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Over 70% of the Monument is wilderness, with over one mile elevation change, from about 5,000 feet (1,500 m) along the Rio Grande to over 10,000 feet (3,000 m) at the peak of Cerro Grande on the rim of the Valles Caldera, providing for a wide range of life zones and wildlife habitats.
There are three miles of road, and more than 70 miles of hiking trails.
A 1.2-mile (1.6 km), predominantly paved, "Main Loop Trail" from the visitor center affords access to these features.
The tuff overlays shales and sandstones deposited during the Permian Period and limestone of Pennsylvanian age.
The volcanic outflow varied in hardness; the Ancestral Puebloans broke up the firmer materials to use as bricks, while they carved out dwellings from the softer material.
The distribution of basalt and obsidian artifacts from the area, along with other traded goods, rock markings, and construction techniques, indicate that its inhabitants were part of a regional trade network that included what is now Mexico.
Spanish colonial settlers arrived in the 18th century.