VALLES CALDERA, VALLE GRANDE:

When one drives anywhere west from Rancho Jacona, every canyon wall seems to be striped horizontally with varying colors of white, gray, tan, and almost orange. Much of this color originated with a huge volcano thirty or forty miles west of Rancho Jacona which last blew its stack over a million years ago, depositing huge flows of lava and great drifts of ash. The tan-orange stripe is called Bandelier Tuff, an ash slurry that is well solidified. The lighter stripe is a lighter ash that blew farther and didn’t solidify as well, and it was the trail of this ash that led geologists to find the caldera in the first place. Geologists in the Midwest noted that this funny white layer got thicker the farther west they went, so they followed the thickening until they came to the Valles Caldera. It didn’t look like a volcano. It looked—still does look—like a twelve mile wide circular valley full of grass, grazing animals and evergreen trees. It’s home to a huge herd of elk, it has a number of glorious hiking trails, and its now publicly owned land for the people in New Mexico to argue over. (Grazing? No. Elk. Yes. Cows. No. Yes. People? Hunting. No. Yes.) The Valles Caldera is supposed to support itself but hasn’t determined how best to do that . . . yet.

How to get there: Turn west on 502 when you leave Rancho Jacona, merge onto NM 4, go on past Bandelier National Monument as you climb into the Jemez Mountains. The road tops out at the Valles Caldera about two hours and ten minutes from Rancho Jacona.

And, if you want to continue on Highway 4, you’ll eventually come to JEMEZ SPRINGS. Take your swim suit and have a nice soak in the hot springs.