This blog is about hiking trips along the Valles Caldera Rim. For more information, see link for the Valles Caldera Rim Trail blog.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

New Paradigm for Hiker Visitation in Valles Caldera National Preserve?

Valle Canyon-Valle Grande Hike

Is a new paradigm being established for hiker visitation in the Valles Caldera National Preserve (VCNP)? One that would involve no gas-hogging van rides and no private vehicles being driven into the Preserve? One that goes off the beaten path of the usual line-up of structured, time-driven, reservation only VCNP hikes? One that would include a knowledgeable guide provided by the VCNP and would result in visitors who are ecstatically delighted by the whole experience while being very respectful of the land?

On Wednesday, June 25, 2008, I was privileged to go along on a trip, arranged by a local Los Alamos-Santa Fe hiking group, that went up the Valle Canyon Trail (appears on all maps as Cañon de Valle but the common usage is Valle Canyon), crossed the VCNP boundary fence, and walked down historic Cañon de Valle Road into the Valle Grande. A group of 21 hikers was allowed to traverse the hillsides above the grasslands of Valle Grande and trek up out of the caldera on the VCNP's Valle Grande Trail. All this was done without fear of getting caught and having to pay steep federal trespassing fines.

This wonderful hike in an awe-inspiring place happened because a patient, persistent group of hikers who love the outdoors persevered in arranging for people to hike in as legal paying customers on VCNP land. The VCNP charged $12 a head and provided a guide who clearly loves the place and was a joy to hike with.

At lunch in Valle Pass, our guide gave an excellent primer on the volcanic events that led to the formation of the Valles Caldera and Redondo, its resurgent dome. As we listened, we could actually look across Valle Pass at Redondo and Redondito sailing high above the caldera.

After lunch, we hiked down from Valle Pass into the caldera on the steep, historic Cañon de Valle Road. It was also how sheepherder's brought their flocks to the caldera for a summer of grazing on the vast grasslands. The road ended when we got to the edge of the caldera and no real trail continued beyond. We were easily able to navigate among the hummocks of grass while gaping at the stunning views of the Valles Caldera Rim and the intracaldera wonders like the resurgent dome, Redondo, and one of the caldera's ring fracture domes, Cerro del Medio.

Later, when we rested in a shady grove overlooking the Valle Grande, our guide told us a story about the wild and woolly days in the Valles Caldera when in 1851 a scheme was hatched to make loads of money. The plan was to take mules down the Cañon de Valle Road into the Valle Grande to pack hay back to the Army at Fort Marcy; instead the mules ate all the hay and the men were attacked by Navajos. Our trip ended on a happier note with no injuries!

Late afternoon, when the hike ended and the car shuttle brought me back to my car, I found myself enthusiastically repeating "WOW, WOW, WOW!" on the drive home. What a wonderful day in the Preserve it was!! I hope this new paradigm spreads to other hiking groups who would like to do something different and more unstructured than the present line-up of tightly scheduled hikes and tours offered by the VCNP (in the 89,ooo acre VCNP, only 2 hikes are free and spontaneous, both located on the caldera's south side). I am grateful to all who arranged the trip, to all the drivers who shuttled us back to the Valle Canyon trailhead, and to our VCNP guide who helped us to greater understanding of what we saw along the way.

Some say the grasslands of the Preserve are hardly pristine - very true. It is a land that people have been trying to make financially self sufficient for well over a hundred years - grazing, lumbering, using the caldera's thermal power, and running a resort spa are among schemes tried. Hopes were high and dreams were grandiose as people thought they could make their millions on this land. Most ended up making their money by selling it at a higher price to the next owner waiting in line. Dunigan did manage to extract profits from the Baca Location No. 1 by running thousands of cattle on the land.

Fortunately for us, the caldera is a big place and its grasslands still shimmer an intoxicating green and gold in the late afternoon sunlight which makes it looks pristine even if it isn't. To me, as a hiker, the real value of the VCNP lies in the beauty and spaciousness of the land. When I stand on a hillside above the grasslands of the Valle Grande and study the play of shadow and light that delineates finely the tiniest hillock and the hugest mountain, an uncontrollably primal yearning is enlivened within me - something that feels like a deep connection to this land. I would advise all hikers who want more access to the VCNP to ask and continue to ask. The Valle Canyon-Valle Grande hike that the group did was such a soul-satisfying experience.

Here are a map of our trip and some photos:

I didn't start taking waypoints until I reached the old bridge (photo below). We began hiking at the Valle Canyon trailhead parking, located on NM501, 2.5 miles past NM501's intersection with Diamond Drive, per Craig Martin's Los Alamos Trails hiking book. The hike from the Valle Canyon trailhead to the Valle Grande trailhead was 8 miles long.

The hiking group assembled for a snack in Valle Canyon.

Old bridge in Valle Canyon. It's waypoint 1 on the map above.

Hiker at lunch in Valle Pass with Cerro Grande to the south - probably at waypoint 2 on the map above. In Valle Pass, we were enclosed on the north by the lower slopes of Pajarito Mountain, 10,441', and on the south by Cerro Grande, 10,199', both of which are located on the Valles Caldera East Rim.

Our view of Redondo, 11,254', (the "little" knob is Redondito, 10,898') from our lunch spot.

Through the opening in the trees, there is a back way up Cerro Grande Peak that follows a hand-cut fireline used to fight the 2000 Cerro Grande Fire. A well-worn trail follows the handline down from the top of Cerro Grande into Valle Pass but it's not legally open to the public so you would be liable for big trespassing fines if caught. This situation effectively throttles any attempts to legally hike that portion of the Valles Caldera Rim.

Hiker walking toward Cañon de Valle Road. The hillside to the north is the lower slope of Pajarito Mountain.

As we walked in Valle Pass, one hiker commented wistfully that he had forgotten how beautiful it was. Many hikers long to be able to hike in Valle Pass again. I wish that the VCNP would consider allowing hikes up Valle Canyon to the pass on a regular basis. It's sad that beautiful Valle Canyon remains a dead end hike 8 years after the Valles Caldera became public land!

We all gathered around after lunch to listen to our VCNP guide tell us the story of how the caldera and resurgent dome formed and of the boom and bust days of the great lake in the Jemez Mountains which formed in present-day Valle Grande after the Valles Caldera collapsed 1.2 millions years ago. The lake, every bit as flamboyant as its parent caldera, eventually catastrophically burst, forming San Diego Canyon.

Hiker on historic Cañon de Valle Road that crosses from Valle Pass, between Cerro Grande Peak and Pajarito Mountain, into the Valles Caldera National Preserve. The road is steep but in surprisingly good condition with no deadfall that I remember.

I felt like a pilgrim entering the promised land when I first caught sight of the caldera through the trees! Ahead is Cerro del Medio, 9848', one of several ring fracture domes that formed after the caldera collapsed.

Another view of Cerro Grande but from within Valles Caldera National Preserve. You can't really appreciate what a massive mountain Cerro Grande is until you walk around it. It looks to me like a huge, gently rounded flying saucer hovering above the Valle Grande.

This is looking west across the grasslands of the Valle Grande. Going around from east to west (left to right), is the slope, just to the southwest of Cerro Grande, of an unnamed mountain, 9743'; Scooter Peak, 9701'; Rabbit Ridge with Rabbit Mountain, 9938'; Las Conchas Peak, 9934'; Los Griegos Mountain, 10,117'; and South Mountain, 9795'. All but South Mountain are on the Valles Caldera South Rim.

Across the Valle Grande is an arm of Cerro del Medio (middle foreground, beyond the trees) which encloses the Rincon de los Soldados, a tiny meadow nestled into a corner of the Valle Grande. The VCNP offers a guided hike called Rincon de los Soldados which searches for traces of an old army fort from the mid-1800's and includes a jaunt on the Cañon de Valle Road into Valle Canyon. Beyond Cerro del Medio is the emblematically distinctive profile of Redondo, the caldera's majestic resurgent dome,and Redondito. South Mountain, another ring fracture dome that burbled up from the leftover magma of the collapsed Valles Caldera, is on the far left horizon.

Warm blooded primates hurrying to huddle in the shade!

This is from the Valle Grande looking back at the tree-speckled south meadow on Pajarito Mountain. Valle Pass is the low area between Pajarito Mountain and the heavily treed northern slope of Cerro Grande (left middle foreground).

Hiking sticks came in handy for going around the grass hummocks. Looking west over the Valle Grande, you really get the feel that you are looking out over the lake it once was. The East Fork of the Jemez River is meandering through the grasslands to the far western Valle Grande (photo's horizon) where it will continue on to San Diego Canyon.

This is looking toward the northeast corner of the rim of the Valles Caldera. In the middle foreground, an arm of Cerro del Medio meets an arm from the Sierra de los Valles to form a low ridge. The small peak in the shadows is the eastern and smaller of the two Cerros de los Posos which overlook the tiny Valle de los Posos. The large baldspot on the far right is Cerro Rubio, 10,449'. Shell Mountain is the mountain complex to the left of Cerro Rubio. After that (or maybe even before that!), my knowledge of what the peaks are becomes murky. If anyone can set me straight, I would be most grateful!

To provide context, here's a far off view of the zoomed in view above. The head of the East Fork of the Jemez begins on the low, treed pass between Valle Grande (foreground) and Valle de los Posos beneath Cerro Rubio.

The tiny hikers help to understand the huge scale of the Valle Grande. The two mountains here are Scooter Peak (middle foreground) and Rabbit Ridge (background) which can both be hiked from the VCNP's free Coyote Call Trail or from Bandelier National Monument's Alamo Boundary Trail. The Jemez Mountain's paved access road, NM4, part of the Jemez Mountain Trail National Scenic Byway runs along the base of these peaks. Drivers regularly stop to gasp and gape at the stupendous views of the Valle Grande from pullouts all along NM4.

A seemingly infinitely long grazing fence runs along the Valle Grande. To a hiker, the time it has taken for more independent access into the caldera seems infinitely long as well. Perhaps there is still hope that the Valles Caldera National Preserve Trustees, charged with making the VCNP "financially self sustaining" by 2015, may one day allow for more varied and spontaneous hiking in the Preserve and on the Valles Caldera Rim owned by the Valles Caldera National Preserve. The Valle Canyon-Valle Grande hiking trip was a very positive movement toward that long-awaited goal.

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Los Alamos, New Mexico, United States