Beyond the fence at Valles Caldera National Preserve
Fog rolls along Valles Caldera.
The Baca Ranch has been off limits forever, its beauty beckoning from beyond the fence. I was thrilled when “we” bought it and saved it from development, and applauded the new experiment of managing the preserve as a self-supporting entity removed from the high-evaporation U.S. Treasury. I understood that it would be several years before I could explore “my” preserve, while the new board developed a plan for public access, then established a visitor center, parking, etc. That didn’t stop me from hanging longingly on that fence. When guided hikes became available this fall, I didn’t hesitate to sign up, $50 or no $50.
My neighbor, Lois Gonzales, and I arrived in Los Alamos at 7:00 a.m. on a chilly September morning and met our guide, Kimber Barber, owner of Valles Caldera Adventures. A longtime Los Alamos resident as anxious as the rest of us to penetrate that fence, Kimber proposed the guided-hike concept to the board, then formed the company and submitted the low bid.
Our small group was bused to the preserve, then struck out up Rabbit Mountain. It had rained the night before, and fog hung in the Valle Grande. We were soon above it, hiking through forest and meadows of wet grass. The bugling of elk echoed through the fog. A few short hours later we topped out on a ridge overlooking the magnificence of the Valle Grande. While we snacked and snapped pictures, the fog obligingly lifted, revealing a herd of elk in the Valle.
All seasoned hikers, we made better than average time up the mountain, allowing for additional exploring on the way down. In addition to elk, we flushed wild turkeys. Along the way, we learned the fascinating history of the property.
I was definitely not ready for the hike to be over, but I certainly felt I got my money’s worth! More so, when I received an e-mail the following week offering a two-for-one hike to returning clients.
Exploring the river valley
This time we met at the Los Alamos ski run, where we rode the chair lift to the top of Pajarito Mountain. Then we hiked down the back of the mountain into the Valle Grande. Our guide this time was Craig Martin, who filled us in with fascinating historical details. After the steep thousand-foot descent through ancient Douglas fir, we followed the old trail that carried the nineteenth-century cattlemen and sheepherders into the Valle, stopping in an aspen grove adorned with nineteenth-century graffiti. Elk bugling surrounded us. Finally we crossed the vast Valle Grande. We passed the head of the East Fork of the Jemez River, then stopped for lunch in a grove of trees on a hill. Through binoculars we could see tiny people stopped along Highway 4, looking longingly through the fence. It was great to be where they were looking! The hike covered six and a half miles, and again I wasn’t ready to quit.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to, just yet. The following Saturday offered a “kids day” hike ($50 including the kid) along the East Fork of the Jemez River. I took my four-year-old granddaughter, Cheyenne. I drove in rain all the way to Los Alamos (it rained everywhere but Placitas!) but it stopped, and the hike was fantastic. We followed the East Fork from the highway west of Valle Grande through the magical Hidden Valley. The grassy valley surrounds a spectacular rock outcrop that channels the river on its way. We crossed the river on rocks twice. Cheyenne managed to negotiate the crossings without incident. Although her shoes were soaked from the tall grass she was having too much fun to complain..
We eventually wound our way into the Valle Grande, and stopped at an old movie set, a colorful Western log saloon, before heading back to Los Alamos. Cheyenne completed her tour of the Jemez River with stops at Jemez Falls and Battleship Rock.
I heartily recommend these forays into the Valles Caldera National Preserve. Though the cost can be a little steep for families, the prices will drop once things get going, and specials are already being offered. The options keep changing, too. All proposals are reviewed by the board of directors, whose job addresses preservation as well as self-sustenance. Every attempt has been made to minimize the impact of the hikers, so the opportunities should keep expanding. The hikes will continue as long as weather permits, giving way to cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
Additional Information can be found at www.vallescalderadventures.com or at 800-440-2858.