The musky scent of horses and the creak of a wood sleigh as it slips across a sea of brilliant snow at the Valles Caldera National Preserve can make for an enchanting winter excursion.
“There is just something so magical about the sound of the bells as the horse-drawn sleigh transports you across our winter landscape,” says Kim DeVall, Recreation and Education Specialist at the 90,000-acre public preserve in the Jemez Mountains. “It’s a unique experience most people will never forget.”
The preserve, off NM 4 between Los Alamos and Jemez Springs, sits in the bowl of an ancient collapsed volcano that once held a massive lake.
But today, vast meadows and stands of towering ponderosa pines dominate the landscape.
Great herds of elk make the preserve their home and trout streams sluice their way through its expansive pastures.
But in winter, when the snow arrives, the landscape is blanketed in a sea of blinding white snow and outdoor recreationists flock to its fields.
While offering snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and other activities during the winter months, it’s the sleigh rides that many visitors seem to find so appealing.
Reservations to ride the sleighs between Dec. 21 and Feb. 18 can fill quickly due to the rides popularity.
During the holidays potential visitors will find several rides a day available over a string of consecutive days. After that the schedule reverts to weekends only.
See the preserve’s website at www.vallescaldera.gov for reservations and more information about available dates.
Costs are $30 for adults, $24 for those 62 and older. Kids under 15 years old pay $15 while children under four ride free.
It should be noted that in the event that the winter produces little or no snow a wagon will be substituted for a sleigh.
Riders will want to dress warmly in layers and bring sunscreen and sunglasses to deal with the brightness of the winter landscape.
Gathered together in a gently swaying, open sleigh about a dozen riders per trip will enjoy an estimated one hour ride during which an guide will offer information about the preserve’s history, wildlife and other details.
In 2000 the federal government bought the spectacular ranch from the Dunigan family of Texas for a little over a $100 million.
As part of the deal the ranch continues to operate under a unique management plan which includes public use through a variety of recreational programs.
Riding along in a sleigh amid the crisp, clean mountain air with sleigh bells tinkling and horses huffing is just one of the many public recreational programs offered at the preserve during the holidays.
The preserve also offers during the year, hiking, elk and turkey hunting, fishing and horseback riding and many special events including mountain biking and photography clinics.
For more information, visit the preserve’s website or call their recreation and reservation hotline at (866) 382-5537.
If You Go: From Santa Fe head north on US84/285 to Pojoaque and turn off onto NM 502, the road to Los Alamos. Follow to the White Rock turnoff and then stay on NM 4 through the mountains to the preserve. About 65 miles one-way.