Redondo Peak • Highpoint: Sandoval County
• Valles Calderas National Preserve
• Jemez Mountains

Date Climbed
September 26, 2004

Elevation
11,254 feet

Distance
12 miles round trip

Time
9 hours

Gain
3,600 feet

Conditions
Surreal

Prominence
2,454 feet

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Redondo Peak




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Redondo Peak is the centerpiece mountain of the gorgeous Valles Calderas National Preserve in northern New Mexico, located a little west of Los Alamos and about a two-hour drive from Albuquerque. The Valles Calderas is itself the remnants of a huge volcano, the remaining mountains and ridges now called the Jemez Mountains, and radiating outward likes spoke on a wheel, with the caldera at the center. And in the center of the caldera, is Redondo Peak, a "resurgent" dome of magma that formed well after the big eruptions of this volcano (which occurred about 1.1 and 1.6 million years ago). Today, the Valles Calderas is publicly owned but tightly-controlled, with public access essentially throttled while its future is figured out. The region is magnificent: the Valles Calderas feature beautiful, vast meadows of grass and forest surrounded by the mountain ridges. The mountains are covered in thick forests of pine, fir, aspen and mountain oak. Nearby Bandelier National Monument adjoins the Valles Calderas and offers some wonderful hiking and exploring opportunities, and gives an idea of the greater grandeur of the Valles Calderas.

The Valles Calderas has a unique history. It was originally a "float" land grant given to a Spanish settler in the 18th century. His grants were centered east in the high plains near Las Vegas (not to be confused with the Las Vegas in Nevada). A float is a non-contiguous parcel of the land grant, which is what the Valles Calderas is. These land grants retained their status even after New Mexico became a territory and a state. (This is not that uncommon: many land grants from Spanish colonialism were "carried over" while the United States was assuming control of the region. Many are known as "ranchos". Most people would not venture onto these lands since many are very remote and difficult to reach.) This particular float was bought and sold numerous times, until the Federal Government purchased this tract of land in 2000. It then was christened the Valles Calderas National Preserve. It is a square of land, roughly 12 miles to a side.

Now part of the United States public lands, it was given a somewhat unique management status, to be run by a trust composed of local individuals: ranchers, politicians, Indian representatives, businessmen, and so forth. The issue is that everybody wants to get at this land. It has tremendous natural resources. Lumber companies would love to log it. Ranchers would love to run stock on it. Outdoors enthusiasts would love to hunt, hike, camp and ski on it. The trick is to manage the land so that everyone is happy, or more accurately, so that everyone is evenly angered just a little bit. At least, that's my take on it.

For most of the period 2000-2010, the Valles Calderas Trust offered hunts, hikes, horseback tours and other opportunities to explore this remarkable land. As far as the hikes that were offered, they were limited to just a few areas, and tightly controlled. There were a couple places along highway NM-4, which skirts the Valles Calderas along its southern boundary, where you could park and walk into the land without a permit, but these were very limited. Personally, I wanted to hike to the summit of Redondo Peak. Topographical maps and satellite photos show many old roads that criss-cross the region, including one that goes right to the top of the peak. However, the Trust never offered hikes to the top. The Jemez Indians hold the peak sacred, but I also believe it was simply too logistically difficult to allow access to the peak without upsetting everyone else.

Starting around 2002 I contacted the Trust via email, curious about if a summit hike would ever be offered. The emails were not answered, or the reply I received was a canned "thank you for your interest, we offer many other hiking opportunities..." response. I asked if they would consider a one-time open-date access hike to the summit, to follow the old roads, but no reply. It seemed that with all the people running the Trust, no one was actually in charge. I could never get a straight answer, nor speak to the same person twice. Frustrating. So I put off any attempts at Redondo Peak for the time being.

In 2004 I was approaching the completion of my New Mexico County Highpoints project, needing just three more (as of September of 2004) to complete the whole state. I was saving Santa Fe Baldy (highpoint of Santa Fe County) for last. I needed Redondo Peak (highpoint of Sandoval County) and Caballo Mountain (highpoint of Los Alamos County), so I set up a weekend to fly into Albuquerque to hike Caballo Mountain on Saturday, then not have to fly out until late on Sunday, leaving that day open for, at the very least, a scout of Redondo Peak. To be honest, at that time I was not encouraged of my chances for hiking Redondo, but since I would be in the area, I would certianly like to look around, if you catch my drift. I would be joined for the Caballo hike by "E", and for the Redondo "scout" by "E" and also by "M", of nearby Los Alamos.

The Caballo hike went very well. Afterwards, E and I drove into Los Alamos to meet with M and some of his pals for beer and burgers, while we plotted our activities for the next morning. That night, E and I camped at a forest-service campground abutting the Valles Calderas on its western boundary. We walked around and came to the fence line of the Valles Calders itself. E and I slept inside our vehicles at the campground, arising very early (4 a.m.), being met by M not long thereafter. The three of us then set out walking at 4:20 a.m. in clear but very cool conditions. Within minutes we had come to the fence and within another few moments, had easily stepped over it onto the Valles Calderas property.

Unfortunately, Redondo Peak is centered in the preserve and not close to any of the boundaries, so that we had to walk a minimum of a couple of miles just to get to the base of the peak. At first we walked east through forest, in pitch black (no moon tonight), aided only by a red-filtered flashlight that we used sparingly. Otherwise we let our eyes get used to what little light we had. Soon, we were on a ridge above the Redondo Meadow. We dropped down the steep slopes of this ridge, losing about 150 feet, to put us onto the Meadow itself. Now we had about a mile or so to cross. We caught a break, as the ground was covered in fog. In this fog we had 30 feet of visibility, and to make it especially surreal, we were surrounded by elk with their other-worldly bugling.

The land was open, grassy and occasionally rocky, with some small streams to cross. We had a route programmed into a GPS, and we also were able to find a road that helped our navigation. We had crossed the meadow and were now on the southwest base of Redondo Peak itself, now just a shade after 6 a.m. The sun was barely rising, and the blackness segued into morning light. We scampered up the slopes a few dozen feet, taking a well-deserved rest in a sparse forest, well out of sight from anyone below and certainly invisible from the meadow. The hard part was done. Now we just had another 2,500 vertical feet of hiking to go. We did not expect to encounter any trouble on this segment.

We had the steepest slopes first. After some trudging through the forest, we came to a talus slope, dotted with sections of brush and mountain oak. The talus was steep and slightly loose, and if we chose to enter into the stands of mountain oak, had to deal with the scratches. We quickly gained 600 feet, but finally, the talus ended and we were now on some lovely open grassy meadows. The sun was high enough to give us very good light, but it was very cold this high. We made good time, walking north up these slopes, coming to a point where the forest thickened. We were now west of the peak, and the mountain road that goes to the top was supposedly directly above us, so we decided to barge directly up the slope. We gained quick and tiring 500 feet and yes, it led us right to the old road. We took a break here, noting a good layer of frost on the rocks and some of the grasses and branches. We still had a little shade, and it was probably in the mid-30s where we sat. We were making fantastic progress.

There was no fear of meeting anyone up this high. The road itself is very beat up, and only a jeep could manage it, and even then it would have to ease along at 5 m.p.h. over all the chunky rocks, so we had no fear of walking "in the open" along the road. This we did, walking north as it bent east, to a point roughly north of the summit. The final climb was cross-country, up the easy slopes and another 150-200 vertical feet to gain the broad summit top. We quickly walked the whole area, looking for the highest point, which wasn't easy to find amid the trees. We found a benchmark and the what we thought was highest area, walking back and forth to be sure. We took a few photos, had a quick snack, but didn't stay long. Objective done, we decided to get moving back down. We still had a long way out, now in broad daylight.

We exited the summit to the south, meeting the upper road again, followed it briefly, then continued southwest off the slopes, eventually working our way down to the same meadows we had encountered coming up. We walked these back down to the talus slope, but now with the light of day to help us, we were able to scout a better route down the talus, following a line slightly east of our ascent that had a lesser slope and more open ground to break up the monotony. We dropped down these slopes fairly quickly and shortly were back out on the main road we had followed early in the morning. Now, the fog was all gone.

We walked west along this road, but had no desire to cross big Redondo Meadow in the daylight, given the presence of some buildings there. So we angled a little south, followed another road up a short slope which put us up onto a ridge, a continuation of the one that rings the Redondo Meadow on its south. We had a couple miles still to go to exit the Valles Calderas property. However, the road we were on meandered, and seemed to trend south more than we needed, so we would walk the road as needed, but then cut across the forest as well. The roads helped us in that we could make good time, but we were open to whomever might come upon us, so we never stayed on a road very long. In the forests, we had to move slower to keep on our bearing, but overall we made good time. Within an hour were were very near the Preserve boundary.

We eventually came upon the Preserve's western boundary fence, but we were about a half-mile south of where we'd entered many hours earlier. We walked the perimeter road, ready to jump the fence on a moment's notice, and we almost got a good scare when we saw a truck up ahead. So we approached slowly, saw that it was outside the Preserve and evidently just some locals collecting firewood. Nevertheless, we took a detour into the forest again and slowly scooted past until we were out of sight again. Shortly, we came upon our entry point, and hopped back onto legal land! Mission complete, and it felt fantastic ... not only to have climbed Big Redondo, but now to be safely off of the Preserve land.

In camp, we quickly changed then drove back to M's place for some beers. I took a quick shower, and still had time to drive down to Albuquerque to catch my flight home. I was thrilled because my five-year quest to complete the New Mexico county highpoints was now a virtual certainly. I had just one more to go: Santa Fe Baldy, which Beth and I climbed two weeks later.

The climb of Redondo Peak was spectacular. The land is gorgeous and pristine. I was relieved to have done it without being caught by anyone. My thanks to E and M. It was rushed and admittedly we moved quickly to lessen our time on the property, but if they ever open this peak to the public (e.g. following the road), it would rank as a fantastic day hike. I hope they do someday.

The Valles Calderas website is very well-done and informative, and I encourage you to view it. In the "olden" days, around 2002 or so, the website was a standard website, with information on hiking, camping, visiting, and some history. Now, it's more of a blog format, and the tone of the writer(s) is much more pointed and slightly sarcastic than before. The issue is the failed experiment of "Trust land management". It is becoming clear that the likeliest long-term solution is to have the Valles Calderas become part of the National Park Service. But this just doesn't happen overnight, and naturally, it will be a fight. For the moment it's in limbo. It's still managed by the Trust, with its high-prices and limited amount of actual exploration possibilities. I am not suggesting you do what I did. However, the management system seems to not see the forest for the trees, and it's not entirely clear what constituents they are trying to please.


Update: Dave Covill reports (2013) that access to Redondo Peak may be granted for all visitors at some near-future point in time. I have no idea the dates or how it will be done, so please look at their website for details!

(c) 2004, 2013 Scott Surgent. For entertainment purposes only. This report is not meant to replace maps, compass, gps and other common sense hiking/navigation items. Neither I nor the webhost can be held responsible for unfortunate situations that may arise based on these trip reports. Conditions (physical and legal) change over time! Some of these hikes are major mountaineering or backpacking endeavors that require skill, proper gear, proper fitness and general experience.