National parks sites reopening across New Mexico after shutdown

January 28, 2019

VALLES CALDERA NATIONAL PRESERVE — For weeks, a blanket of deep, sparkling snow covered the Jemez Mountains’ vast caldera, an enticing — and off-limits — siren song for Northern New Mexico’s winter sports enthusiasts.

Along with most of the state’s 14 other National Parks Service-run sites, Valles Caldera National Preserve remained closed as lawmakers in Washington, D.C., bargained over security along the nation’s southern border.

That changed on Sunday. Two days after President Donald Trump signed a resolution ending the government shutdown, at least temporarily, the preserve’s staffers threw open the gates to outside visitors for the first time in more than a month.

“It was sad to see so much snow out here on the preserve and not be able to see the public out here enjoying it,” said Kimberly DeVall, a preserve spokeswoman. “… I think this is the first year in about seven years that we’ve had snow deep enough to cover the grasses.”

In a series of storms over the holidays, between 1½ and 4 feet of snow fell on the mountain meadows, DeVall said.

Other popular National Parks Service sites in Northern New Mexico are welcoming visitors back, too. Workers at nearby Bandelier National Monument are clearing snow and ice from walking paths to prep for reopening on Wednesday. Meanwhile, Pecos National Historical Park reopens Monday.

At Valles Caldera, most of the site’s ungroomed trails are open for skiers and showshoers, though the Coyote Call and Valle Grande trails will remain closed until their respective parking areas are plowed.

On Sunday, a steady stream of cars crunched over the long, still-snowy road leading to the site’s nearly packed main parking lot. (Staffers recommended the use of four-wheel-drive vehicles or chained tires.) Visitors unloaded snowshoes and cross-country ski gear from trunks and car-top carriers and set out to carve virgin pathways through nearly untouched snow.

DeVall said she was impressed by the respect — and restraint — residents showed during the shutdown. Staffers only noticed a few ski tracks through the snow, signs that trespassers had skipped the gate. The site didn’t fall subject to some of the littering and mistreatment other national parks endured.

Throughout the monthlong hiatus, DeVall said, staffers fared well enough, too. One of the site’s 23 full-time employees had to look for other work to sustain him, but he’ll be rejoining the team soon, she said.

Around 1 p.m., Los Alamos residents Carly Donahue, Michael Martin and their 9-month-old son, Felix, propped open a child trailer, strapped on skis and headed out into the snow. It was their first cross-country ski trip in the caldera.

“We’ve hiked out here before, but the snow’s been so bad the past couple years that there’s been nothing to come and ski on,” Donahue said.

The preserve’s immense and nearly flat landscape — a plus when towing a tiny passenger — enticed them.

“It’s wide open, and you can see everything,” Donahue said. “It’s gorgeous.”

In another corner of the parking lot, Maryann McGraw propped up her canvas, selected a pastel stick in a shade of deep green and starting roughing in a sea of evergreen trees. The Placitas painter said she’d been waiting for weeks to visit Valles Caldera on a day like Sunday, when soft, white clouds almost melted into the white snow blanketing the horizon.

“I’m interested in these vast spaces of the Valles Caldera in contrast with the vast sky and how it makes you feel when you stand and look at both things at the same time,” she said. “Today, it makes me feel really joyous.”

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