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FALL IN THE WEST: NEW MEXICO

In Valles Caldera's wild heart

Circled by mountains northwest of Santa Fe, the volcanic crater is a haven for wildlife and a rich source of archeological treasures.

October 12, 2003|Ed Stockly | Times Staff Writer

Jemez, N.M. — Jemez, N.M.

IT was sundown, and the elk were active. We rounded a turn, startling a magnificent pair of bucks, each sporting enormous antlers. They crisscrossed the road ahead as if they were leading us down the slope into the Valle Grande, the largest of several valleys that lie among the volcanic domes of Valles Caldera National Preserve.

We stopped at the edge of the wide valley to watch them descend. Below we could see at least 1,000 elk scattered in herds across the meadows. The view was stunning as the setting sun bathed the land in a warm, golden light.

Valles Caldera, 50 miles northwest of Santa Fe, is a natural wonder at the heart of New Mexico's Jemez Mountains. The caldera -- the crater left behind after a volcanic eruption -- is the third largest in the U.S. and the best preserved, drawing volcanologists from around the world. It's also an archeological treasure, containing natural resources used for thousands of years by Native Americans. And it's a haven for wildlife, including elk, bald eagles, peregrine falcons, trout, black bears, mountain lions and coyotes.

I grew up on the slopes of this long-dormant volcano. As a youth I explored the surrounding mountains on family outings and Scout trips. As a teenager I joined my friends bathing in natural hot springs just off the highway or backpacking on overnight excursions to skinny-dip at a naturally heated pond. But until this summer I had never set foot inside the caldera. It was always off-limits, a privately owned cattle ranch where trespassing laws were strictly enforced. The closest I'd been was a view from the highway.

Then, in 2000, the federal government purchased the Baca Ranch for $101 million, creating Valles Caldera National Preserve. This year, for the first time since the land was transferred to the Cabesa de Baca family in the 19th century, Valles Caldera has been open to visitors for hiking, fishing, hunting and guided tours. The goal is for the property to be self-sustaining, with the cattle ranch earning enough money to pay the preserve's operating expenses.

When my family made plans to gather in the Jemez Mountains in late June, I contacted the preserve through its Web site, www.vallescaldera.gov, and arranged an afternoon van tour of the caldera. My wife, Jane, our daughters Lauren, 13, and Katherine, 11, and I took the train from L.A.'s Union Station to Albuquerque, where we rented a car for the trip into the mountains.

We took the scenic route through Santa Fe, which led us into a barren desert surrounded by rocky mesas. Gradually the road began to climb, winding into the mountains. At about 7,000 feet we passed the town of Los Alamos. The highway then soared up the side of the mountain with a series of hairpin turns, steep drop-offs and stunning views. At the mountaintop we followed a gentle ridge through a thick old-growth forest and caught our first glimpse of the Valle Grande. The floor of the caldera -- a wide, lush, grassy plain -- stretched for miles, surrounded on all sides by rugged tree-covered peaks.

We met our volunteer tour guide, Martin Pacheco, a teacher at Santa Fe High School, near the main gate along the highway. Our party was an extended family group ranging from ages 11 to 80. We climbed into the preserve's 12-passenger van and headed down the gentle slope from the highway into the Valle Grande, Spanish for "big valley." It covers more than 25 square miles, forming a vast meadow at the center of a rugged mountain range. I've driven past it hundreds of times and nearly always stopped for the view. On most days, with luck or a good pair of binoculars, it's easy to spot an elk herd grazing in the distance or a bald eagle circling. It's here that visitors get a sense of the scale and power of the volcano that built the surrounding mountains.

A geological jackpot

The Jemez Mountains began forming about 14 million years ago, according to geologist Fraser Goff of Los Alamos National Laboratory. In its last major eruption, a million years ago, the volcano spewed 72 cubic miles of rock and ash. By comparison, the volume ejected by Mt. St. Helens' 1980 eruption was about one-half cubic mile.

The floor of the caldera is dotted with several volcanic domes, each representing an eruption. Many of the surrounding mountain peaks and formations are also the result of eruptions, the most recent about 40,000 years ago.

Today the preserve encompasses the entire caldera, about 140 square miles, ranging in elevation from 8,500 feet to 11,220 at the summit of Redondo Peak, the huge volcanic dome that dominates the caldera. Native Americans consider the peak sacred and it is closed to visitors.

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