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The Valle Vidal, north of Taos

Road trip to Valle Vidal

—Ty Belknap

Have you heard of the Valle Vidal? Here’s a description from the US Forest Service website:

“The Valle Vidal (The Valley of Life) unit of the Carson National Forest was donated to the People of the United States by the Pennzoil Company in 1982. This lush mountain basin, located in the heart of New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains, is home to a magnificent elk herd and other abundant wildlife. The vistas of high peaks, forests, and alpine meadows are breathtaking. With elevations of 7,700 to 12,584 feet, the plant life is abundant and varied.”

My dog Lalo and I went up there for a few days of car camping in July—Santa Fe to Española, then a four-hundred-mile grand loop along the west rim of the Rio Grande Gorge across Gorge Bridge NM 64, up SR 552 through Questa to the Village of Costilla, then east onto SR196 which changes to gravel past the Village of Amelia and becomes Forest Road 1950. I took 1950 east along the Rio Costilla as it tumbles through private land in the canyon. Camping next to the river costs twenty dollars per night.

At the junction with Forest Road 1900, you can follow the Rio Costilla, or turn right as I did, into the heart of the Valle Vidal, staying on Forest Road 1950 to the junction with FR 1910. One mile up the hill on FR 1910 is Cimarron Campground, which has 36 campsites for tents and trailers, and includes picnic tables, fireplaces, toilets, and corrals.

I claimed the best campsite and took the dog on a half-mile hike to a fishing hole called Shuree Pond. We walked past an old hunting lodge which saw better days when filled with oil barons. When we got back to the campground, there was a guy there who informed me that he had reserved my site (as he had done for the past seventeen years), and would I please move. In exchange, he gave me some good advice on hiking trails. Another neighbor used his generator late into the night, reminding me why to avoid developed campgrounds.

Next day, I explored the immediate area on my mountain bike and found a dirt road into the forest that looked like a good place to move my camp. Dispersed camping is permitted with a few common sense restrictions. A unique feature of the Valle Vidal is a lack of developed trails. Most roads off the main roads are closed, so mountain bikes or a horse is the way to go. Rig a bike for camping and you could spend the summer there, though technically fourteen days is the limit.

Lalo and I hiked an ill-defined trail along a creek from the intersection of FR’s 1950 and 1910. There was an abundance of elk droppings and bear scat. July and August are the best times for wildflowers, especially in boggy areas along the creeks. The landscape was incredibly greened up by the afternoon showers.

Backtracking on FR 1950, we hiked into an open meadow that led into the main basin and watched the monsoon clouds roll in while wading in a creek. Hikers are encouraged to bring rain jackets and avoid being stuck out in the open during thunderstorms—storms that never quite showed up for us. Temperatures stayed in the low seventies/low fifties at night.

On the second morning, we rose at dawn and drove the rough dirt on FR 210 looping back to FR 1950, hoping in vain to view elk or bear. FR 1950 then dropped gradually out of the Valle Vidal to the east. I road my bike on a closed road through a meadow until I came upon a bunch of Boy Scouts from Philmont who were riding bikes into a canyon. It looked like a good place to ride next time.

About sixty miles from Costilla, the forest road ends at SR 64, just outside of Cimarron, “where the Rockies meet the plains.” If your tour is a day trip, you will probably be thinking hotel at this point. There is so much else to tell about the ride home, but Valle Vidal is as far as I’m going.

New ways to explore Valles Caldera

The Valles Caldera National Preserve is hosting a series of new programs for the summer season, offering visitors many new options for exploring this New Mexico treasure. The offerings include programs that allow mountain bikers and horse riders to traverse designated trails through the preserve during the day and then camp overnight. There also are several activities for families, including the Family Fun & Games Campfire program. The final monthly event of the program will be held on August 23 with a free story time, games and activities for children of all ages. The preserve will remain open 5 p.m. until 10:00 p.m. that day.

For a complete list of activities, visit the Valles Caldera’s welcome page at


Inside Fort Stanton Cave

Fort Stanton Cave study project wins international award

—Chuck Schmidt

At the sixteenth International Congress of Speleology in Brno, Czech Republic, the International Union of Speleology (UIS) named the Fort Stanton Cave Study Project (FSCSP) team as the winner of the 2013 prize in exploration.

Fort Stanton Cave is part of the Fort Stanton-Snowy River National Conservation Area (NCA), a 25,080-acre area managed by the Bureau of Land Management’s Roswell Field Office. The NCA was established in 2009 to conserve and enhance the unique and nationally important historic, cultural, scientific, archaeological, natural, and educational subterranean cave resources of the Fort Stanton-Snowy River cave system.

The FSCSP, comprised of around two hundred volunteers, has been exploring the cave system for over forty years, taking Fort Stanton Cave from a well-known popular recreational cave to a world class, scientifically extraordinary 26.3-mile system. Fort Stanton Cave now ranks twentieth in the United States and seventy-sixth in the world in terms of length. For comparison, Carlsbad Caverns has around 30.9 miles of surveyed passage.

Jim Goodbar, the BLM’s National Senior Cave and Karst Resource Specialist said, “The ongoing discoveries and survey at Fort Stanton Cave is truly one of the great exploration stories in the Bureau of Land Management. With the continuing exploration of the Snowy River Passage, the cave is now the longest surveyed in the agency and future surveys will be adding additional length. Onward through the darkness—the end is not in sight.”

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