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Valles Caldera National Preserve

Valles Caldera National Preserve
Those tiny dots are all elk!

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Sometimes your trip gets rearranged. Things beyond your control happen and you find yourself pulling out the map and saying, “ok, well, we’re here now… where can we go?”  This happened to us recently on a trip out West.  We found our intended path stymied by wildfires in New Mexico and Colorado.  Not wanting to add more people to an already dangerous and crowded situation, we began to change our plans, and found ourselves happily surprised by the results. 

Having said that, we wound up in White Rock, New Mexico, looking for our next stop, or next destination, and not even realizing that White Rock was it.  We arrived in White Rock thinking we would camp in Los Alamos, only to find that the closest camping to Los Alamos are Bandelier National Monument, Santa Fe National Forest, and wouldn’t you know it?—the parking lot of the visitors center of White Rock, New Mexico.

White Rock is a wonderful little town that is a great jumping off point to several attractions in the area—including a bus stop that will take you from White Rock to Bandelier National Monument and back.  Their visitors center has designated sixteen parking spots for RVs and travel trailers, complete with electrical hook-up, potable water and dump station are on-site as well.  You just pay for your spot with a credit card, print out the receipt, and display it on your rig so they know that you have paid.  As there is no lodging or restaurant options within the preserve, this turned out to be an ideal situation for us. 

So, when I tell you that White Rock was absolutely not on our radar, I can assure you that Valles Caldera National Preserve wasn’t either.  

The visitors center at Valle Caldera National Preserve. Isn’t it adorable?!?

With so many things to do and see in New Mexico in general and this area of New Mexico in particular, it’s no wonder that Valles Caldera can (and does) get overlooked for the more popular sites and attractions.  This is a big reason why you should put it at the top of your list. This place is amazing, and isn’t overcrowded. 

The only crowds you’ll find here are elk and prairie dogs.

Located in the center and the top of the Jemez Mountains, Valles Caldera National Preserve encompasses a dormant (but not extinct) volcanic caldera.  The preserve itself includes the surrounding 88,900 acres and is filled with large grassland meadows (or “valles” in Spanish) that are surrounded by these gorgeous forested volcanic domes. With an elevation ranging from 8,000 to 11,254 feet, you are definitely no longer in the desert, but a verdant haven of biodiversity.  Having said that, don’t forget to take your water bottles, as the climate will dehydrate you quickly if you’re not careful. 

We were told to go early, arrive as the gates open.  This is the best advice I can give you.  Most places, I would tell you to do that to beat the crowds.  However, in this case, you’re going to want to arrive early so you can catch the crowds… of wildlife.  The wildlife at Valles Caldera is simply amazing, so pack your binoculars.  The natural barriers, and now the protection afforded by the United States government, have created a wildlife haven that is absolutely stunning.  As we arrived, our early morning departure from White Rock was rewarded to huge herds of elk and a seemingly endless network of adorable prairie dogs. 

The only traffic you need to worry about here.

The rangers are fantastic. They are not only knowledgeable of the caldera, they are excited about teaching visitors about the area.  They were genuinely excited to see us, and especially to see four kids who were eager to learn about the preserve and earn their Junior Ranger credentials.  After the kids finished their Junior Ranger requirements, the rangers offered us a (free!) van tour of the preserve.  This tour was amazing!  Not only do you get to ride along and look at the gorgeous scenery, and stop frequently to check out the scenery and occasional wildlife, but the rangers are so knowledgable and if they weren’t telling us stories and facts about the caldera, they were answering all of our questions.  

While we did pretty much everything there is to do during a summer visit, I think we’d definitely return to to Valles Caldera if it is ever on our route again.  The friendly staff and jaw dropping scenery have put it on our “let’s go see again” list.

Have you ever been to Valles Caldera?  When did you go? What was your favorite part of the trip? 

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