Southwestern US, US National Parks

Life inside a volcano – Valles Caldera National Preserve, New Mexico

Last week, I wrote all about Bandelier National Monument, which protects the cliffs, canyons, and Ancestral Puebloan ruins south of Los Alamos, New Mexico. This landscape was created by the two massive eruptions of a nearby volcano more than 1 million years ago. After the final eruption the volcano collapsed, leaving behind a caldera 14 miles (22.5 km) wide. Today, that caldera is the centerpiece of Valles Caldera National Preserve.

Valles (pronounced VY-ase) Caldera is a relatively new addition to the NPS, created in 2015. Prior to this, the land was owned by a trust. Prior to that, it was owned by a series of farmers and ranchers, dating back to the original land grant in the 1820s. Some of the buildings and fences from these establishments still stand today.

Due to its new status and remote location, Valles Caldera is very undeveloped. One road – NM Highway 4 – cuts across the southern edge of the preserve. From here, an unpaved road turns north and heads into the caldera, past the visitor center and historic cabins, and then forks in the northern section of the monument. Driving parts of this road requires high clearance and possibly even 4WD, and most of it is closed in the off-season. Therefore, we were somewhat limited in our explorations of the caldera. Nonetheless, we enjoyed our time here.

We began at the entrance station, where we picked up the free permit that allowed us to continue driving to the historic cabins (which is as far as you’re allowed to go in the off-season). The cabins sit on the western edge of Valle Grande, the lowest part of the caldera. One of the cabins is now the visitor center, which we also stopped at briefly. At the recommendation of a ranger, we walked a short distance down an old road on foot. The path continues for many miles, but we had other hikes on the agenda so we turned around after about 10 minutes.

Cabin District
Looking across the caldera from the Cabin District

Back at the entrance station, we followed the Pond Trail out to a small pond in the center of Valle Grande. Although a short and easy hike (roundtrip 1.1 miles/1.9 km), I enjoyed the panoramic views from this trail. With the brown vegetation and lack of trees, there was a starkness to the landscape that I really loved. I’ve never quite understood why, but I find desolation to be so beautiful.

Back at the car, we made our way back toward the highway, stopping for a brief climb up Missing Cabin Trail. This trail isn’t even on the park map; I think I learned about it from the website when researching for this trip. It’s also not marked. In fact, the official directions say to drive about 0.5 miles (0.8 km) into the preserve and park at the locked gate on the west side of the road. From here, step over the gate and walk up the road to the cabin. The roundtrip distance was only 0.4 miles (0.7 km); it’s not a difficult walk.

Missing Cabin “trailhead”
The “trail,” with the cabin in the distance
An old well outside the cabin
Missing Cabin

Our last stop in Valles Caldera was the Valle Grande trail, which is accessed off the main highway adjacent to the southeast boundary of the monument. It’s not well-marked and we nearly missed the pullout. If you cross back into Bandelier (traveling east), you’ve gone too far. The parking area is on the opposite side of the road from the trail, which created additional confusion. But we eventually found it, dashed across the highway, and located the trailhead (which actually does have a small sign). The Valle Grande Trail zigzags through the forest and descends to the southern edge of Valle Grande. After having hiked around the other parts of the caldera, it was neat to look across at them from a different angle. The only downside to this trail was climbing nearly 400 feet (122 m) in 1 mile (1.6 km) to get back to the car.

Views from the Valle Grande Trail

And lastly, as promised last week, an overview of our hike up Cerro Grande. At 10,200 feet (3110 m), this is the highest point in Bandelier and sits right on the border with Valles Caldera. I’m opting to include it in this post because the summit provides a stellar view of the caldera. And though the trail is entirely in Bandelier, the summit is partially in Valles Caldera.

Cerro Grande summit views
Cerro Grande handstand

Of everything we did on our New Mexico road trip, this hike was my favorite. I know, I know. How predictable of me. Of course standing on top of a mountain with 360° views was my favorite activity. I’m nothing if not consistent.

In addition to the caldera views, from the summit we could see Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Los Alamos, and in the distance we even glimpsed the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and Wheeler Peak – the New Mexico high point. It was neat to see all the places we’ve been, and it helped solidify my mental map of central New Mexico.

Sangre de Cristo Mountains
Looking toward Albuquerque and Santa Fe

We took some time to enjoy the panoramic vistas and eat a snack, but eventually it was too cold to remain on the summit. The warmth of the sun wasn’t quite enough to overcome the cold wind that was whipping up the mountainside.

Descending Cerro Grande

So back to the car we went, waving goodbye to both Valles Caldera and Bandelier. Both places – but especially Valles Caldera – are relatively remote and unknown. I’m glad we had the chance to visit both, and if you’re ever planning a trip to Bandelier, I recommend popping over to Valles Caldera while you’re in the area.

The Important Stuff:

  • Getting there: Valles Caldera is about 30 minutes east of Los Alamos on NM Highway 4. Note that to exit Los Alamos from this direction, you must cross through Los Alamos National Laboratories, which requires an ID check upon entry. We were very confused when our GPS sent us this way, but it is in fact the only way through. Just stay on the main road and don’t take any photos on this short segment of the route.
  • Fees and passes: there is no charge to enter the monument, but a free permit is required to travel beyond the entrance station. Obtain this in-person at the entrance station.
  • Where to stay: there is no lodging of any type in the preserve. For camping, check out the adjacent Bandelier National Monument or Santa Fe National Forest. For hotels, cabins, etc. Los Alamos is the closest town. This is where we stayed.
  • Hiking: There are dozens of trails in Valles Caldera, but note that many are not well-marked and some require travel down the backcountry roads that require 4WD/clearance and a permit. For more information on access and availability, check in at the entrance station upon arrival.
  • Other: because Valles Caldera is a national preserve, hunting (with appropriate permits and licenses) is allowed within its boundaries. If visiting during hunting season, wear bright colors (pink or orange are recommended) for safety.

31 thoughts on “Life inside a volcano – Valles Caldera National Preserve, New Mexico”

  1. I had read about Valles Caldera, how unusual. The volcano eruption must have been so long ago to have all that growth fill in, and I assume it is considered extinct, not just dormant. Glad to know more about this place.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You know, I’m actually not sure of its designation. It hasn’t erupted in over a million years, if I recall correctly; I’m not sure what differentiates dormant from extinct.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha well I did one on the summit. We were pretty cold by this point and the trail was really muddy, so we were ready to just be down in the trees where it was more sheltered


  2. Your wonderful photos brought back fond memories of our visit to this place. Like you, I was enchanted by its expansive feel and gorgeous views. And the fact that we had it nearly to ourselves. I much prefer destinations off the beaten path.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was very chilly up there thanks to the wind! But I did have gloves on, and I found a slightly less snowy spot to put my hands, so that helped a little.


    1. There were very few people there, despite being the day after Thanksgiving. I think it’s just far enough away from the cities and just undeveloped enough that most people don’t bother to visit. Worked out well for us, though!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. A desolate landscape, indeed! Fascinating to hear of a recently-minted national landmark: I’d assume that all of the ones in the US had been established decades ago! Goes to show that there are efforts to preserve the natural beauty of this country…the streaks of snow(?) along the path are striking, and they make for a unique view of the natural area!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. No idea if they still do it, but we once went out there for cross country skiing on a full moon night, which was a wonderfully surreal and amazingly beautiful experience. It’s a neat place!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh that would be incredible! I’m not sure if they do that still, I never came across it in my research (but I also wasn’t looking for that since it wasn’t yet snowy enough).


    1. Yeah, New Mexico is a surprisingly high elevation state. The city of Santa Fe is over 7000 feet and Albuquerque is over 5000, so once you head up into the mountains you wind up pretty high pretty quickly!


  5. Thanks, I will add this caldera to my list of volcano sites to visit. I’ve never hiked in New Mexico, your posts are realizing I need to get some exploring done in New Mexico, thanks.

    PS – I was at another wonderful caldera, Ngorongora Crater in Tanzania a few months ago.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. There aren’t enough adjectives in the English language to describe how beautiful this trail is and the vistas seen from it. Although the elevation change at the very would require for a hiker to be in a decent shape. Thanks for sharing and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Aiva! Yes, we are fortunate to live at elevation so we aren’t bothered much by hikes like this anymore. But it would be much more challenging if you weren’t used to being up so high.

      Liked by 1 person

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