Abrigo Peak (far left) and Redondo Peak (right) seen from the road up to the rim


The Valle Caldera National Preserve (VCNP) occupies a tremendous bowl cupped by the Jemez Mountains. One and a quarter million years ago a large volcano underwent a super-eruption and left this vast footprint behind. In subsequent years the slopes mellowed, forests cycled through fire and regrowth (fire now ascendent) while broad montane grasslands open to wide-sky vistas. 

There are some designated horse-riding trails in the caldera but few hiking trails. The rule for hikers seems to be, “pick a direction and go”. For that reason your hike will likely differ from the stroll described here. My target was to get to the high point on the Caldera rim. The plan was to cross the Caldera, hike up to the rim and camp, summit Chicoma Peak on the second day and return to the trailhead on the third. Some dry creek beds and monsoon weather rubbished this plan, but that is a trivial complaint. Being in the Valle Caldera is its own splendid reward. Go.

Edit: a reader has pointed out a recently published guide to the VCNP. Could be useful although I haven’t seen it yet. A description cab be found here: https://vcnp-trails.com. My thanks to mtngrrl!

Driving Directions:

Caldera from Rt 4
  • Take Interstate-25 (I-25) to exit 276, signed for NM-599, Madrid, Los Alamos, Espanola
  • After 0.3 miles, at the end of the ramp, turn left onto NM-599 N
  • After 13.0 miles on NM-599 bear left for US-84 N/US-285, signed for Espanola
  • After 0.5 miles on the ramp, merge onto US-84/US-285
  • After 14.1 miles on US-84/US-285 stay to the right for the NM-502 W exit, signed for Los Alamos
  • After 0.2 miles on the ramp merge directly onto NM-502 W.
  • After 1.7 miles on NM-502, stay in the rightmost lanes and exit for NM-4, signed for Bandelier National Monument
  • After 0.5 miles on the ramp merge onto NM-4 W.
  • After 0.9 miles NM-4 turn right onto E Jemez Rd.
  • After 4.6 miles on E. Jemez Rd, turn left onto NM-501 W (signed as St Rt 4)
  • After 8.9 miles on NM-501 turn left into the trailhead, signed for Coyote Call Trail.

If you look at a road map you might be tempted to take NM-502 through Los Alamos. This route is not currently recommended. Under ordinary conditions those streets can be crowded and, currently, a road repair project tosses drivers into an alternate-route maze. 

On NM-501 you will drive through the Los Alamos National Laboratory land. A guard station stands across the road, looking like a toll both. At the station you must show some identification in order to proceed across the property. There is no toll, but I was cautioned not to stop on the property or take photos.


The trailhead is a small patch of macadam on the south side of State Route 4 (to your left driving in). It is signed for the Coyote Call trail (which goes south from there). There is room for about two cars on the macadam and enough grass-covered space for two or three more. There are no services. Because of the pandemic the main access road into VCNP is closed, but the park is open to biking or hiking from its perimeter. While the closure lasts there are no fees. Check the current status using this link.

To start the hike you’ll need to cross State Route 4 to the north side. There a paved turn-out allows motorists stop and admire the Valle. You will see many such turn-outs along Rt 4 and some are marked “day use only”. I chose not to park in this turnout because it wasn’t clear if overnight parking is permitted. A barbed wire fence bars you from entering the valle until you find the 18-inch wide fence-opening near the end of the turn-out.


  • Lowest Elevation: 8500 feet
  • Highest Elevation: 10,225 feet
  • Net Elevation: 1,725 feet
  • Distance: 44.6 miles

Hike Description:

Valle obsidian

Day 1.

Cross Rt 4 to the turn-out on the opposite side. Stop for a moment to enjoy the vast sweep of the Valle Grande grassland and estimate the number of large black dots out on the plain. Those, you eventually realize, are all elk. Many elk. To the northwest lies Cerro Redondo (“round hill”). This is the highest point in the Caldera and a useful navigation guide. Slightly east-of-north lies Cerro del Medio (“middle hill”). 

On this date I strode straight into the valle heading towards the west-facing flank of Cerro del Medio. Not recommended! The East Fork of the Jemez River forms a bright green swath that straddles this bearing. The river’s sluggish, muddy and somewhat smelly nature can be a shock. Elk and cattle have all been relieving themselves in this water. If you find a rotten log on which to cross then – heed this – do not fall off. It may be better to follow the dirt road that descends from the turnout heading east. The road will take you 1.5 miles “too far” to the east, but satellite images show it provides a bridge over the East Fork.

Jaramillo Creek basin

Expecting an easy grassland crossing? Grass in the Valle grows as tall, tough tufts, which demolish a hiker’s natural stride. Fortunately the numerous ruminants have cut trails into the grassland and following these make for easier marching. At 3.7 miles from the trailhead you will come to an alcove where the forested slopes of Cerro Redondo meet the forested slopes of Cerro del Medio. Leave the grasslands behind and poke north through innumerable pines to find a well-maintained road that penetrates into a second grassland containing Jaramillo Creek. On this date the creek waters were clear and flowing briskly. 

Monsoon hail

After 1.5 miles on the road (about 5.7 miles from the trailhead) a road comes in from the right. It is unsigned but fenced off by posts and a heavy cable. Turn east (right) onto this road and follow it  across the broad saddle between Cerro del Medio (which now lies to the south) and Cerro Abrigo (north). The top of Cerro Abrigo shows much fire damage but the saddle remains nicely forested. It was here, at about 1:00 in the afternoon, that the monsoon struck. I sheltered under a fir as the brief thunderstorm evolved into a shockingly long hailstorm. It hailed off and on for 30 minutes. As you move past Cerro Abrigo watch for a wide meadow on your left that descends to the east. Descend the meadow. There is an excellent display of obsidian including a curiously spotted form of this glassy rock.

Abrigo Peak from the north

The meadow descends to a valley bottom. There turn left (north) onto a gravel road and continue a counterclockwise stroll around Cerro Abrigo. The north side of the VCNP is taken up by a gigantic grassland drained by San Antonio Creek. Gorgeous and lonesome terrain!  On this date all of the numerous feeder creeks that cross under the road were dry, which seemed worrisome. Due north of Abrigo peak both the road and San Antonio Creek funnel between a small ash cone and Cerro Santa Rosa. In this location San Antonio creek proved to be clear and flowing briskly. Rather than risk a dry camp higher I chose to pitch a tent at the base of Santa Rosa. It’s a gorgeous spot, but it cost some miles that would have been useful the next day!

Day 2.

Caldera Rim

The map will show that I investigated the road up Indios Creek the next morning, but didn’t find an obvious route up to the Caldera rim. Instead, go west from Cerro Santa Rosa on the road for about 0.4 miles, to where a badly faded vertical route marker reads “(obscured)-zero-zero”. At that point go right onto a forest road and begin ascending to the rim. This part of the VCNP, untouched by fire, is a joy to ascend. Big Douglas firs and even cork bark fir make an appearance. It is shady and the grade is modest. The road follows a creek and on this date there were occasional trickles of water in the creek. Up near the rim there was enough water for a camp if a flat spot could be found.

(formerly) Vertical Route Marker

At the rim there is a fence with a heavy gate made of pipe. A signpost seems to indicate that a path once ran along the fence, going uphill. Currently the path is only clear for about a quarter mile after which it hits a long sequence of deadfall piles. Don’t use that path! Instead, doff your pack,  squirm through the gate’s struts and re-hoist your pack. The remaining bit of VCNP road makes a clockwise swing and comes to a second gate. Immediately past the second gate you will come to a confusion of forest roads. You want to make a hard left onto Forest Road 457 L (unsigned at this point). In just 200 yards the forest road intersects Forest Road 144/NM-565. Take note of the cattle guard on FR 144 since it flags this junction for your return. On this date I went east on FR 144 (to your right on ascent). 

Monsoon on Valle Caldera rim

The plan was to walk roughly 10 miles east on this road then find a path up the summit block of Chicoma Peak. Monsoon clouds soon put an end to that. This is fortunate because it would have been a long and boring day. A better plan would have been to turn west on FR 144 and hike the remaining 1.6 miles to tag the summit of Cerro de la Garita. Having considered the effect of the monsoon on my proposed ridge walk I opted to hustle back to the camp at Cerro Santa Rosa. 

Day 3.

Thunderstorm over Valle Grande

To return to the trailhead I choose to reverse the half-loop of Cerro Abrigo, but then diverted to the east to complete a run all the way around Cerro Medio. This is a great hike in open terrain with wonderful views. As an alternative, you may want to consider continuing counterclockwise from Cerro Santa Rosa to see the entire caldera floor. The alternating forest and grasslands are tremendous for viewing elk, deer and birdlife. They are, however, a poor place to be in a thunderstorm. I had to zip along when (as happened on the first two days) dark cumulus clouds began appearing as noon approached.


Author along Indios Creek

Footgear is important in the Valle. Those lumpy, awkward tufts of grass imperil the ankles and sharp obsidian chips lie everywhere. Hiking boots can shield your feet from a beating.

You will need a water filter!

The grassy valley sections and much of the road walks are exposed to the sun. A broad-rim hat is an excellent idea.


An interesting history of the Preserve and some great photos can be found at National Parks Traveler.

New Mexico Nomad presents more history and some exceptionally clear geology exposition.

George at Ondafringe reports on two hikes along the south-eastern rim of the Valle Caldera. Both the Coyote Calls hike and the Cerro Grande hikes are short, but afflicted by burn scars.

Lauren Danner has an interesting account of a hike to South Mountain (adjacent to Cerro Redondo) complete with bluebird and bear sightings.