When planning a trip to Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico, visiting the Valles Caldera National Preserve should be a prerequisite to the final destination. This is because the gigantic Valles Super Volcano had everything to with why Bandelier exists. The catastrophic Valles Caldera eruptions that occurred over one million years ago caused volcanic ash to pile up several hundred feet high, the conditions were just right for creating volcanic tuff, which is like a soft masonry cement. After learning about Valles Caldera, it will be easier to put the pieces of the puzzle together when touring the ancient Puebloan cliff dwellings at Bandelier!
The Valles Caldera is a vast shallow depression in the Jemez Mountains. The depression is the remnants of a super volcano that exploded long ago. The Valles Caldera spewed an unbelievably large amount of hot volcanic ash into the air and a large portion of that hot ash fell to the ground on one side of Frijoles Canyon. As the hot rock ash piled up it caused a thick layer of volcanic tuff to form. This was no ordinary volcanic tuff deposit, because it was hundreds of feet thick, as can be seen by the tall eroded cliffs in Frijoles Canyon.
Erosion over eons of time eventually exposed the volcanic tuff in Frijoles Canyon and natural pocket caves formed. About 11,000 years ago the ancient Pueblo People found that this type of soft rock was perfect for making cliff dwellings. The cliff dwellings expanded into a vast great house pueblo complex over time, so the cataclysmic super volcano eruption actually enabled a civilization to come into fruition in the long run.
Touring the Valles Caldera National Preserve is best done by hiking, horseback riding or in a 4×4 vehicle. Preserving the natural terrain is a high priority in this place, so the dirt roads can be too rough for an ordinary passenger car. However, there are several scenic overlooks along the paved highway that do provide great views of this gigantic ancient caldera, which is 13.7 miles wide.
In modern times, the Valles Caldera looks like an ordinary peaceful mountain meadow that is surrounded by deep pine forests. It is not till a visitor enters the caldera that the explosive volcanic clues are revealed. There is a central mound of black lava rock in the caldera depression that looks like a dark island in the vast grassy green meadow, which certainly confirms what kind of ground is being trod upon. Just like at the Yellowstone Super Volcano Caldera, there is plenty of geothermal activity in this region, so a magma plume still exists. There may not be any geysers at Valles Caldera, but there sure are a lot of natural hot springs in the neighboring Santa Fe National Forest. The water flowing inside the caldera actually comes from the seasonal snow pack melt seepage and springs in the surrounding mountains. This caldera is the home of the Jemez River headwaters, which turns into a powerful river as it goes downhill from this point.
The real attraction of the inactive Valles Caldera is the beautiful grassy mountain meadow setting. There is no better place to do some nature watching and have a relaxing afternoon picnic than in the eye pleasing caldera meadows! Plenty of funny little prairie dogs can be seen popping up out of burrows in this place, while raptors can be seen hunting overhead. This is a prime deer and elk grazing ground, so these wild herd animals will likely appear. Organized equestrian events also take place in the grassy caldera meadows, so be sure to bring binoculars or a telephoto camera along for the ride.
The Valles Caldera is America’s newest National Preserve and this destination is managed by the National Park Service. What this means is that there are entrance fees and the America The Beautiful Annual Parks Pass is honored here, just like at Bandelier National Monument. There is a central visitors center in the park where information, maps and back country permits can be found.
Just like with any super wide earthen depression, the Valles Calder National Preserve is subject to heavy saturation and flooding. Some of the dirt roads can turn into impassible mud. Because this is a National Preserve, road closures are set in place to reduce the damage done. After a heavy winter snow melt, closures can be expected and the entrance fees may be waived due to the partial access. Such was the case during my visit, but at least the dirt Jeep trail was open to the Jemez River headwaters, which is an interesting sight to see.
For those who want to spend a day touring the Valles Caldera National Preserve, it is best to check this park’s website before making plans, because flooding closures can limit what can be experienced in this majestic place. This park is so new, that campsites have not even been established yet and back country camping is also not currently allowed. Fortunately, plenty of camping options can be found in the neighboring Santa Fe National Forest and at the Bandelier National Monument. Modern lodging can also be found in Los Alamos or Jemez Springs, which are in the neighborhood too. There is plenty to do in this part of the Santa Fe National Forest and the picturesque Valles Caldera is simply a must to experience before visiting the cliff dwellings in Bandelier!
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