Grasslands Research in the Valles Caldera, New Mexico

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14317A, Service/ Volunteer


  • Participate in a hands-on wildlife catch-and-release field project for wild trout and other species
  • Work with field biologists in a remarkable location in rural upland New Mexico
  • Contribute accurate information to a study that helps land managers assess and evaluate wildfire ecology and recovery


  • All equipment and training for our project, and transportation to all catch-and-release locations
  • Comfortable, dual-occupancy lodging along the banks of the Jemez River; nearby hot spring bathhouses
  • All meals


DatesSep 21–27, 2014
Min. Age12
StaffSusan Estes

Trip Overview

Please note that the trip dates have changed from what was originally published. If you have questions, please contact us.

The Trip

The Valles Caldera was a privately owned ranch of 89,000 acres, used for livestock grazing, hunting, and timber harvesting. In 2000, the United States government bought the ranch and the U.S. Congress created the Valles Caldera National Preserve (VCNP). The VCNP is administered by the Valles Caldera Trust, an agency comprised of national land agency representatives and members from agencies in the surrounding area. Located about two hours north of Albuquerque, it's the central feature of the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico at the southern end of the Southern Rocky Mountain eco-region.

The volcanic field underlying the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico has been active for the past four million years, and is by far the largest and most powerful such formation in the region. It was 1.22 million years ago when an eruption, one hundred times more powerful than Mt. St. Helens', ravaged the landscape. Devoid of its natural geological support, the land fell in on itself to form the bottom of a giant, roughly circular bowl about 14 miles across, surrounded by a knife edge of mountains. This collapsed volcanic field is the Valles Caldera. Today it remains one of the best exposed examples of caldera formation known to science, and it's the most studied caldera in the Unites States, and probably the world.

As an upland habitat, the vast valles are covered with green vegetation and grasses. Within the VCNP there are about 524 species, subspecies, and varieties of plants that are typical of the flora and ecology in the Rocky Mountains. This is the environment in which we will work for our week in the VCNP.

The ambitious nature of the project, the spectacular location, and the well-appointed accommodations assure that this will be a popular trip. If you have ever wondered, 'What do biologists and environmental professionals really do?' or if you have always wanted to do a service trip but hesitated at the last minute, this may be the trip for you. 

The Project

As part of the ongoing scientific monitoring of the Preserve resources, scientists and managers of the VCNP are interested in understanding the impacts of large herbivores, elk, and cattle on the grassland plant communities and the vegetation along the streams. Scientists have built a series of large enclosures around stretches of streams to keep elk and cattle away from the vegetated areas along the streams, and they're monitoring the changes in stream bank geomorphology, vegetation, soils, water quality, fish, invertebrates, and small mammals. Part of the vegetation sampling involves collecting plant biomass to determine the amount of vegetation production that has occurred under each experimental condition. Sierra Club volunteers will participate in clipping vegetation plots, and drying and weighing the biomass samples.

In addition, there are 44 small enclosures distributed across the Preserve in different grassland types, and these will be sampled during the same week to understand elk and livestock impacts in upland grasslands. The combination of the two projects will permit participants to visit and work in all parts of the 89,000-acre Valles Caldera.

Four field days will be devoted to the project, with some laboratory work involved to process the samples and prepare them for analyses.


This is a lodge-based trip at a single location. Once we are settled in, we will stay put for the duration of the trip.

Participants should plan to arrive on the afternoon of the first day. A specific meeting time and location will be sent in separate communications to the group. No work is scheduled for the day of arrival.

The work week will consist of two work days, then a day off, and then two more work days. The group will depart on the morning of the last day.



Getting There

The group will meet at the visitors' parking area at Valles Caldera National Preserve at 3 p.m. on the day of arrival. From there we'll caravan to the lodge area for a snack lunch and brief orientation, before moving everyone into his or her room. You'll then be free to enjoy the area during the rest of the afternoon. The first full meal will be at dinner at 6 p.m. on day one, and the last meal will be breakfast on the morning of day seven. We will work four eight-hour days, with Wednesday as our day off. On the day off you'll be free to further explore Valles Caldera or drive to Los Alamos and Santa Fe for the day.

Accommodations and Food

We will be staying in the Baca Lodge, a beautiful round, stone structure formerly used as a hunting lodge. There are eight bedrooms with twin beds and four shared bathrooms. Each room opens immediately onto the great room and looks outward onto a vista of the caldera. Rooms will be assigned based on double occupancy. Linens -- including bedding, pillows, blankets, and towels -- are furnished; you will need to bring your own toiletries. The center of the lodge is a large lounge area with comfortable chairs, the dining area, and a large fireplace. Smoking is not allowed in the lodge. Adjacent to the lounge area is a large, well-equipped kitchen where meals will be prepared.

Each participant will be expected to assist with meal preparation for at least one day. Typically, breakfast will be served at 7 a.m. We will pack lunches to eat wherever we happen to be at noon. Please bring hard plastic containers to hold your lunch and snacks. Dinner will be at 6 p.m. in most cases. Reasonable dietary requests (especially concerning food allergies) should be carefully noted on your trip questionnaire. (See: General Notes/ Participant Approval at the end of this brochure).

Trip Difficulty

This will be a moderately strenuous trip. Be in good shape and prepared for lots of work and fun. Anyone who doesn't live in mountain/high desert environs must have a healthy respect for the altitude. Many concerns about having an enjoyable trip are tied to the altitude. At 8,000 to 11,000 feet, lungs must work harder to get needed oxygen. This accelerates water loss, even before you add a little healthy perspiration. A current up-to-date tetanus shot is required for this trip.

NOTE: All participants must be approved by the Trip Leader to be included on the trip. Please follow the instructions for "Participant Approval," found in the General Notes section at the conclusion of this brochure. 

Equipment and Clothing

Trip members are expected to furnish their own day pack. Please bring at least two one-liter/one-quart containers for carrying water, your own supply of moleskin and Band-Aids, sunscreen, insect repellent, and lip balm.

Bring comfortable clothes and boots. Remember, this is not a fashion show -- bring clothes that are broken-in but not worn out, and that can be easily layered for warmth. In the late spring, average temperatures can fluctuate between 40 and 70 degrees.



The West is a desert, or wants to be one, and it likes to burn on a regular basis.

Wildland ecology, now more than ever before, must answer questions for today and for decades to come.

Doing research work and building reliable data makes these crucial decisions more factual, more informed, less theoretical, less apocryphal, and augments the tools that land managers need to continue the delicate balance between human usage and wildlands needs.

Combining the lessons of the past and the knowledge of the present, it is still possible to protect and conserve the biological and ecological heritage of our wild-earth places.

In 2014 America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The Sierra Club, various other organizations with a wilderness focus, and the four federal wilderness management agencies are vigorously planning this celebration. The goal of the effort is to assure that a broader public knows about the concept and benefits of wilderness. Sierra Club Outings is a vital part of the celebrations for wilderness.
While the Act was far in the future when our outings program started, we were already promoting the principle behind it: to forever set aside from human developments certain special places, by civic agreement. This is the basic principle on which the Sierra Club was founded. The wilderness anniversary gives us an opportunity to highlight our organization’s leading role—in publicizing this principle, in passing the 1964 Act, and in achieving more designated wilderness since then.



When a Sierra Club leader accepted the last person waitlisted for a Chaco Canyon service trip in 1988, Susan Estes participated in her first service trip to the Four Corners. Since then, her service trip odyssey has drawn her to Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, west Texas, and, following a close scrutiny of the globe, to Hawaii (which is, in fact, "southwest" too). Enduring friendships, a wicked sense of humor, and the high energy of a committed group doing selfless service top the list of reasons Susan does service trips. And, yes, she still makes a special effort on behalf of any of her waitlisted participants.

Assistant Commisary:

For two decades Phyllis Singleton's Dutch ovens and ranch-style cooking have fed volunteers on service trips in the National Parks and Monuments of Utah, Colorado, Texas, and New Mexico. Phyllis has seen a lot of the same country from the back of her horse. As a breeder and member of the American Paint Horse Association, there is very little she does not know about bloodlines and horseflesh. Living on a ranch means that as often as possible eggs from her chickens and grass-fed, free range beef will be part of our menus.

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