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Rene Cizio

New Mexico's Newest Dark Sky Park Offers Numerous Hiking Trails

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Rene Cizio
Rene Cizio
 21 days ago
Valles CalderaRene Cizio

There’s this thing about New Mexico where one minute you’re driving along minding your own business and the next minute you’re in the middle of a volcano.

After leaving Bandolier National Monument, I was driving the scenic highway, enjoying the twisting roads and tall pine trees. The trees on my right ended out of nowhere, and my view opened to a vast green space.

With one island of trees on a hill near the middle, that green space is the Valles Caldera.

The Valles Caldera National Preserve is an 89,000-acre dormant volcano showcased in contrast to the rest of New Mexico. Here, there are valley meadows and streams, old-growth Ponderosa pine groves you won’t find elsewhere in the state.

You get to the Valle Grande Contact Station/visitor’s center by turning right into the Caldera. There you will stand in the middle of what was once the center of a spouting volcano now covered over with earth. It would have been a lava pool a million years previous.

The roads you drive to get to the Caldera are the rim of the massive beast. When it was erupting, they say huge volcanic explosions rained ash and cinders over 1500 miles and could have reached as far as the Mississippi River.

After the volcano was done, it collapsed into itself, leaving a circular depression called a caldera. It is the ash and lava, flowing 1,000 feet thick, that make up the surrounding area.

It was stunning to see and frankly a little off-putting to know that I was standing in the middle of a volcano with still functioning active geothermal systems. But, once there, you can grab a map of the nearby trails and hike through the old lava trails.

There are dozens of trails through the pines that are all reasonably short but can be combined to make longer hikes. Few people were out there, so it’s a great place to get time alone in nature, in the belly of the beast.