Archives for posts with tag: Southwest
Abrigo Peak (far left) and Redondo Peak (right) seen from the road up to the rim

Overview:

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 have opened 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, then 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.

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 a maze of alternative-route roads. 

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.

Trailhead:

The trailhead is a small paved are on the south side of State Route 4 (to your left driving in). It is signed for the trail that heads south from there, the Coyote Call trail. 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 go across State Route 4 to the north side. The park provides a paved area there to let motorists stop and admire the Valle. There are many such turn-outs and at least some are marked “day use only”. I chose not to park there 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.

Data:

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

Hike Description:

Valle obsidian

Day 1.

From the trailhead, 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. The 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 (and attendant wetlands) 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 a better option 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 fenced off by posts and a heavy cable comes in from the right. Turn east (right) onto tread 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

At the low point of the meadow 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 – 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 sequence of deadfall piles. Forget it! 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 too long and too boring for a successful single 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.

Recommendations:

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.

Links:

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.

Approach to Chupadera Peak ridgeline

Overview:

This easily accessed, moderate, out-and-back hike propels you into the heart of the Chupadera Wilderness Area. The eye could be captured by the many surrounding mountain ranges: the Magdalena Mountains, Socorro Mountains, Manzano Mountains, Oscura Mountains and the Fra Cristobal Mountains. For most, however, the Rio Grande River will ensnare the eye – a slender green filament fluttering against New Mexico’s sere heartland. The trail traverses river bottom, winds through dramatic cliffs and summits on a windy ridge line. Tuck a few family members in the car for a sunny march and a great break from covid confinement.

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San Lorenzo

Overview:

Despite the map (below), this isn’t really an out-and-back hike. It is, instead, a network of out-and-back hikes that feathers through a small region of insanely gorgeous canyonland. Engage your inner explorer and find your own path through these formations. Pick a cool, sunny day and go. 

This patch of New Mexico is being loved to death. Your effort is needed to support the beauty of the canyon.

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Overview: 

Mangan Hill (highpoint) and Outlier Hill (bump on left flank)

Covid constraints getting tiresome? Near Socorro? This sunny, short and agreeably lonesome outing is exactly what the doctor ordered. An early start will get you back home in time for some well earned barbecue!

This is a real desert ramble. You will want to be comfortable navigating in this sort of environment and take your desert gear, especially extra water!

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View of Albuquerque Basin from Trigo Canyon

Overview

Uff! The last six miles of road batters your suspension. The burned crest batters your sensibilities. The thorn brush batters your gear. The clutch of abandoned trails batters your soul. You might ask, “why bother?”. The answer is: Trigo Canyon. In its lower stretches the canyon echos with running water, pools and waterfalls abound, gigantic ponderosa pines tower above you, spectacular rock outcrops tower above the ponderosa, while the sheer walls and route finding challenges add to the attraction. Kick your day into high-gear and stroll up the lower reaches of Trigo Canyon.

It should be admitted that it took me several trips to hike the short distance described here. There are many roads leading to the canyon and finding a good driving route was unexpectedly difficult. The unofficial treads lured me off the main path. The driving directions and hike description (below) might be of particular use for this hike.

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Sculpted rock formations in the Bisti Wilderness Area

Overview:

The Bisti Wilderness offers pedestal rocks, balancing rocks, seemingly preposterous examples of cantilevered stone, fins, windows, hoodoos, slot canyons, coal seams, clinker, caves, broad desert expanses and views west to the Chuska Mountains and northwest to Arizona’s Carrizo Mountains. On warm winter days it may also include some snow melt, although water is usually scarce here. It does not, however, offer any trails. A GPS is strongly recommended!

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