A True New Mexico Treasure
Valles Caldera National Preserve
This wilderness area located in the Jemez Mountains might be less than a two-hour drive from Albuquerque, but the distance is measured in more than just miles. Hiking in the Valles Caldera is akin to dreaming in paradise. Imagine standing amidst one of the most breathtakingly beautiful natural landscapes in the state and realizing this promise: "Don't expect big crowds, a shortage of parking, or a shop full of trinkets. Instead, we offer a chance to get out and really experience a sense of solitude that we hope will leave you refreshed and relaxed." That's from the preserve's website, and judging from the visitation format, the Valles Caldera's unique management structure means what the website says. What's more, the visitation program offers something for practically every outdoor enthusiast imaginable, whether you're into fly fishing, bird watching, photography, landscape painting, horseback riding, hiking, mountain biking or elk hunting.
Most hikes, both guided and self-guided, require a fee and advanced booking. For that matter, expect to pay a fee to enter the preserve as well. If you are looking for a spontaneous trek out of town, though, you are still in luck, since there are two short hikes available that don't require a fee or reservation.
The Valle Grande Trail offers an introductory hike into the caldera. The Coyote Call Trail is a three-mile loop that starts south from the highway and wraps up around the ridge overlooking Valle Grande. For details on how to get to the trailheads, visit www.vallescaldera.gov or call 505-661-3333.
When I talked to Julie Gray, the preserve's communications director, on April 28, she explained that hiking doesn't begin "until trails and roadways are dry." The preserve was getting snowed on as we talked, and since it was a wet winter, don't expect access until at least Memorial Day. For weather updates and trail openings call (505) 661-3333, ext. 3
Realistically, most activities will not be open until sometime in June, but you can start planning now if you want to reserve hiking on two of the area's spectacular interior trails—Cerros del Abrigo Trail and Cerro Seco Trail—that loop around the volcanic domes inside the caldera.
Fly fishing in certain parts of New Mexico, for me, is like freeing my soul from all that enslaves it. Fishing in the Valles Caldera, I'm told, is like nirvana. You get a mile to yourself on the San Antonio creek for the whole day and you can bring a buddy. But first, you must apply for the "lottery." You can purchase tickets on the website for $5—and feel free to buy as many as you like. Most people that applied last year got accepted, said Gray, which added up to about 2,000 anglers. All fish are native and you can keep two, but catch and release is recommended. Artificial lures, including flies, are required—no live bait allowed. Access to fish is $25 per angler on top of the entrance fee. You must show up on the day you pre-selected when you purchased a lottery ticket. Apply now for "fall fishing," which runs late July to September. The deadline to purchase these lottery tickets is June 26, but don't delay or you'll increase the chance of missing out.
Horse-drawn wagon rides are a great family activity. They last 60 to 90 minutes and tour through the Valle Grande at a casual pace on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Times are 4 , 5:30 and 7 p.m. Reservations should be available on the website by mid-May. The preserve's board acknowledges that it's a bit late to get these summer events posted, and they apologize. But be patient, since the preserve is in its nascent stage and the managers are still working out a strategy to make the area accessible and well-preserved at the same time. To reserve a wagon ride call toll free: 866-382-5537.
Personally, I can't imagine taking a wildlife tour in a van, but to each his own. These tours are scheduled for Friday and Saturday at dusk for optimum wildlife viewing. Expect to see portions of the second largest elk herd in New Mexico, lots of coyotes, black bears, badgers and more than 60 varieties of birds and raptors including golden eagles. They also have "special topic" van tours devoted to the ecology, geology and history of the area. The van tours last approximately four hours, so plan accordingly.
There is still more going on at Valles Caldera than we've listed here, so keep in mind the preserve's website is their conduit to the public, and you should check it often for updates and announcements of more special events being planned for the summer. They'll be offering fly fishing clinics for adults and kids, overnight bird-watching trips, overnight photo excursions, mountain bike tours and an artist's day for landscape painters.
By mid-September hiking, and other activities are curtailed to make way for some of the finest elk hunting in the western United States. Some folks don't go for killing Bambi's big fat cousins, but park managers will explain why a hunt is important for managing the herd. And for those interested, there will be elk hunting seminars offered in the late fall as well—but the lottery for this year is already closed.
So let that be the lesson before visiting the Valles Caldera National Preserve. First, always call and check the website for updated, accurate information on how to make reservations before driving out there. The staff is relatively new and doing their best to organize appropriate outdoor activities for everyone, so be patient if you can't enjoy every aspect of the park you want to this summer. Finally, expect to pay a fee for admission and remember that additional costs will vary depending on the event.
Valles Caldera National Preserve