Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico

November 18, 2019

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November 2019 Viewer's ChoicePhotographer: Patti Weeks    
Summary Author: Patti Weeks

Driving west from Los Alamos, New Mexico through the Jemez Mountains, in just under 20 mi (32 km), I found myself overlooking a beautiful vast grassland valley at elevation 8,500 ft (2,590 m). Valle Grande (pronounced VY-ay GRAHN-day), shown in the panorama photo, is the largest grass valley on the southeast side of Valles Caldera National Preserve, a 13.7 mi (22 km) wide dormant volcanic caldera, encompassing nearly 90,000 acres (140 sq mi or 361 sq km) Intense volcanic activity formed this valley 1.25 million years ago. The volcano’s eruption was followed by its collapse about 1 million years ago. Subsequently, a ring of approximately 15 resurgent lava domes began forming in the caldera. Most of the volcanic rocks are comprised of obsidian, rhyolite, basalt and tuff. The Valles Caldera lies over the older Toledo Caldera, which may have collapsed over even older calderas. There are numerous fumaroles and hot springs in the caldera. However, extensive investigations in the early 1980s into the geothermal value of the caldera were discontinued, because of the low cost-effectiveness of tapping into this relatively small geothermal field and the potential environmental damage. This caldera provides a remarkable outdoor classroom for learning about large volcanic eruptions and plate tectonics and was used in the 1960s to train the Apollo astronauts in recognizing volcanic features from space.

The caldera’s human land-use history dates back 11,000 years. It was used for hunting, gathering and collecting obsidian for tools by Native American Puebloan tribes, and later by Spanish and Mexican settlers for hunting and stock grazing. For nearly 100 years, beginning in 1876, a string of exchanges by private owners and business interests resulted in extensive logging and overgrazing. The property was eventually sold to the federal government, and the watershed began its recovery. It was designated as a National Natural Landmark in 1975 and became the Valles Caldera National Preserve in 2000. In 2015 the preserve was placed under the administrative jurisdiction of the National Park Service.

The preserve is home to 2,500–3,000 elk, much other wildlife as well as over 100 bird species. Visitors enjoy the preserve for wildlife viewing, scenic drives, hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, trout fishing, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing (including ski orienteering) and seasonal elk and turkey hunting in restricted areas. The preserve has also provided a filming location for several Western films and TV series since the early 1970s.

The second photo is the easy-flowing East Fork of the Jemez River, one of several rivers and streams running through the preserve. Photos taken on October 18, 2019.

Photo Details: iPhone 11Pro camera; panorama - 4.25 mm; f/1.8; 1/2899; ISO 32; second photo -1.54 mm; f/2.4; 1/1370; ISO 20.