Northeast of Questa lies Valle Vidal, a 102,000-acre section of the Carson National Forest that straddles some of the highest peaks in the Sangre de Cristo range. The access road, Highway 196, is out of the way north of Questa off Highway 522, but for those seeking pristine wilderness, Valle Vidal is perhaps the last, best place to get a sense of what New Mexico was like before mining and ranching took off in the 19th century. The place is home to the state’s largest elk herd, and its watershed is essential for the rare Rio Grande cutthroat trout.
Though little visited, it is probably one of the best-known public lands in New Mexico, as it has been the topic of strenuous debate since 1982, when Pennzoil traded the land to the National Forest Service in exchange for tax breaks. Valle Vidal’s status was always a bit vague, with no clear management plan for the natural-gas deposits beneath it. A strong grassroots campaign finally led to a law, passed in 2006, that prohibits mining and drilling.
There are no services in the wilderness, very few trails, and only two formal camping areas with no services but toilets.
Coming from Highway 522, you first reach the 35 sites at Cimarron Campground ($10), tucked amid trees with many trout-fishing creeks nearby.
Eight miles farther is McCrystal Creek Campground ($8), set on a flat plain, with a few ponderosas providing shade.
For current conditions and advisories (parts of the valley are closed seasonally to protect the elk), contact the Questa Ranger District office (575/586-0520), which manages the whole area.
© Zora O'Neill from Moon Santa Fe, Taos & Albuquerque, 2nd edition