The Valles Caldera is a Bit of Heaven on Earth
Laura Naranjo serves on the board of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation.
Valles Caldera National Preserve will always be my heaven on Earth. I’ve hiked almost every trail here, often multiple times. Sometimes, when looking at someone else’s photographs of their visit, I recognize a familiar creek bend, a rock formation, a kink in the trail, and I know exactly where they’d been.
Like most of my favorite public lands, Valles Caldera isn’t really on the way to anywhere. You can only reach it by dawdling along two-lane roads that wind through the Jemez Mountains in northern New Mexico. Some New Mexicans nickname it the Caldera, a Spanish-derived geologic term for the massive bowl-shaped hollow left behind after an ancient volcanic eruption. Others simply call it the Valle, a Spanish word for valley, or the floor of the caldera. Several forested lava domes punctuate the caldera floor, creating the namesake series of large and small valles.
These domes and valles form a lush antidote to the arid deserts of New Mexico. Evergreen conifers and tangles of scrub oak overspread the slopes of the caldera, spangled by stands of aspen. Hike quietly up one of the old logging roads, and you might catch a doe nudging along a pair of rambunctious fawns. Or round a curve only to freeze in your tracks as a small herd of elk skitters up the path in front of you. If you’re really lucky, you’ll see turkeys or bears trundling through the forest, or you’ll at least cross their tracks.
From these high slopes, water trickles down from seeps and springs, tumbling into creeks that gently meander through the valles. Wade through the waist-high grasses and peer past tussocks arching over the creeks, and you can spot the glint of a brown trout darting to safety. Strolling along the valles trails, I’ve caught coyotes and badgers galumphing about together — an adorably odd couple of symbiotic hunters.
I’ve been fortunate enough to draw coveted elk and turkey hunts here. I spend hours watching the cow elk and their calves each summer. And every year I get a fishing license to try my luck chasing trout. When there’s enough snow, I strap chains on my tires and snowshoes on my feet to traipse across the glittering valles. During fall, I visit my favorite stands of aspen to listen to their shush and shiver, sprawling on the forest floor and staring straight up so I see nothing more than golden leaves and brilliant blue sky.
Although I try to convince myself to visit other public lands and wildernesses, Valles Caldera is where I return to rewild and renew, to loosen the heartstrings and unbend the mind. And yet, the words in this love letter cannot compare to the stories the caldera itself chooses to tell, season after season, year after year. Tooth and claw marks etch lean winters into aspen trunks. In spring, an earthy tang of pine wafts among the ponderosa. Summer storms pound the earth with monsoon rains. Otherworldly arias of bugling bull elk pierce the chill autumn mornings. This are the voices that call me back, sung by a by a majestic geologic feature over 13 miles across — large enough to be visible by satellite, and yet a treasure small enough to fit in my heart.
We’d love to hear about the public lands you love! If you’re interested in writing a love note, please email us at OurPublicLands@nwf.org for guidelines.