Teeming with wildlife and brimming with jaw-dropping beauty, the Valles Caldera has a way of conjuring moments that leave visitors in awe.
In her time spent roaming its sweeping grassland meadows and hiking the hillsides of its forested volcanic domes, Coco Rae has become accustomed to encountering these moments of magic as she’s grown more intimately acquainted with one of New Mexico’s most magnificent natural wonders.
The Los Alamos resident can recall numerous examples of stirring experiences that are now etched in her mind — like coming upon an unsuspecting elk in the woods and briefly locking eyes before peacefully parting ways, or seeing a pond in a valley catch the light just right so that it shimmers like a blue jewel in a field of green.
“You feel like you’ve come across a secret moment that belongs to the wilderness that you were given the opportunity to see,” said Rae, 43, who has spent the past two decades wandering the wild spaces of Northern New Mexico. “That feels like a gift. And that happens a lot up here on the trails.”
Rae said she wants more people to discover the secrets cradled within the 13.7-mile wide volcanic caldera, and she’s recently provided a key to help unlock hundreds of miles of backcountry trails that had been challenging to navigate because of a scarcity of maps, signs and trail information.
Published in January, Rae’s Hiking Trails in Valles Caldera National Preserve is the first comprehensive guide to the 20-year-old preserve’s trail system that covers both its front country and backcountry.
The book details over 25 trails and includes topographical maps, trail conditions and recommendations for mountain bikers. It also presents a brief history of the Valles Caldera and shares tips on how to safely explore the 89,000-acre preserve.
Rae, like others who have seen this stunning landscape, said she was blown away by the Valles Caldera when she rounded a curve on N.M. 4 in the Jemez Mountains and first laid eyes on the vast expanse. But, also like most everyone else, she didn’t initially realize this immense valley before her — Valle Grande — was just a fraction of the preserve.
There was a hidden world that stretched to the north of the volcanic domes of Redondo Peak and Cerro del Medio, a world of peace and solitude.
“One of the great things about it is even though the public lands around here get a lot of traffic, when you come back here, you really feel like you have the preserve all to yourself, like it’s your own private playground,” Rae said.
It wasn’t until she began volunteering at the preserve in April 2018 that Rae, an academic adviser at the University of New Mexico-Los Alamos, began to develop a better understanding of all Valles Caldera has to offer.
She took on the task of compiling some backcountry trail reports for the preserve, and once she started, she got hooked.
“You can’t really put your finger on it, but it’s hard not to fall in love with it and fall under its spell,” Rae said of Valles Caldera. “The more time you spend up here, the more it becomes part of you.”
During her 18-month personal passion project, Rae ended up traversing, mapping and documenting the preserve’s entire official trail system until she had everything she needed to compile a guidebook many hikers had been craving.
The backcountry trails follow some of the more than 1,000 miles of legacy logging roads that remain from when the land was under private ownership. Rae said these old paths generally don’t seem like roads and still allow hikers and mountain bikers to feel like they’re in the wild.
Most of the backcountry hikes are somewhere around 8 miles, while the longest is 21 miles. There are also short hikes on the preserve that are less than 3½ miles.
Rae spent weekend after weekend covering them all and found each trail has its own special traits.
“Being a 90,000-acre parcel, you would think the landscape would be kind of consistent, but there’s so much variation,” Rae said. “Wildlife, wildflowers, geology, history, archaeology, you name it. … It just really is fascinating.”
The preserve uses a permit system to limit backcountry access. While entrance to the preserve and backcountry permits are free, no more than 35 permitted vehicles are allowed in the backcountry at any time. This gives visitors the opportunity to find a space all for themselves.
The backcountry is a preferred escape for Craig Martin, a resident trails expert from Los Alamos who has written numerous hiking guides.
Martin helped identify many of the backcountry trails in the early days of the preserve. He thinks Rae’s new guide will be a useful resource for locals and visitors seeking seclusion.
“What Coco’s book does is [it] gives people the feeling that someone is with them to help them find a good experience and to be safe,” Martin said.
The backcountry recently opened July 27 after being closed through much of the spring and summer because of the COVID-19 pandemic, providing visitors who have packed the Jemez Mountains another outdoor option.
Rae returned to New Mexico from a trekking adventure to Patagonia in March just before the outbreak hit the state. She’s visited some of the most well-known hiking destinations in the world, including a trip to Kilimanjaro in 2018.
Still, Valles Caldera has cemented itself at the top of the list of lands that Rae loves. She hopes her book will help others discover the same allure that has captivated her imagination.
“It’s a singular place,” Rae said. “I’ve been trekking on five continents, I’ve been to 45 countries, and this is still my favorite place. There’s nothing like it.”