Monday, August 31, 2009

Valles Caldera National Preserve: New South Mountain Hike

A few weeks back, I heard on the hiking grapevine that the Valles Caldera National Preserve (VCNP) was offering a new hike - the South Mountain hike. Neat deal was that you didn't need a van ride or reservation to go on it and it only cost $5 a person. I was intrigued and found other hikers also curious about the new hike. On Monday, August 31, we all met at the Back Gate in Los Alamos and headed up into the Jemez Mountains for adventure!

We parked at the Valle Grande Staging Area (VGSA) to check in. The staging area is a tiny, portable building that suffices as visitor center, gift shop and security.

This looks south toward Rabbit Ridge. Rabbit Mountain is the highest peak. In the foreground are corrals. Nearby, a horse stood in a parked trailer. It stomped its hoof as though to say "I'm here!"

The VCNP staff were very helpful and friendly. After we paid $5 a person and signed in, Carmen gave us tips for finding our way up South Mountain - turn left at the new-looking bunkhouse at the intersection of VC01 and VC02 (PDF download of map on VCNP website). Turn left again at a large stump with a piece of rebar in it at the intersection of VC02 and VC0201. Then follow logging roads with blue diamonds nailed onto trees. (During the Preserve's winter recreation season, South Mountain's logging roads become challenging cross country ski trails.) She said that as we got higher up, flagging tape on trees would also guide us. Just in case, the staff took our cell phone numbers and gave us their telephone number - very thoughtful.

In August, the first month the hike was offered, about 20 people went on it. Carmen warned that hikers have missed the turn-off to the South Mountain trailhead at the intersection of VC02 and VC0201. They reported back that they got a good hike anyway but it wasn't exactly the one they had intended. (Buy a copy of the Preserve's Nature Guide and Visitor Map and you will quickly discern that starting at the South Mountain trailhead, interesting possibilities exist for other road walks. As of now, none are officially sanctioned by the Preserve.)

We were also told that a some hikers complained about walking on the gravel and dirt roads from the VGSA to the trailhead. This adds approximately 6 extra miles round trip so take that into consideration if you would prefer a shorter hike or abhor road walking.

The logging roads themselves on South Mountain feel more like walking on a trail rather than a road. If you choose to ride the van, bring an extra $5. Since we all wanted more time in the stunning landscape of the Valles Caldera National Preserve, we skipped the van ride and started from the staging area.

We're walking in the Valle Grande on VC01, on our way to the historic Baca Location No. 1 ranch headquarters. Along the way, we could spy a large herd of elk between us and ranch headquarters.

This road has no shade so take that in consideration when deciding whether or not to ride the van. The extra $5 charge includes a van ride both ways.

We were passed very courteously by a few Preserve vehicles. We waved and everyone waved back - friendly people!

My fellow hikers were no slackers - very strong and fast! We left the staging area at 9:20am, made it to left turn at the bunkhouse at 10am and the top of the South Mountain around noon. (Shhh - don't tell anyone: they told us not to go all the way up but we had to! ) We headed down around 12:15pm and got back to the staging area at 2:30pm.

My GPS said the total distance hiked was 11.7 miles but that may be high. Looking at the VCNP's map of the South Mountain hiking trails, I guesstimate it's between 10-11 miles round trip to the summit from the staging area. The Bland and Redondo Peak topo maps show a 1,300' elevation gain. The elevation gain of 1,000' given on the VCNP website is for a point about 300' below the mountain's summit ridge, where the logging roads play out and the official South Mountain hike ends.

This is the bunkhouse cabin at the intersection of VC01 and VC02 where you turn left. We all agreed we'd be happy living here!

If you mistakenly turn right here, you'll walk through the historic ranch headquarters and the History Grove, a tall grove of old Ponderosa pines that was spared the woodsmen's axe, but this is not part of the officially sanctioned South Mountain hike.

We had just stopped to look at the hawk that you see flying away from the snag. This is on VC02 which has tall ponderosa pines shading the road. Rabbit Ridge is on the left and a heavily timbered arm of South Mountain is on the right.

Our leader and driver next to the pivotal stump with the rebar and green flagging. This must have been a truly huge tree -the stump looked about a yard and half in diameter. It marks the beginning of the blue diamond logging roads up South Mountain. If you don't turn left here, you may end up at El Cajete crater.

Our leader unerringly led us up, up, up! There was one part where we thought the blue diamonds and flagging ended. The forest looked chock-full of dead fall. Luckily, we spotted more flagging above us and after wending under and over a double-decker of downed trees, we continued on.

Our reward for all the uphill was popping out into a series of increasingly larger and more splendid meadows. In this one, a piece of orange flagging had fallen to the ground but the hikers quickly affixed it back on a tree. At the nearest edge of this meadow was the last blue diamond I recall. Ahead is the summit ridge of South Mountain.

This is the final climb. It looks idyllic but we had to be very careful not to trip over hummocks of dead grass roots that tower above the ground. What this meadow needs is a good game trail! We saw signs of game - matted grass where elk had bedded down (and pooped in their bed!) but they had neglected to build a game trail!

From near the highest point of South Mountain, 9,795' , looking northeast across Valle Grande at the speckled meadow on the backside of Pajarito Mountain. Even though there are extensive meadows on South Mountain, they are ringed by trees which impact the views. But - who's complaining? How lucky we felt to be able to hike up South Mountain to enjoy these views!

That's Tschicoma Mountain in the far left background and Valle Grande is in the foreground. The views to the north and northeast were the widest available from the summit ridge.

This is looking southeast toward Los Griegos and Cerro Pelado. Hidden on the left is most likely Las Conchas Peak. Moving around on South Mountain's topmost meadow ridge, I was able to see more of Las Conchas from a slightly different vantage point but not a full sweeping view - just a small view through the trees. Near here but further south, I saw a peak I didn't recognize and wondered if it was Cerro del PiƱo?

After lunch, we are heading downhill toward an aspen grove and another meadow beyond. I was surprised and fascinated at the extent of the meadows on South Mountain. This photo doesn't show it but the meadow we are walking in is quite large and wraps around to the right and below the highest point of South Mountain. These high altitude grasslands are a very worthwhile destination in themselves.

This healthy, tall spruce captured our admiration!

Back in the woods and heading down to the double-decker dead fall. This section that was more like a trail than a logging road.

This is typical of what the South Mountain logging roads look like. Above the hikers is a teensy view of the high meadows on Redondo Peak.

Pumice deposit spilling down hillside.

Even though there were virtually no clouds during lunch on South Mountain, by the time we got back to the Valle Grande, loads of dark clouds had gathered and we could see rain falling to the northeast. On the right is a shoulder of South Mountain extending into the Valle Grande.

Our leader had led us perfectly until I, in my direction-challenged fashion, chimed in about seeing some blue diamonds off to the right and weren't they surely the way we should go instead of the very main-looking logging road we were on! Because of my...ahem, "guidance", we had to cut across this meadow to get back to VC02 but it was an enjoyable diversion.

To the east, the sky contained a pure white cloud surrounded by pink clouds. The little dome of Cerro la Jara is on the right. The Valle Grande Staging Area is hidden behind it.

The VCNP will very soon open a larger temporary visitor center in a more substantial building right next to the small portable building that presently houses the staging area. Eventually, the VCNP hopes to build a permanent visitor center near NM4 to attract tourists driving by.

The sign on the tree says Remuda Grande. Googling remuda, it means a herd of horses from which ranch hands choose their mounts for the next day. Hmmm...I should have asked someone at the VCNP about this!

Las Tres Amigas on the home stretch! At this point, maybe we were fantasizing riding horses or at least bicycles! Truthfully, though, it was exhilarating and enjoyable to have been on South Mountain's gentle summit with its golden grass meadows even though it was a tough hike because of the distance, elevation gain and fast pace. I would like to go back one day.

As we were hiking down, we saw two other hikers - the only other people we saw all day on South Mountain. Since they were so low on the mountain, they must have gotten a late start. The personnel at the staging area felt reassured when we told them the two hikers had at least made it up the logging roads on South Mountain and hadn't missed the turn-off!

A few selected waypoints - 001 is the intersection of VC01 and VC02, 002 is the South Mountain trailhead, 003 and 004 are traveling through the meadows and 005 is near the highest point on South Mountain.

We were told that Monday, August 31 was the last day for the South Mountain hike. I would say that if you want to go, first verify on the VCNP's calendar if the hike is still available. When the aspen leaves turn golden, wouldn't it be a good time to visit South Mountain again!

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Los Alamos, New Mexico, United States