Looking north into the Valle Grande from the Coyote Call Trail

The winter light is so beautiful here in northern New Mexico that every weekend calls out for a walk somewhere in the country. This weekend was no exception, and that intriguing volcanic range on Santa Fe’s western skyline, the Jemez Mountains, was particularly seductive – the range catches snow as if to cool down its hot and turbulent past, and the great caldera in its heart, with its vast meadows, simply radiates light on a clear winter day.

Much of this range is protected now by the Valles Caldera National Preserve. Under the terms of its establishment with the Federal Government, the preserve must attempt to pay for itself through a variety of services to the public. There’s no charge to drive though it, but it is not a National Park – yet – and you generally can’t go hiking just anywhere you like without making arrangements and paying a small fee. There are, however, some short and delightful trails on its perimeter that are free, and a friend and I decided to check out one we’d driven past many time before – the Coyote Call Trail.

This is a popular trail for viewing elk, of which the preserve has an enormous population, and in the winter it makes a wonderful loop for snowshoeing or cross-country skiing. Openings in the forest give views north of the Valle Grande and its crown of volcanic domes:

At one time this vast meadow held a crater lake, and today, its dense lake-bed soil and the fact that the basin traps cold air inhibits the encroachment of the forests on the surrounding mountains. Small creeks wind their way across the Valles, meandering in a lazy way until they find exit through the rugged lavas to the southwest. These are buried in ice and snow now, although we did see one ponded spring, apparently fed by volcanically-heated water, covered in happy waterfowl.

This trail just cries out for a saucer sled, to speed you back to your car:

Views through the trees on the east end of the trail (where we were stopped by uncompacted snow) show the Sierras de los Valles that cradle the Valle on its east side, and form the western backdrop to Los Alamos on the other side:

As you can see, this ridge has been severely burned by the Las Conchas Fire, the largest of all the fires that ravished New Mexico this spring. There’s very little of this loop that hasn’t been scorched, so if you are wanting to visit a verdant forest this summer, this walk isn’t for you. It’s still beautiful in the winter, and the animals haven’t forsaken it:


Sketching odd animal tracks on the snow

There are plenty of untouched groves that will seed future growth:

A pristine aspen grove

And the views are marvelous. Look how small the Valle Preserve Staging Area – the visitor’s center just right of the La Jara dome – looks, swallowed up by the snowy meadow:

The smallest lava dome in the Preserve, with the Staging Area to its right

Oh – we did see a coyote. He wasn’t on the trail – he was out in the Valle Grande hunting rodents under the snow – but I wanted to mention it. These mountains never fail to hand you a wildlife encounter.

View through a clearing

A natural sculpture of fire and ice