At first glance, Valles Caldera National Preserve is a serene, awe-inspiring landscape that can melt away our worries. Even so, it is still important to be aware of inherent risks and hazards in this high mountain environment. Remember, your safety is your responsibility.
Because the Las Conchas wildfire (2011) and the Thompson Ridge wildfire (2013) burned through most of the preserve, there are potential hazards to be aware of including falling trees and limbs, especially during periods of wind; unstable slopes and rolling material such as logs and rocks; and burned-out stump holes. Off-trail travel is not recommended in burned areas.
Falling trees are an ever-present hazard when traveling or camping in the forest. Be aware of your surroundings, as trees can fall without warning. Be particularly watchful when it's windy or following a snowstorm when branches are covered with snow.
A bright, sunny day can change abruptly with high winds and driving rain or snow. Be prepared for changing conditions and carry these essentials: rain gear, map and compass, flashlight or headlamp, sunglasses and sunscreen, matches or other fire starter, candles, extra food and water, extra layers of clothing, pocketknife, and a first aid kit.
Visiting locations at higher elevations than you are used to increases the chance of dehydration, severe sunburn, mountain sickness (headaches, nausea, dizziness), and the aggravation of pre-existing medical conditions. Drink several quarts of water per day to ward off dehydration. Wear and reapply sunscreen often. If you begin to feel sick or experience any physical problems, descend to lower elevations.
During the summer monsoon season (primarily July and August), start your hike early in the day to avoid afternoon thunderstorms. Stay away from summits and isolated trees and rocks. If you find yourself outside during a thunderstorm, seek shelter if possible. Otherwise, crouch down on your heels. When horseback riding, dismount and tie horses securely.
Approaching, feeding, or disturbing wildlife is dangerous. Keep a safe distance. All preserve animals are wild and can injure or kill you. Be aware of what is going on around you. Know what to do if you encounter a mountain lion or bear.
Black Bears & Mountain Lions
There are no grizzly bears in the preserve, but there are black bears and mountains lions. Mountain lions are an important part of the preserve ecosystem, helping to keep elk, deer and other prey populations in check, while bears are infamous omnivores which rarely kill animals of any great size for food. Although mountain lion attacks are rare and bear attacks are even more rare, they are possible, as is injury from any wild animal. We offer the following recommendations to increase your safety:
What should you do if you meet a Mountain Lion?
Never approach a mountain lion, especially one that is feeding or with kittens. Most mountain lions will try to avoid confrontation. Always give them a way to escape. Don't run. Stay calm. Hold your ground or back away slowly. Face the lion and stand upright. Do all you can to appear larger. Grab a stick. Raise your arms. If you have small children with you, pick them up. If the lion behaves aggressively, wave your arms, shout and throw objects at it. The goal is to convince it that you are not prey and may be dangerous yourself. If attacked, fight back! Generally, mountain lions are calm, quiet, and elusive. The chance of being attacked by a mountain lion is quite low compared to many other natural hazards. There is, for example, a far greater risk of being struck by lightning than being attacked by a mountain lion. Report all incidents to a park ranger.
What should you do if you meet a black bear?
Never approach a bear. Keep children beside you. There is more safety in numbers; it is best to travel in a close group. If a bear approaches you, stand up tall and make loud noises - shout and clap hands. When done immediately, these actions may be successful in scaring bears away. However, if attacked, fight back! Never try and retrieve anything once a bear has it. Report all incidents to a park ranger.
Plague is endemic to the preserve. This disease is transmitted by fleas from infected animals. Do not feed or approach ground squirrels, prairie dogs, or other small mammals. Symptoms of bubonic plague include swelling lymph nodes and fever, usually developing 1 to 6 days after exposure. Untreated bubonic plague is fatal in about 50 percent of the cases.
This is the lowering of the body's core temperature which can be life threatening. It can occur any time of year. Dress warm and stay dry.
This disease is spread from the feces and urine of infected rodents, especially the deer mouse. Deer mice are prevalent in the preserve, and our populations do carry the disease. To reduce your exposure to this disease, stay out of buildings and structures that are not open to the general public and do not feed any small mammals.
Last updated: November 1, 2022