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Thursday, July 3, 2003

Easy Trail Introduces Hikers to Valles Caldera

By Jerry Widdison and Bob Julyan
For the Journal
    Want to explore the spectacular Valles Caldera National Preserve but hesitant because of the preserve's schedules, reservation system and fees?
    Waiting to give visitors a free and user-friendly introduction to the preserve is the recently opened Valle Grande Trail, a short, easy-walking trail that provides hikers a great feel for the area's impressive forest-and-meadow terrain.
    The trailhead is located on N.M. 4, about 27 miles from Jemez Springs and 7 miles from Los Alamos, at the boundary between the preserve and Bandelier National Monument. The parking area on the south side of the highway is not marked, so look for a sign reading "Entering Bandelier National Monument."
    The trail begins across the highway from the parking area and is marked by a white sign. The first 200 feet of the trail are along the right-of-way fence.
    The route descends leisurely and thus is great for kids. It zigzags gradually downhill through a dense, cool forest of Douglas fir, white fir, aspen and ponderosa pine.
    The trail's destination is the meadow of the Valle Grande, where hikers are rewarded with a view that stretches for miles into the distance.
    Many years ago, the trail was a wagon road, a forerunner of N.M. 4. Scraped from the thin soil and volcanic rock of the mountain, the old road was barely wide enough for a narrow-boxed wagon. Now it has been cleared of fallen trees, making it easily passable for hikers two abreast.
    Grass carpets the trail, and springing up underfoot is a profusion of white violets, wild irises and occasionally the fresh green seedlings of aspen and fir. On either side of the trail stand giant trees, as well as shrubbier foliage like Rocky Mountain maples and kinnikinnick.
    At its end, the trail emerges into the meadow, where hikers can explore the grassland and its fringe of trees. The view is similar to that from the highway but without the cars or fences.
    Songbirds such as bluebirds and nutcrackers, and mammals such as elk like this forest-meadow interface, and it's likely you will, too.
    Valle Grande Trail
    HIGHLIGHTS: Easy hiking through dense, old-growth forest opening onto the scenic meadows of the Valle Grande
    LOCATION: In the Jemez Mountains, at the southeastern end of the Valle Grande, off N.M. 4 west of Los Alamos
    ROUND-TRIP DISTANCE: 2 miles
    DIFFICULTY: Easy
    ELEVATION: 9,050 feet, descending to 8,680 feet
    BEST SEASONS: Summer, fall
    MORE INFORMATION: The preserve's Web site, www.vallescaldera.gov, has more information about this trail, as well as the three other public trails, which require reservations and fees. A brochure, "Explore New Ground at the Valles Caldera National Preserve," also is available.