in front of you and hold up your thumb. Does your thumb cover (completely) the animal you're observing? If not, you're too close. Back up, please!

When does the elk rut start?

"Elk rutting" is the official term for elk mating season, which begins in September and goes through early November at Valles Caldera National Preserve. During this time, bull elk will spar with each other and compete to mate with female elk, called cows. To announce their availability and fitness to cows and to warn and challenge other bulls, elk make a unique sound called bugling. This sound is a crescendo of deep, resonant tones that rise rapidly to a high-pitched squeal before dropping to a series of grunts. This sound is the hallmark of the rut, echoing eerily across Valle Grande in the early morning and evening.

What are the main predators of Valles Caldera's elk population?

Valles Caldera is home to a population of about 2,500 Rocky Mountain elk (๐˜Š๐˜ฆ๐˜ณ๐˜ท๐˜ถ๐˜ด ๐˜ค๐˜ข๐˜ฏ๐˜ข๐˜ฅ๐˜ฆ๐˜ฏ๐˜ด๐˜ช๐˜ด ๐˜ฏ๐˜ฆ๐˜ญ๐˜ด๐˜ฐ๐˜ฏ๐˜ช). Primarily grazers, elk have a diverse habitat range but are often found in open grasslands or meadows near forest edges. In mountain regions, they generally stay in higher elevations during warmer months and migrate to lower elevations in the winter.

At Valles Caldera, the elk's predators are black bear (48%), coyotes (42%), and mountain lions (10%). Bears and coyotes primarily predate on newborn elk during the early summer calving season, whereas mountain lions predate on elk of all sizes year-round.

Why are the prairie dogs congregating on the road?

During the summer months, visitors to Valles Caldera often notice large numbers of unyielding prairie dogs on the gravel road near the Entrance Station. The crushed gravel surface contains a variety of minerals (like salt) that are not as readily available in the prairie dogs' otherwise herbaceous diets. Please remember that all wildlife have the right-of-way on the roads at Valles Caldera National Preserve. The 10-mph speed limit in the vicinity of the Entrance Station is strictly enforced to protect both wildlife and pedestrians.

Did I just see a wolf?

Amid the grandness of the landscapes at Valles Caldera National Preserve, size and scale can be deceiving. Often mistaken for a wolf, the coyote is about one-third of a wolf's size with a slighter build. Its coat colors range from tan to buff, sometimes gray, with some orange on its tail and ears. While coyotes are easiest to spot during the winter months when snow blankets the montane grasslands of Valles Caldera, visitors with a keen eye for camouflage may observe them here year-round. Coyotes hunt the grasslands for voles, mice, rabbits, and prairie dogs primarily when the sun is low in the mornings and evenings, although they remain fairly active throughout the day during the winter months. Because so many park visitors observe them in the winter when their coats are extra thick, coyotes are commonly mistaken for wolves.

Whatโ€™s that stinky smell near the Entrance Station?

The skunk-like smell is a long-tailed weasel (Neogale frenata) that has taken up residence near the Entrance Station. The long-tailed weasel has a well-developed anal scent gland that produces a powerful and musky odor. This critter drags and rubs its body over surfaces to excrete the scent if it feels threatened, to mark territory, deceive predators, and to attract partners.



Is there geothermal activity in the park?

Valles Caldera is a dormant volcano, meaning that itโ€™s not actively erupting, but there are signs of a potential eruption in the future. We see these signs in the form of geothermal activity. Sulphur Springs was acquired by Valles Caldera National Preserve in 2020, and it is the best place in the park to observe geothermal activity. Sulfuric-acid hot springs, volcanic fumaroles, and steaming mud-pots are evidence of an active magma chamber underneath the park. Many of the geothermal features at Valles Caldera are found nowhere else in New Mexico, and similar sites are very rare in the western United States.

Learn more:

Why here? Why was there a cataclysmic volcanic eruption right here?

Well, you could say that X marks the spot. Valles Caldera National Preserve is located at the intersection of two major fault systems: the Rio Grande Rift and the Jemez Lineament. The rift, a stretching and thinning area of the earthโ€™s crust, extends from central Colorado to the state of Chihuahua, Mexico. The lineament, a chain of volcanic fields, spans from east-central Arizona to the Raton-Clayton volcanic field in northeastern New Mexico. Of all the volcanic fields along the lineament, the Jemez volcanic field (where Valles Caldera is located) is by far the most explosive. It has produced three times the eruptive volume of the Jemez Lineament's other volcanic fields combined.

Learn more:

How does obsidian form?

Obsidian is a glass-like igneous rock that forms when viscous, silica-rich lava cools quickly. At Valles Caldera, obsidian formed during the Cerro del Medio eruption approximately 1.13-1.16 million years ago. At that time, most of the caldera was covered by a lake, so much of the extruded lava during this eruption cooled rapidly underwater, perhaps causing the formation of obsidian. Obsidian from Valles Caldera is of very high quality and has been traded extensively for thousands of years. It has been found from California to Mississippi and from North Dakota to Mexico. Stories of the Jemez Mountains and the caldera would have traveled with these resources across trade routes and people groups.

Please remember that all resources within modern-day Valles Caldera National Preserve are protected. If you discover a piece of obsidian during your visit, please feel free to observe it and take a photograph, but please do not move or remove it. Moving or removing obsidian can erase important context for natural and cultural histories that are being studied and pieced together across this landscape.



How do I get a fishing permit?

Anglers with a valid NM state fishing license may apply for a permit to fish Valles Caldera National Preserve's waters at To ensure that you'll have your permit in time for your visit, please submit your application at least 7 to 10 days in advance. Rush processing is not available.

Annual permits are $20 for adults and $10 for youth ages 12-17. Seven-day permits are $5 for adults and $3 for youth ages 12-17. Please note: Anglers who wish to drive their personal vehicles into Valles Caldera's backcountry to fish San Antonio Creek, Rito de los Indios, or Jaramillo Creek must also obtain a backcountry vehicle pass at Backcountry vehicle passes are limited.

Which trails can I hike with my pet?

At Valles Caldera National Preserve, pets may accompany you in the following designated areas:
- Parking area at the Valle Grande Entrance Station.
- Hiking on the La Jara Trail, Valle Grande Trail, and Coyote Call Trail.
- Parking area, picnic area, and roadways within the Cabin District.

Pets must be kept under physical control at all times - caged, crated, or on a leash not to exceed six feet in length.Valles Caldera is a wild place, and pets can behave unpredictably and wander away in unfamiliar environments. Pet regulations are enforced to protect you, your pet, park resources and other visitors. Learn more:

Can you see the Milky Way here at night?

Yes! As an International Dark Sky Park, Valles Caldera National Preserve protects and offers spectacular views of a naturally dark night sky - including the Milky Way.Throughout the year, ranger-guided programs offer a unique opportunity to view the night sky from within Valle Grande. For observing the night sky on your own, the overlooks of Valle Grande along NM State Route 4 are open 24/7, all year around.

Learn more about night sky viewing at Valles Caldera:

Am I allowed to shed hunt at Valles Caldera?

Every winter, reduced daylight causes testosterone levels to drop in male deer and elk, which eventually leads their antlers to fall off. Once spring arrives, a multi-species scavenger hunt begins. Shed antlers are a fantastic source of nutrients for the non-human critters that find them on the forest or valley floor. Because they are such an important supplement to the diets of wildlife in this high-elevation ecosystem, shed collecting is not permitted within the boundaries of Valles Caldera National Preserve. Next time you find a shed while youโ€™re visiting the park, inspect it for tiny marks where critters have been nibbling on it to kickstart their springtime diets. That is the mark of a scavenger hunt winner. ๐Ÿ†

Curious where to find park rules and regulations? Here's your one-stop shop:

Where can I ride my electric bike?

A trail map of e-bikeable roads and trails is available on our Biking webpage:


Amenities, Operating Hours & Seasons

Where can I fill up my water bottle?

Unfortunately, there is no running water available at Valles Caldera National Preserve at this time. Visitors should come prepared with as much drinking water as they will need for the day. If you're in a pinch, the Valle Grande Bookstore, operated by Los Amigos de Valles Caldera, sells bottled water for $1.

Good news, though! We do have a future project in the works for a new well, which would service the Cabin District area of the park. To stay up-to-date and involved in park planning efforts like this, check out

When will the parkโ€™s summer hours begin?

From Memorial Day to Labor Day, Valles Caldera National Preserve's entrance gate is open daily from 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM for the summer season. For the rest of the year, the gate is open from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM.

Our summer hours only impact vehicular access to Valles Caldera. Pedestrian access is open from dawn to dusk every day throughout the year. Learn more:

When will the backcountry road open?

From May 15 through November 15, you can drive into the backcountry along the backcountry vehicle route. This route takes you from the Valle Grande front-country through the heart of the caldera and up into Valle Toledo and Valle San Antonio in the north. This route is open to pedestrians, snowshoers, skiers, and bicyclists year-round, but vehicular access opens on May 15.

A vehicle pass is required to drive into the backcountry. In 2024, we will provide 40 passes every day from May 15 through November 15. Passes are available at

How many elk tags are being issued for Valles Caldera this year?

Long before Valles Caldera National Preserve became a unit of the National Park Service, people came here for thousands of years to hunt wild game and subsist off the land. Because it has been such a prevalent part of the land use history and the conservation of species in this place, hunting remains a permitted activity at Valles Caldera today. Unit 6B, which encompasses Valles Caldera National Preserve, is a highly coveted elk hunting location in the state of New Mexico. Between 2,500 and 3,000 elk call this area home.

For the 2023 hunting season, the New Mexico Department of Game & Fish issued 350 elk tags for Unit 6B. This number is informed annually by National Park Service studies of wildlife, plant communities, and carrying capacity at Valles Caldera. Of 2023's 350 tags, 250 were issued to New Mexico residents. From September through early December, park visitors may encounter hunters in the backcountry. It's always a good precaution to wear high-visibility clothing while exploring the park during hunting season. Signs will indicate when you are entering a hunting zone.

If you are among the lucky few who drew a tag for unit 6B, you will receive a packet in the mail from Valles Caldera National Preserve's permitting office approximately one month in advance of your hunt. Please review the information in this packet carefully and respond in a timely manner, as it contains important paperwork that is required to complete in order to hunt Unit 6B. Learn more about hunting at Valles Caldera:


National Park Service Careers & Lifestyles

You have my dream job! How do I become a park ranger here?

Valles Caldera National Preserve hosts a variety of job opportunities. About 50 full-time equivalent positions make up the park staff, in fields including administration, education and interpretation, law enforcement, maintenance, resource stewardship and science, and visitor services. Park employees work outdoors or in the office, behind the scenes or directly with the public, seasonally or year-round. Every role is vital for the park to fulfill its mission of preserving natural and cultural resources for future generations while providing meaningful experiences for visitors.

All National Park Service jobs are listed on Applicants must submit a specific application, within a specific time frame, for every position available. Learn more:

We also have volunteer positions that we announce periodically on!

Hey ranger, do you live here?

This is one of the most common questions we receive here! In keeping with the ~12,000 years of human history at Valles Caldera, nobody lives on-site year-round. Instead, this remains a landscape of seasonal occupants and commuters. Most of our staff live in nearby communities like Los Alamos, Espaรฑola, Jemez Springs, Pueblo of Jemez, and even the Rio Rancho/Albuquerque area. Learn more about the human history of Valles Caldera:

What's the difference between a national park and a national preserve?

The National Park Service manages more than 400 sites containing diverse stories, resources, and values. These sites' titles include such designations as national park, national preserve, national monument, national memorial, national historic site, national seashore, and national battlefield park.

National preserves are established primarily for the protection of certain resources. Activities like hunting and fishing are often permitted on these lands, which sets them apart from most national parks. Located in the Jemez Mountains of north-central New Mexico, Valles Caldera National Preserve protects, preserves, and restores ecosystems and cultural landscapes within an outstanding example of a volcanic caldera for the purpose of education, scientific research, public enjoyment and use, and cultural continuity.

Learn more about NPS designations:



Hey, why aren't there any trees growing in Valle Grande?

We call this phenomenon our "inverted tree line." In most mountainous areas, tree cover becomes increasingly sparse as you move higher in elevation, but at Valles Caldera, the opposite is generally true. Why?

Overnight, very cold air forms on the surrounding lava domes and sinks down into the valley bottoms. This air is so cold for so many consecutive days each year that it prevents tree seedlings from surviving. Just a few hundred feet higher on the lava domes, temperatures can be 30 to 40 degrees (Fahrenheit) warmer! You can observe this phenomenon from home by checking the temperatures at various climate stations throughout the park: Hint: The temperature gradient is most impressive on winter mornings.

Dense lake sediment soils also contribute to the lack of tree growth in the valleys.

Which wildfire caused the burn scar across the highway from Valles Caldera's entrance?

In 2011, Las Conchas Fire burned 156,000 acres (243 square miles) across the Jemez Mountains, including the south rim of Valles Caldera, which is visible along NM-4. In the first 14 hours, this fire burned more than 40,000 acres. By the time it stopped spreading, Las Conchas Fire was more than three times the size of the previous largest forest fire in Jemez Mountains history (the 2000 Cerro Grande Fire).

Across much of the burned area, nearly all trees died due to the fire's severity. The resulting impacts to vegetation succession and watershed functioning were moderate to severe. The fire burned a broad range of elevations (6,500 to 10,000 feet) across the Santa Fe National Forest, Valles Caldera National Preserve, Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico State Trust Land, and the Pueblos of Santa Clara, Santo Domingo, Cochiti, San Ildefonso, and Jemez.

Learn more about wildland fire at Valles Caldera:

What is the elevation here?

We often get this question at our Entrance Station, located in the heart of Valle Grande. The Entrance Station sits at about 8,500 feet above sea level. Redondo Peak, Valles Caldera's central resurgent dome and highest point at 11,254 feet, is visible from the Entrance Station and throughout the park's ๐‘ฃ๐‘Ž๐‘™๐‘™๐‘’๐‘ .

For visitors who are not acclimated to Valles Caldera's elevation, outdoor activities like hiking and bicycling can feel more strenuous than usual. If you're visiting us from out of town, we recommend starting with a short hike or bike ride and then working your way up to higher mileage adventures.

How large is Valles Caldera National Preserve?

At 88,900 acres, this park encompasses most of the 14-mile-wide volcanic caldera created by a spectacular volcanic eruption about 1.2 million years ago. The parts of the caldera that do not fall within the boundaries of Valles Caldera National Preserve are located primarily south and west of the park on adjacent Santa Fe National Forest lands.

From NM State Route 4, passers-by can experience the vastness of Valle Grande, which only makes up about 15% of the whole caldera. To get a better sense of where you are within the caldera, look for Redondo Peak, Valles Caldera's resurgent dome and highest point. Redondo is the center of the caldera.

What are those small, fenced plots I see out in the valleys?

Throughout Valles Caldera National Preserve, you may see small, fenced-in plots of land. We call these exclosures, and they are intended to keep elk and other wildlife from grazing in the enclosed areas. This allows park scientists to compare plant growth and production rates in areas that are grazed vs. areas that are not grazed. This research helps to inform management decisions regarding carrying capacity, such as the number of annual elk tags issued to hunters and the number of cattle permitted within Valles Caldera's designated grazing allotments. In some cases, like on the upper reaches of Jaramillo Creek, you may spot exclosures installed along streams. The purpose of these exclosures is also to keep wildlife out, but more specifically to protect stream restoration areas where we have planted willows and other riparian vegetation. Elk love eating young tree saplings, so temporary exclosures around the planting areas allow the trees to grow and succeed. Learn more about the science and research efforts at Valles Caldera:


History & Culture

Which cabin was used in the Longmire series?

For decades, filmmakers and television producers have been drawn to Valles Caldera and the Jemez Mountains. The area's sweeping valleys, rugged mountains, and colorful canyonlands make up a landscape reminiscent of the "Wild West" - a stunning and believable backdrop for visual storytelling through television and film.

Perhaps the most beloved television series filmed at Valles Caldera was "Longmire" (2012-2017). Most of the scenes filmed here were set near the home of the main character, Sheriff Walt Longmire, who lived in a rustic log cabin with a million-dollar view. Many of these scenes provided viewers with a reprieve from the action and hustle of the sheriff's work life, evoking a coveted and short-lived sense of calm. Producers selected the Ranch Foreman's Cabin, built in 1918, to represent Sheriff Longmire's home in the series. The historic cabin, with its outstanding view of Valle Grande and the south rim of the caldera, invites us to celebrate the simple things, appreciate the quiet, and breathe. Learn more about this cabin:

What's the story of all those cabins?

If you can imagine, Valle Grande used to be covered with thousands of grazing livestock like sheep, cattle, goats, and horses. The cluster of historic cabins on the northern end of Valle Grande (what we call the "Cabin District" today) facilitated ranching operations on this land for nearly 100 years. The cabins were used primarily as housing for seasonal ranch workers and their families.

Learn more:

How far away have obsidian artifacts from Valles Caldera been found?

For thousands of years, Indigenous peoples have used Valles Caldera for hunting; fishing; collecting seeds, nuts, and berries; and gathering plants for medicine and ceremonies. They have also used the calderaโ€™s signature resourceโ€”obsidianโ€”to support these lifeways. Obsidian artifacts from the last 12,000 years have been found throughout Valles Caldera in ancient quarries, campsites, and seasonal villages. They have also been found much, much farther away, demonstrating the significance of this source and illustrating the extensive geographic ranges used by past hunter-gatherers, and perhaps indicating extensive trade of this valuable toolstone. Because every obsidian deposit has a unique geochemical fingerprint, scientists have been able to match artifacts found as far away as Mississippi back to prehistoric quarries at Valles Caldera!

Learn more:

Last updated: March 22, 2024

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