Valle Vidal ~ Graveyard of a Fascinating Culture

by Jack Olson

ruin in Valle Vidal
Door to… a ruin in Valle Vidal © Jack Olson

Back in 1989, Don and Barb Laine, along with the late Augie Schmuhl of Santa Fe, hosted a RMOWP conference in Red River, New Mexico. Among our many activities was a bus field trip to a relatively new addition to the Carson National Forest. Valle Vidal (The Valley of Life), unoccupied for decades, was donated to the government by the Pennzoil Company. The forest archeologist gave us a tour and introduction to the ranches and logging operations which had existed in this sparsely populated area. He even had photographs of many of the settlers who had lived there.

Our bus trip was necessarily short so some of us came back in the fall to explore more extensively, again with the archeologist. He took us into rancher’s homes, to sites of logging businesses, all at a time when the aspen were gold and quaking. This convinced me that a full-fledged backpack trip into Valle Vidal had to be undertaken, and soon. My usual backpacking friends didn’t need further convincing.

The next summer we zipped down Interstate 25 to New Mexico and then drove west into the mountains. We parked along the gravel road near the area we had explored in the fall. We wanted to see more of this intriguing area. A trail led into a wide meadow and we started out. Their dog, Scruffy, was beside herself rollicking all over like dogs do. At one point I noticed a coyote was trailing us at a distance and Scruffy went to the leash from then on.

Ponil Park Cemetery, Valle Vidal
Ponil Park Cemetery Tombstone © Jack Olson

We made camp above a stream near an old cemetery. Funny no one else camped there. The date on one of the few tombstones was 1880 and I imagine the settlement in that area didn’t go back much earlier. Other than ranching the main activity had been logging and a sawmill. This area of Valle Vidal is called Ponil Park. We also came across the remnants of a railroad trestle and an Apache hunting blind from an earlier time. Wildlife in Valle Vidal is abundant.

There are memorable hikes, we’ve all had them. But then there are those hikes which are enshrined in the Hiking Hall of Fame. One of those occurred in Valle Vidal. It was a blistering hot day, and that was at breakfast time. Fires in the forest high in the mountains to the west blended gray with the otherwise deep blue sky. After oatmeal, banana and hot chocolate we shouldered our day packs and headed off to explore a new area of Valle Vidal. We and the dog could not contain our excitement. Within a half hour we were beginning to contain it.

ruin in Valle Vidal
One of several ruins in Valle Vidal © Jack Olson

Eight thousand feet elevation sounds high if you’re in the Midwest or East Coast but it’s foothill country in the Rockies. The heat began to wilt us. Our previously jaunty steps became a sole-scraping slog. We wanted to forge ahead but it really wasn’t much fun. Then, totally unforeseen, we came upon an unexpected sight—the road. We glanced at each other and sneaky smiles spread across our faces.

Picking up our pace we spied our car, strode purposefully to it, got in and drove back around the way we had come. In no time we were back in the town of Cimarron. We knew what we were looking for, the local café. That didn’t take long and it took less for us to enter and order milk shakes of our choice. Mine was vanilla. Oh, that was soooo good and so cold. Reinvigorated, we got in the car, drove back to the original parking spot and completed our hike.

morning in Valle Vidal
Early morning shadows in Valle Vidal © Jack Olson

A couple of days later we met the archeologist and his wife and all camped out in a meadow near an old ranch house. The Forest Service had erected signs at these various locations to interpret the culture and economic activity. We got the tour and learned the straight scoop. Can you just imagine how bright the stars shine, how totally uncountable they are, when you’re in Northern New Mexico with not a single town anywhere nearby? Just plain jaw-dropping awesome.

You can camp wherever you want in Valle Vidal as long as you are at least two hundred feet from water. Higher slopes wouldn’t make the best sites but we were camped in a broad meadow with trees nearby. Now, some people might not choose a graveyard for a campsite, but we found it quiet and peaceful. There is the excellent Cimarron Campground farther west with 36 sites for tents and trailers.

Valle Vidal is in northern New Mexico, right near the Colorado border. It’s in the section of Carson National Forest which straddles the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. For further information on Valle Vidal, contact Carson National Forest, Questa Ranger District, P.O. Box 110, Questa, New Mexico 87556. Phone: (505) 586-0520. Or run a search online for Valle Vidal, Carson National Forest, New Mexico.