The Valles Caldera is one of New Mexico’s most beautiful landmarks. Located about two and a half hours Northwest of Santa Fe (just east of Los Alamos), its quiet and peaceful vistas exude an overwhelming sense of tranquility and natural splendor. It is nestled into the Santa Fe National Forest, and because it is a national preserve, it remains largely untouched by the structures of man. It is certainly possible to visit The Caldera to simply appreciate its aesthetic beauty, however if you dig deeper, it is possible to achieve a deeper appreciation of the temporary nature of this beauty. You can also realize that without The Caldera, New Mexico as we know it would be completely different. Because of all of these reasons, it is one of my absolute favorite places to visit in the state. Its aesthetic qualities are only matched by its deep history and fascinating geological implications.
First things first: what is a caldera? The answer may surprise those who don’t already know! Calderas often appear to be lush and peaceful valleys, but in fact, they are the craters of the largest super-volcanoes on The Earth. Most of the planet’s volcanoes are located in the infamous “ring of fire” that circumscribes The Pacific Ocean. These volcanoes are caused by oceanic continental plates subducting underneath the lighter continents that make up the world’s landmasses. This friction heats up the rock until it melts and is forced to rise to the surface. Calderas, or super volcanoes, have a different and much more mysterious origin. They form when “hot spots” form in The Earth’s mantle bleed through to the surface. No one is absolutely certain as to why these hot spots exist or how they form, however we do know that they are incredibly massive, and that they contain slow moving and viscous magma that has the capacity for incredible levels of pressure, and therefore incredibly explosive properties. Luckily for us, these volcanoes explode extremely rarely. The last large erruption occured approximately 1.15 million years ago, and a smaller one occured about 50,000 years ago.
As you may have gathered, a geological feature of this magnitude is capable of shaping and dominating a landscape. Valles Caldera’s eruptions are responsible for the Sangre De Cristo mountains, and the hot spot underneath is the source of many of New Mexico’s famous hot springs. Obsidian arrowheads found throughout the area are made of a volcanic glass that can only be formed with the extreme pressure and heat caused by a volcanic eruption. Porous rocks can be found everywhere you go in New Mexico and all of them are the result of the Caldera. Boulders the size of cars were flung from The Caldera as far as Kansas, so its effect on the landscape cannot be understated. All of this may seem rather terrifying and intimidating, but I promise that it is still worth it to visit The Valles Caldera! Immersing yourself within an area of such fantastic geological power is an important and humbling experience, and it can provided you with a wonderful appreciation of New Mexico’s natural splendor.
The Caldera is also well-recognized as a place of more short-term historical importance. It was a famous hunting ground for the Navajo tribe, and the obsidian arrowheads that they famously used have been collected and traded by almost every other group that has come through the area since. Unfortunately, when New Mexico officially became American property, The Caldera served as a battlefield in The Indian Wars and many incoming Americans began to log the forest and raise livestock in the Calderas fertile ground. The Caldera was famously owned by The Baca family throughout the late 19th Century and and early 20th. They were given the plot of land by the U.S. Government, and its ownership exchanged hands several times until the turn of the millenium. In the year 2000, Bill Clinton signed a bill that officially designated the area a natural preserve. Because of this effort, the Caldera cannot be privately owned, and its natural state is generally maintained by the U.S. government. It is also open for public access so anybody can come and appreciate it. Luckily, human traffic is kept to a minimum, so if you chose to visit The Caldera, you can fully immerse yourself in its beauty without having to worry about other people getting in the way. If you come to New Mexico, and are interested in a profoundly educational experience that is not often advertised, The Caldera is the place to go!