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Valles Caldera crater

Miles of biking ahead

Trout stream for fishing
Photo credit: Ty Belknap

Valles Caldera in transition

—Ty Belknap

On May 20, I took a 190-mile roundtrip from Placitas to the 89,000-acre Valles Caldera National Preserve, off NM Highway 4 in the Jemez Mountains. The preserve had just started the summer season, and, for the first time, opened the backcountry to private vehicles. As part of the transition to the National Park Service (NPS), a total of 24 backcountry permits are now issued each day. Up to twelve of these permits are available by reservation, and the rest are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

After registering for a backcountry permit at the visitor’s center (normally twenty dollars, but free with my NPS Senior Pass), getting a map, and learning about the regulations, I drove about twelve miles on gravel roads designated for motor vehicles into the heart of the preserve. It was a little intimidating to approach the Valles Grande, hyped a treasure, a jewel, yet usually out of bounds. I just don’t quite get it.

Most visitors to the backcountry come to fish in San Antonio Creek. I’m not much of a fisherman. I would have brought “Lalo” for company, but dogs aren’t allowed in the backcountry, so I brought my mountain bike instead. Parking at a designated parking area, I rode on one of the many hiking/biking/equestrian trails, which are usually old logging roads or gas pipeline service roads. The trail looped through the vast grassy meadows and valleys and up into one of the wooded volcanic domes. It was pretty steep, but a great way to experience all that grandeur and solitude.

Back at the creek, a couple of fishermen proudly showed me a 12-inch brown trout they had caught with a rod and reel. Apparently hip waders and fancy fly-fishing gear are unnecessary. Maybe I could do that.

The Preserve is open seven days a week from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Keep an eye on your watch, because they lock the gates at 6:00 p.m. sharp. If you haven’t checked out, they call the cops, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

In 2000, the Valles Caldera National Preserve was established by Congress to be managed by the Valles Caldera Trust, a wholly-owned government corporation overseen by a board of seven presidential appointees, the Santa Fe National Forest Supervisor, and the Bandelier National Monument Superintendent.

Last year, the enactment of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015 (Public Law 113-291) established the Valles Caldera National Preserve as a unit of the National Park System. The legislation called for a period of transitional management by the Valles Caldera Trust, which ends on September 30, 2015.

During the transition, the Trust announced on May 11 that they will “continue to manage day-to-day Preserve activities, in consultation with the NPS. The NPS has been working closely with the Trust and the US Forest Service to plan for the transition of all administrative and operational responsibilities to the NPS which will also fully implement all management, resource protection, science, visitor access, and other activities as directed by Congress and by federal and state law, regulation, and policy.”

The law requires:

  • The NPS must protect, preserve, and restore the fish, wildlife, watershed, natural, scientific, scenic, geologic, historic, cultural, archaeological, and recreational values of the area.
  • Within three years from when funding is made available, NPS shall prepare a management plan for the Preserve.
  • Until a management plan is completed, the NPS may administer the Preserve in accordance with any management activities or plans currently adopted by the Trust.
  • Grazing of livestock shall continue to the extent that the use furthers scientific research or interpretation of the ranching history of the Preserve.
  • Hunting, fishing, and trapping shall be permitted in accordance with federal and state law. Any limitations shall be made in consultation with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.
  • NPS shall undertake activities to improve the health of forest, grassland, and riparian areas within the Preserve, including any activities carried out in accordance with the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program

Charlie Strickfaden, NPS Acting Superintendent of the Valles Caldera National Preserve, told the Signpost that Valles Caldera will not be a National Park. It is a “unit” of the National Park Service (NPS), which Congress has designated for hunting, fishing, and other activities that are not typical part of national parks. He stressed that the NPS are both concerned with “protecting this magical landscape while allowing public recreation.”

Strickfaden said that over one hundred people attended each of three “listening sessions” held in May in Albuquerque, Jemez Springs, and Los Alamos. Attendees were allowed to offer ideas about land-use issues. Most were adamant about relying on the Trust and the NPS to protect the beauty and solitude of the land. Area residents expressed concern over the impact of increased traffic.

Strickfaden said that, other than the new access policies, nothing much will change during the transition period, and that his staff is planning meetings with local officials and communities.

Current employees of the Trust will have the opportunity to seek employment with the NPS after the transition, however, some programs and jobs will be cut due to an annual decrease from $3.3 million to $2.8 million dollars.

The NPS has met with tribes and pueblos that affiliate themselves with the Preserve, as part of preparations for the transition, according to Strickfaden. The legislation requires consultation with tribal and pueblo governments and the protection and restriction of access to cultural and religious sites, including the volcanic domes and peaks in the Preserve. Jemez Pueblo continues to sue for ownership of Valles Caldera, based on aboriginal claims.

Hunting and fishing will continue to be allowed on the Preserve under NPS management. Hunters who won the Trust’s lottery for this fall’s elk hunt will be provided with a welcome packet that will be distributed by the Trust. The NPS is working with the NM Department of Game and Fish to plan for recreational activities in the coming years.

Strickfaden said that there are no plans to change restrictions on motorized travel or camping.

Valles Caldera is surrounded by the Santa Fe National Forest where there are ample opportunities for off-road travel, camping, and other less regulated activities. The Valles continues to be one of many treasures of the Jemez Mountains.

On the way home from my little day trip, I drove through a couple of nice national forest campgrounds at Jemez Falls and Redondo. Dispersed camping is permitted off forest roads. There are hot springs, cliffs, canyons, waterfalls. There is Fenton Lake, Bandelier, Battleship Rock, and Gillman Canyon. Valles Caldera is just one more reason to spend a week up there some day.

For more information about tours and summer activities, go to: or call (505) 661-3333

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