Day 6 (August 2019)
Valle Caldera National Preserve / Jemez Mountains
Valle Caldera National Preserve
After a fun night of camping in Bandelier National Monument, we continue our journey West through the Jemez Mountains via Hwy 4. I am awestruck by the views as the road winds and climbs into Bandelier’s high country, also passing through Santa Fe National Forest before dropping down into the 13.7 mile-wide caldera of an ancient super-volcano. A feeling of pure joy comes over me as I lay my eyes upon Valle Caldera National Preserve for the first time. Am I still in New Mexico? Everything is so lush and green!
Most Americans are not familiar with the Jemez Range, likely because within the range there are no striking natural landmarks. The special beauty of this mountain range is more subtle than the jagged peaks of Colorado and California, and can only be truly understood and appreciated by immersion in its pristine, mostly undisturbed forest and meadow wilderness. These mountains are dotted with streams and rivers, hot springs, and other lingering signs of the area’s geothermal activity.
The Jemez Mountains are the westernmost range in the New Mexico Rockies, and (along with the Sangre de Cristo range) are the southern terminus of the Rocky Mountains. The range was formed by a cataclysmic eruption around a hundred million years ago.
A historic plaque describing Valle Grande – the largest of Valle Caldera’s grass valleys – reads:
About one million years ago, the magnificent valley before you was formed by collapse, after a series of tremendous volcanic eruptions ejected a volume of material 500 times greater than the May 1980 eruptions of Mt. St. Helens. This event climaxed more than 13 million years of volcanism in the Jemez Mountains. Minor volumes of magma, leaking to the surface as recently as 50,000 years ago, formed the dome-like hills between you and the skyline to the north, which is the opposite wall of the enormous Valle Caldera.
I turn down the Preserve’s gravel entrance road and travel through wildflower meadow toward the visitor center, crossing a thin blue ribbon of water: the East Fork of the Jemez River. A coyote casually trots across the road. Ravens perch on the historic cow pens, remnants of the Baca Ranch, which dates back to the 1870’s. Small herds of cattle still graze in the meadows. Although I do not spot any today, the largest elk herd in the Southwest resides in this valley. In the middle of the visitor center parking lot, a not-particularly-shy prairie dog emerges from his hole to pose for photos for other visitors.
Dogs are allowed on three trails within the Preserve, including the La Jara trail, whose trailhead is just a short stroll from the visitor center. The La Jara trail is an easy 1.5 mile loop trail around Cerra La Jara rhyolite volcanic dome. The valley’s wildflower display is one of the prettiest I’ve seen, and I again have to remind myself that I’m in New Mexico.
I struggle to keep Juniper from sticking her snout into each of the hundreds of prairie dog holes along the trail. I detect a very strong bear scent and conclude that one is likely somewhere on that forested lava dome, quietly observing us. Short on time and uncertain where we will camp tonight, we only hike about half a mile down the trail and turn around.
Scenes from the critically acclaimed show Longmire were filmed in Valle Caldera. I was hoping to make the short drive to the historic cabins, one of which served as Sheriff Walt Longmire’s home. Unfortunately but understandably, dogs are not allowed in the back country of the Preserve (even if kept inside the car), so I will have to save that drive for a future trip. Sad to leave this stunning place so soon, I am comforted by the knowledge that I will return with Robert in September for more lengthy exploration.
A few miles up the road I reach the Jemez Falls campground, where my hopes are dashed when I arrive to find the campground full. I was unaware that this popular campground is now on a reservation system, although had the sites still been on a first-come-first-serve basis, my chances of finding an empty site on a summer Saturday still would have been slim.
There are several Santa Fe National Forest trails in this area that are on my hiking bucket list, yet without a clue where we will stay for the night, I pass them by and continue down the Jemez Mountain Trail Scenic Byway (Hwy 4) toward Jemez Springs, stopping just long enough for quick pictures of the geologic formation Soda Dam, Jemez State Monument (which we will explore in September), and the interesting architecture of the mid century Via Coeli Monastery. I will later read that the monastery is part of the Congregation of the Servants of the Paraclete, which has a dark history as the Catholic church’s sanctuary for sex-offender priests. Knowledge of this ugliness cools my previously warm feelings about the tiny tourist town of Jemez Springs.
Jemez Springs offers a limited but interesting restaurant selection. My best (perhaps only) option for outdoor dining with Juniper offers lunch AND a show. The deck at Jemez State Stop Cafe is bordered on two sides by a fenced area containing chickens, roosters, and goat.
Juniper is delighted to have the critter company and makes every attempt to be well behaved, however one particularly pesky rooster’s taunting pushes her buttons and I have to quiet her barking a couple of times. Thankfully the waitress and other restaurant patrons find this scene amusing and sympathize about her rooster bully.
Jemez Stage Stop Cafe is an odd little place, and not just for the farm animals that live on site. The sign reads “established 1931”, and artisans – presumably from nearby Jemez Pueblo – sell handcrafted jewelry and other items from tables just outside the cafe’s front door. The decor is weathered, and the service – while friendly – is not fast (particularly the kitchen), even though less than half of the tables are occupied. The food is quite good but would be best experienced when one isn’t in a hurry and can just settle in to enjoy some nice weather and the quirky atmosphere.
By the time my food is delivered – 45 minutes after my arrival – Juniper is getting really antsy. As if knowing her presence was needed, a sweet older dog emerges from inside the restaurant and comes over to say hello. The arrival of Juniper’s mellow new friend calms her down long enough for me to scarf my food. The dog appears to belong to the restaurant owner or an employee, and seems to have the run of the place.
During a brief post-lunch walk, Juniper spies an interesting hummingbird, unlike any I’ve ever seen before. Back at the entrance to the Jemez Falls campground, I had seen a different and unusual (to me) species of hummingbird. Note to self: find out more about western hummingbirds.
The hot springs bath house in Jemez Springs is un-fussy, and found right next to a city park.
The farther west one moves through the Jemez Mountains, the more colorful the mountains. Rainbow-hued, tree-dotted rock on the Western side of Santa Fe National Forest gives way to red rock in Jemez Pueblo. The photograph below was taken west of Jemez Springs, looking eastward.
Finding Redondo campground – my last option for Jemez mountain camping – also full, I ponder where to go from here. Leaving the Jemez Mountains behind, I hop on US-550 south and drive toward the Sandia Mountains. A stop in Albuquerque is tempting (I dig ABQ!), yet I decide to instead push west on I-40, working my way toward El Malpais, El Morro, and eventually Arizona.
Skies turn to gray, the wind picks up, and rain showers dot the horizon. I take no more time to stop, missing a sublime photo op in Laguna Pueblo as a god ray spotlights the Spanish mission centered in the old settlement atop a hill. I’m not keen on the idea of paying for another hotel, but evening light is fading and the rain and storms have really set in, causing me to further question tomorrow’s plan for touring El Malpais and El Morro National Monuments.
We stop at the Best Western in Grants, where I shower off the sand, dirt, and dust from the Rio Grand Gorge and Bandelier, and I formulate a backup itinerary for the rainy day forecast tomorrow. Juniper seems especially thankful for the comfortable stay at the end of our long but wonderful day of wandering westward. Our stay in Grants provides an opportunity for taking some good pictures of old signs and hotels along Mother Road the next morning, images that will be included in a later post about Route 66.
More New Mexico wandering here. Wondering where else we’ve wandered? Check out our Parks List.