"Mountains seem to make their own weather and the Valles Caldera is no exception."
Mountains seem to make their own weather and the Valles Caldera is no exception. There is something magical about listening to rain fall inside the forest. Luckily, the Jemez Mountains are so heavily forested that even in thunder and lightning, we can continue to ride our horses in relative safety through the thick pines.
We are fortunate to live in Santa Fe, New Mexico, near one of only 3 active volcano Calderas in the US. Valles Caldera means valleys of cauldrons – the concave remains of old volcano tops that have blown, and then receded into the earth. The largest one here is 14 miles long and 10 miles wide.
At 9000 feet elevation, weather prevents year-round riding; only four months a year are open to equestrian riding in an area reserved for horses named Banco Bonito. Banco Bonito is well organized with ample large-trailer parking, fresh stock water, convenience facilities and a small store selling maps and shirts. Riding is further restricted to 45 horses per day on scheduled days, so only about 1000 horses a year will enjoy these old logging trails over the course of a summer. This light use makes us feel as if we are the only ones in this pristine environment. Four trail loops are open to horses that are as short as three miles and as long as 12 miles. Today we chose the Duke Trail, the 12 mile loop, planning a stop for lunch.
Our group is moving into the unknown in many ways. It’s a beautiful summer day, bright blue sky, with a light breeze, but the forecast says 80% chance of storms. I can hear in the chatter the nervous anticipation in the other riders; exploring unfamiliar and beautiful surroundings. We tack up the horses, double check our packs, and mount up to ride. There is no hint of rain yet.
We start to climb the logging trails that are wide enough for us to ride two abreast. I chose to ride drag to keep an eye on everyone. Overhead soar the eagles that nest here every year. We pass “All Hat No Horse Cutoff” climbing about 45 minutes to reach a summit. The horses start to relax as we pick up the Duke Trail passing through more trees, which opens up onto a small caldera – El Cajete. Today, it is an inviting grassy meadow, but we resist the temptation to gallop across it for the abundant gopher and prairie dog activity that could spell disaster – a spill or broken leg, or worse.
Approaching the half way point and lunchtime, we spot a tie line for horses and a mounting block. We select trees and the tie line to secure our horses and loosen their cinches. We unpack lunches; and pick out comfortable downed logs for our picnic. After a good rest for all, we remount to continue our adventure through the forest. We can see Redondo Peak off to the right at 11,000 feet; regrettably we are headed back toward the staging area.
About 30 minutes before we reach the trailers at Banco Bonito, the winds pick up and the skies cloud over. We are flirting with a thunder shower. The temperature has dropped 20 degrees. We keep a good pace foregoing our earlier casual stops and glancing over our shoulders at the darkened sky. Here comes the thunder. If we can beat this rain, the horses will trailer home dry, and so will we.
We reach the trailers, dismount and put everything away. As we load the horses, the first rain drops arrive. By the time we pull out of Banco Bonito’s dirt road and onto Highway 4, the rain arrives. As we head back down the mountain, the trucks are full of happy people silently reliving the events, sights, and fears conquered this day and listening to the rhythm of the rain.