Valles Calderas and the Land of Enchantment

Valles Calderas is some sort of a dreamland. You don’t find it on Earth. You find it in fantasy, but it so happens to also be within the state of New Mexico. This place really makes the New Mexican state motto “Land of Enchantment ” come to life, and it’s a stark contrast from the dry desert stretches of southern New Mexico. According to geologists, long ago a giant volcano erupted creating a thirteen mile wide depression in the ground which now is rolling meadows and streams surrounded by rounded coniferous mountains. It’s not enormously epic in presentation but surprisingly comforts and charms the visitor. Wide open expanses of bright green grass contrasted with the dark green of the conifers splashed out under the cloudless blue sky create the perfect artistry. The small streams meander around the landscape, waters reflecting the rich blue of the sky.

The visitor center was a small, seemingly temporary building. Little information was provided about this National Park unit. It was designated a National Natural Landmark by the National Park Service in 1975 but then gained the designation of a National Preserve in 2000. I had assumed it was an even more recently established National Park unit since it didn’t have its own uniform National Park brochure like all the other National Park sites. 

When I arrived I was unsure of what to see or what to do. Uncharacteristic of the usual very friendly and informative National Park rangers and employees, it seemed like the employee here was just not eager to share information. After explaining that it was my first time here, and not getting much response, I decided I’d just ask about the park drive. I remember my friend and coworker, Jamie Hamblin, had been here the summer before with her parents and she shared enthusiastically how breathtaking the park drive was. I got instructions from the employee to drive up to the gate, get out of my car, open it, and close it when leaving. I came to think that perhaps being a preserve this place was not intended for recreation but more of just a place to protect wildlife. Therefore I did not get out of my car. I simply drove the road. I’d later find out that this is a recreation destination with hiking, biking, camping, horseback riding, and even hunting opportunities. I drove around for about an hour on the dirt road that meanders through the meadows. I did not see any remarkable wildlife, only deer, but I’ve been told at times one can see herds of elk here. I just enjoyed the peacefulness of the drive and the beautiful scenery.

When I left, I made the scenic half hour drive through the Santa Fe National Forest alongside Los Alamos among the sweet smelling pines to Bandelier National Monument. Here much green was replaced by arid red rock. Seventy percent of the nearly 34,000 acres is designated wilderness. I only had about an hour to spare. Although National Monuments can sometimes be even more impressive and worthwhile than some of our designated National Parks, my trips give time priority to National Parks, and along the way I try to stop and visit as many National Monuments and other National Park Service sites as I can. Given my time constraints I hiked along the 1.2 mile loop from the visitor center to see the cliff dwellings and rock houses of the early pueblo people. A series of ladders adjoined rock faces, where small rock homes were formed often into the natural cavities and indents of the jumbled red rock formations. These were unique from the dwellings seen at places like Mesa Verde or Canyonlands where they are often constructed under cliff overhangs. 

As I walked across the parking lot to my car, I passed by another solo traveler just getting out of his vehicle. He had a jeep adorned with stickers of many parks, many that I’d been to. By his appearance it looked like he may have been camping for days as well. As I’ve mentioned before, people to me are like books. I am fascinated by people’s stories. Where do they come from? Where is their story headed? Solo travelers intrigue me the most. Those are the books I most want to read. Maybe it’s simply because I relate, or also because I know that traveling solo, especially on cross country road trips, takes a lot of character. It can be lonely and challenging at first and others may question, but then one resolves these predicaments and learns to carry on and enjoy the adventure, solitude and all. At least this is my experience. I want to know the stories of others.

Leaving Bandelier National Monument, I drove through some remote stretches of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. Crossing into Colorado I passed by many open fields with the backdrops of mountains behind them. This was very much the ranching part of Colorado, a side I hadn’t seen much of before. This was the backbone of the continent. This was the place I’d read about, of ranchers with grit along the continental divide. The further I drove into Colorado the more green and welcoming the environment became especially after having been in the desert for many days. I stopped for dinner at a Subway and got out of my car into a cooler and slightly less arid climate. I remember thinking how this was not the tourist route, and here I was a young man from Kentucky out in the rural stretches of Colorado. I felt out of place, far from home, but that didn’t bother me one bit. I felt accomplished to be so out of my ordinary. I stopped at a gas station for some Muddy Buddy Chex mix and I then carried on with my four hour drive.

The sun making it’s late evening descent among the mountains and fields of cattle was beautiful and peaceful. The road took me into Rio Grande National Forest alongside the East Pass Creek. This calming scenery reminded me of why I take these trips and it filled me with a renewed sense of excitement for the travels ahead of me. But I was also travel weary from spending so much of the day in the car. I realized I still had at least an hour drive left, I was not looking forward to finding my campsite and setting up in the dark in Curecanti National Recreation Area, my intended destination. While considering the predicament I came to a National Forest Service sign labeled Buffalo Pass Campground off to the side of the road. Perhaps I’d abandon my plan and stay here.

I pulled off the main road onto a gravel one and found a simple but beautiful campground sitting alone in solidarity amongst pine trees with a field to one side outlined with a rustic split rail snake fence. No one else was here, but this campground really spoke to me. It’s one of my favorite campgrounds I’ve ever stayed in. It’s difficult to put my finger on exactly why. There was something very attractive about it, being so remote, being an unexpected find, very quiet and peaceful, not crowded with growth, but open and spacious but still in the forest. It was a place of good vibes, or as in Mexican Spanish, “buena onda.” I set up camp here at dusk, changed into some comfortable pajamas, and made a campfire as the sun slowly began to rest casting a sleepy blue all over the campground. When my fire died down I laid in my tent and fell asleep while reading a book about early pioneer life in West Texas. The following day I’d check out Curecanti National Recreation Area and arrive at the most intriguing and Jurassic Dinosaur National Monument.

Read the previous entry “The Sandia Mountains and the Old Town,” here:

Check out my book Canyonlands: my adventures in the national parks and the beautiful wild here:

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