About thirteen million years ago, the Jemez Mountains underwent a long period of tremendous volcanic activity. One million years ago, a violent collapse at the center of a volcano there spewed a staggering 500 times the amount of material that was released in the famous 1980 explosion of Mount St. Helens in Washington state. And as recently as 50,000 years ago, magma leaked to the surface and formed hills in an enormous valley that is 13.7 miles wide. Today, it is called the Valles Caldera National Preserve. This magical world is only an hour northwest of Santa Fe.
Most people think you can view the site only from NM Highway 4, which runs along the outer rim. Wildlife enthusiasts with binoculars gather there in the fall during elk mating season to hear the eerie elk mating calls, and sometimes they see entire herds. Much of the Caldera valley can’t be seen from the highway, but visitors are allowed to drive down into the Caldera. You can experience the raw majesty of the preserve while contemplating that you are nestled in the mouth of an ancient volcano.
“We’re slower than a snail in terms of marked hiking trails,” a park ranger told me, “but there are hundreds of miles of logging roads, all of which are walkable.” In the winter and during periods of inhospitable weather, the main road that snakes through the vast valley may be partially closed. But you can do what we did — leave your car (preferably a four-wheeler during snow season or inclement weather) in the parking lot and hike the nearby La Jara Trail.
Indifferent to the patches of snow and mud, and intrigued by fresh elk droppings that meant elk were near, we walked in awe along the easy route, knowing that we were almost alone in this jewel of nature. If you prefer to travel on skis or snowshoes, and the weather gods of precipitation are willing, the Caldera will greet you with seemingly endless open fields of snow.
When the weather is fine, you can hike or cycle for miles along the main road and through the fields, marveling at the changing landscape of mountains, flatlands, forests, streams, ponds, volcanic domes and old log cabins built by ranchers and cowboys. Pack your binoculars and search for bobcats, black bears, coyotes and golden eagles along with elk. Pause for a moment and breathe in the fresh air: you will feel the exhilaration of being alive.
In the fall, nature explodes into brilliant golden hues. We were often alone as we set out on a long walk into the mystery of the Caldera. We thought of the ancient hunters who visited the site as recently as 11,000 years ago. They gathered obsidian to make arrow points and spears that were traded across a wide swath of the Southwest.
In the winter, with only a handful of other visitors in the valley, we marveled at the snowy terrain, undisturbed except for the occasional animal tracks and a lone coyote.
Nature has a way of animating the appetite, and we joyfully unrolled our portable aluminum picnic table at a spot with a soul-stirring view. Award-winning Chef Martín Rios of Restaurant Martín prepared our picnic as an homage to the Caldera.
The first course was called “Earth.” Its rich base of blackened, mushroom-seeded bread was the bed for a lush and colorful garden of heirloom beets, asparagus, radishes and spring pea purée. The entrée had two elements: roasted duck breast with honey glaze and duck leg confit enveloped in kale, and black Thai rice. The dessert was — surprise! — a molten lava, bittersweet chocolate cake exploding with salted caramel and organic berry gel. The few nearby visitors were gawking enviously at our banquet while they munched sandwiches.
If the weather is unsuitable for an outdoor picnic, set out your smorgasbord picnic on the dashboard of your car. Bon appétit!
When planning your visit, remember to call or check the website to make sure the Caldera is open.
Judith Fein is an award-winning international travel and culture journalist, author of three books, speaker and frequent media guest as a travel expert. Her husband, Paul Ross, is an award-winning photojournalist, writer and photographer. Their website is globaladventure.us.