Skip to Content

What Movies Were Filmed at Valles Caldera National Preserve, New Mexico

When you’re watching a movie and see a saguaro cactus in the background, you can bet it was filmed in Arizona. The distinctive landscape of its neighbor to the east has a long cinematic history, too.

The dramatic and inviting Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico is a key location that film directors love. It’s famous for authentic-looking ranch scenes.

Let’s find out more about this eye-catching natural feature that frequently captures the attention of moviemakers.

Where Is Valles Caldera National Preserve?

What looks like a vast, low-lying meadow in the high desert of north-central New Mexico is actually a huge volcanic crater. It’s almost 14 miles wide and makes a stunning visual centerpiece to the scenic Jemez Mountains region. The Valles Caldera National Preserve is 24 miles west of Los Alamos and about 58 miles northwest of Santa Fe.

Can You Drive Through Valles Caldera?

Most travelers catch a glimpse of only a small section of the Valles Caldera as they drive along state Highway 4. Those slow-moving tiny brown dots you see in the distance are most likely cattle or elk. To better experience this amazing area, you can also explore the backcountry by vehicle. 

Parts of the caldera typically allow vehicles from mid-May through October. So it doesn’t get overcrowded, the park service only issues a maximum of 35 permits a day. To try and get one, we recommend getting to the visitor center before it opens at 8 a.m.

You can still hike or bike if you don’t get a permit to drive through. Unfortunately, they don’t allow pets in the preserve.

Valles Caldera National Preserve.
Hike, bike, or drive through the Valles Caldera National Preserve.

Can You Camp in Valles Caldera National Preserve?

Another reason to get to the preserve early is that it shuts down at dark. That means, of course, that you can’t stay overnight. That’s a shame, too, because the skies in this part of New Mexico are incredibly dark. Stargazers will have to find another spot for camping. The good news is that Bandelier National Monument and the Santa Fe National Forest are in the same proximity.

Pro Tip: While traveling through New Mexico, make sure to spend the night at one of these 7 Best Sites for Free Camping in New Mexico.

When Did the Valles Caldera Last Erupt?

Geologists classify the Valles Caldera as a “supervolcano” capable of causing widespread destruction. The last eruption, an estimated 1.25 million years ago, created the caldera. Scientists say it’s still active, which means it could blow again, maybe during our lifetimes.

The biggest question, of course, is whether it will occur during your visit. That possibility certainly adds a bit of drama to visiting such a seemingly peaceful and serene site.

Deer  in Valles Caldera National Preserve.
Keep an eye out for the wildlife in Valles Caldera National Preserve.

What Movies Were Filmed at Valles Caldera National Preserve, New Mexico

If you watch many movies, the terrain here may look familiar. You may even recognize some of the few rustic buildings scattered among the preserve. Look for them in these films and television shows, listed chronologically.

Shoot Out (1971)

Gregory Peck starred as a gunfighter with a surprisingly soft heart in this overlooked classic from director Henry Hathaway. They paired up just months after Hathaway had wrapped up filming the original “True Grit” with John Wayne and Glen Campbell. 

Peter Lundy and the Medicine Hat Stallion (1977)

Mostly forgotten today, Leif Garrett was a bona fide teen idol when he took on this title role. In this TV movie, the established child actor and pop singer plays a Pony Express rider forced to grow up fast. It was originally meant to be a series pilot.

The Gambler (1982)

You probably know the hit song by Kenny Rogers but may not realize it became a movie. Actually, it was so popular at the time that it spawned four sequels. His co-stars in this TV production included Christine Belford and Bruce Boxleitner.

Troublemakers (1994)

While most of the films on our list are dramas, this one goes for the laughs. This comedic version of a Spaghetti Western was released in Italy. It was the last in a series of movies featuring the acting duo of Terence Hill and Bud Spencer.

Buffalo Girls (1995)

No doubt, this TV adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s book about the colorful outlaw Calamity Jane had an all-star cast. Anjelica Huston played the main character, and her supporting actors included Melanie Griffith, Sam Elliott, Reba McEntire, and Peter Coyote.

Last Stand at Saber River (1997)

You’ll see a few different areas of New Mexico in this Western starring Tom Selleck. He portrays a Confederate soldier heading back home to Texas after the war. Child actor Haley Joel Osment and two Carradine brothers also turn in memorable performances.

The Missing (2003)

Ron Howard directed this movie based on the Thomas Eidson novel “The Last Ride.” He assembled a strong cast led by Tommy Lee Jones, Cate Blanchett, and Evan Rachel Wood. Critics praised the film for dialog that included authentically spoken Apache.

Seraphim Falls (2006)

Liam Neeson and Pierce Brosnan face off in this gritty thriller that draws comparisons to “The Outlaw Josey Wales.” Anjelica Huston appears as Madame Louise. Though most of it was filmed at Valles Caldera in New Mexico, they shot the opening scenes along the river in Oregon.

Kites (2010)

Stylistically, this was a true departure. New Mexico stands in for the Mexican desert in this Bollywood-style romance musical starring Hrithik Roshan of India. Brent Radner produced the flick, overseeing the production of a Hindi version shot simultaneously with the English-language one.

The Lone Ranger (2013)

The story of this justice-seeking masked lawman has a long history going back to a 1930s radio show. Armie Hammer played the lead role in this updated version, and Johnny Depp played his loyal and trusted sidekick, “Tonto.”

Longmire (2012-2017)

Before it became a protected preserve, parts of the Valles Caldera were a working ranch for many years. Some of the old ranch cabins have prominent exposure in this popular A&E series starring Robert Taylor and Lou Diamond Phillips.

Pro Tip: Check out these 5 Must-See Ghost Towns in New Mexico that will make you feel like you’re in a movie.

Is Valles Caldera Worth Visiting?

Filmmakers know that New Mexico looks great on film, and it’s equally impressive in real life. You’ll find several famous movie ranches in the Santa Fe area. But cinematographers love the wide-open remoteness of the Valles Caldera. You’ll likely find this place captivating even if you don’t love movies.

Visiting the Valles Caldera is an extraordinary trip filled with breathtaking beauty. The dazzling sites include gravity-defying red-rock formations. Wonder at the panoramic views of the Jemez Mountains and the Rio Grande valley. This is an unusual and intriguing landscape you won’t find anywhere else. 

You’ll see for yourself why it winds up on film so frequently. You may even spot soaring golden eagles overhead or that large herd of elk grazing lazily on meadow grasses.

Have you seen any of these movies or TV shows? Tell us in the comments below!

Discover the Best Free Camping Across the USA

To be honest with you, we hate paying for camping. There are so many free campsites in America (with complete privacy).

You should give it a try!

As a matter of fact, these free campsites are yours. Every time you pay federal taxes, you’re contributing to these lands.

Become a FREE CAMPING INSIDER and join the 100,000 campers that love to score the best site! 

We’ll send you the 50 Best Free Campsites in the USA (one per state). Access the list by submitting your email below: