Rio Grande del Norte National Monument
Rio Grande del Norte National Monument is a United States National Monument in North Central New Mexico, situated west of the town of Taos. The monument covers a long and spectacular stretch of gorge, sometimes 800 feet deep, carved by the Rio Grande through the Taos Plateau that is popular with hikers, whitewater rafters, and sightseers.
Rio Grande del Norte is a recent addition to the national parks system, having been proclaimed as a national monument by Barack Obama in 2013 and assembled out of a collection of lands held by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), who currently administer the monument. However, while the official proclamation is recent, the BLM has been working on developing the recreation areas within the current monument for a while now, constructing visitor centers, campgrounds, trails, and new roads over the past couple of decades. As such, visitors will find a well-developed monument still largely unknown to tourists, albeit one quickly being discovered.
The monument is located in the midst of an area of fairly recent (in geologic terms) volcanic activity. The area sits within the Rio Grande Rift, a place where the tectonic plates move away from each other; this created an opening in the Earth's crust where volcanoes formed, with the subsequent lava flows cooling and filling in the rift. Today's Taos Plateau, a vast expanse of basalt flows punctuated by the occasional dormant volcano, is the result of this activity. This also accounts for the existence of the gorge, as the Rio Grande was able to cut through the accumulated layers of basalt, carving the deep gorge that exists today.
Ecosystems range from willow and cottonwood stands along the banks of the Rio Grande at the monument's lowest elevations in the Orilla Verde area, to sagebrush plains atop the plateau, to pinyon pine growing on the nearby hills and the slopes of the gorge. Within the gorge in the Wild Rivers area, there is also the occasional ponderosa pine or Douglas fir, trees which normally grow at the higher elevations of the nearby mountains. A variety of resident and migrant birds make their home along the river, while the plateau provides a winter range for many large grazing mammals such as elk, mule deer, pronghorn and bighorn sheep, as well as the occasional predator such as cougars, bobcats, black bears, and coyotes.
The monument is most easily reached by car. The nearest airport with significant commercial service is in Albuquerque, about two hours' drive south. Santa Fe is closer but only has limited commercial air service. Taos has a general aviation airport with no scheduled service.
The southernmost section of the monument, the Orilla Verde Recreation Area, is just off NM 68 between Española and Taos (which, incidentally, passes through a section of gorge south of the monument proper) near the village of Pilar, where the Rio Grande Gorge Visitor Center is located. From Pilar, take NM 570 into Orilla Verde; NM 570 eventually intersects with NM 567, which crosses the Rio Grande at the base of the gorge before making a steep climb out of the gorge and then proceeding west to US 285; however, note that the section of the road climbing out of the gorge is gravel, winding, and sometimes passes alarmingly close to precarious drops.
Further north, the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge carries US 64 over the gorge west of Taos. Even further north, the Wild Rivers Recreation Area is near the village of Questa, north of Taos on NM 522; from Questa, take NM 522 a couple of miles north from town and turn left on NM 387, a short road that leads directly to the recreation area.
There is no entry fee to the monument, although there is a day use fee of $3 per vehicle to park at the developed recreation sites in the Orilla Verde and Wild Rivers Recreation Areas; self-service pay stations are located in these areas.
As with getting in, a car is the most feasible way of getting around the monument. Taos is located about midway between the two main recreation areas; to get from Orilla Verde to Wild Rivers, take NM 68 north from Pilar, which will climb out of the gorge on its way to Taos and offer a spectacular view northwards of the gorge cutting through the plateau. NM 68 is the main drag through Taos, becoming US 64 in the center of town as you head north. US 64 continues northward out of town for a few miles before intersecting with NM 522; here, you can turn left onto US 64 and make a trip of several miles out to the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, or continue straight on NM 522 about 20 miles to the village of Questa. From Questa, continue on NM 522 a couple of miles north and turn left on NM 387 to Wild Rivers.
If you're up for a serious hike, the West Rim Trail runs nine miles atop the west rim of the gorge between the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge and NM 567 at the northern end of the Orilla Verde Recreation Area. This trail offers superb views of the gorge, plateau, and distant mountains, although there's no shade and you'll be completely exposed to the elements. This is also a really good trail for mountain biking or horseback riding, although if you're on a bike beware of "goathead" thorns, which are common in these parts and often sharp enough to puncture a tire.
- Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, US Hwy 64 (about 10 miles west of Taos). Perhaps the most accessible attraction in the monument, this steel arch bridge spans the Rio Grande Gorge a dizzying 650 feet above the river. There are observation platforms at each end of the bridge and a walkway on both sides of the road to allow pedestrians to cross the bridge, although it's definitely not for the acrophobic. A rest area is located on the west end of the bridge, with parking and restrooms. Free.
- Rio Grande Gorge Visitor Center, at the intersection of NM 570 and NM 68 (in the village of Pilar), ☎ +1 575 751-4899. May-October: Daily, 8:30AM-4:30PM; November-April: Daily, 10AM-2PM. Near the entrance to Orilla Verde Recreation Area, the visitor center has exhibits about the gorge and monument, with rangers on hand to answer questions. Free.
- The Orilla Verde Recreation Area, along NM 570 north of the village of Pilar, is a lovely section of the gorge that is very easily accessible. NM 570 winds along the banks of the Rio Grande at the base of the gorge, past several picnic areas, campgrounds, and trailheads where you can get up-close to the river, enjoy the scenery, and (in season) watch the rafters float past.
- The Wild Rivers Recreation Area, at the end of NM 387 several miles west of the village of Questa, is perched on the rim of the gorge overlooking the confluence of the Rio Grande and the Red River, with a loop road passing several camping and picnicking sites with spectacular views over the gorge and hiking trails that lead down into the gorge.
- Wild Rivers Visitor Center, ☎ +1 575 586-1150. Memorial Day-Labor Day: Daily, 10AM-4PM. Information about the park, with rangers on-hand to answer questions.
- La Junta Point. At the southern end of the Wild Rivers area, this point atop the gorge rim overlooks the confluence of the Rio Grande and the Red River, with good views over the plateau and of the distant mountains. A short interpretive trail runs from the parking lot to the rim itself, making it an easy place to hop out of the car and get a quick look.
- The monument also covers a vast and rugged section of the Taos Plateau west of the gorge north of US 64, punctuated by dormant volcanic cones. There isn't much in the way of hiking trails and facilities out here, but the area does provide habitat for herds of elk, mule deer, pronghorn and bighorn sheep, which winter on the plateau. To get a taste of the desolate scenery of the plateau, you can drive west on US 64 from Taos, then north on US 285 towards the Colorado border.
There are numerous hiking trails in both recreation areas, with a good variety of lengths and difficulties offered. A number of the trails in both recreation areas are also open to mountain biking and horseback riding; see the BLM website for details. The Orilla Verde area has a variety of trails, ranging from the easy Las Minas Trail from the Rio Grande Gorge Visitor Center and the La Senda del Medio Trail linking the campgrounds of the Orilla Verde area, to more difficult trails that climb the gorge and overlook the Taos Valley.
The Wild Rivers area has a number of spectacular trails that descend from the rim of the gorge to the banks of the river, which offer some strenuous but excellent hikes. One of the best is the Big Arsenic Springs Trail, a mile-long interpretive trail which descends 680 feet from the rim to the base of the gorge, ending at a small spring which feeds into the river. The 3/4 mile Little Arsenic Springs Trail is even steeper, making an elevation change of 760 feet from rim to river. Another excellent hike is the La Junta Trail, which descends 800 feet over 1.2 miles from La Junta Point to the confluence of the Rio Grande and the Red River, at one point utilizing stairs and a short ladder to scale the near-vertical cliffs. A trail along the banks of the Rio Grande links the previous three trails, with more (and easier) trails located atop the rim.
Another excellent hike in the monument offers the promise of a hot spring dip at the end. The steep and rocky Manby Springs Trail leads from the rim of the gorge to a set of natural, rock-lined hot spring pools located on the banks of the Rio Grande. The springs are fairly popular, despite being quite isolated: to get there, take US 64 west from Taos, and after passing the Taos Airport turn right onto Tune Drive; follow Tune Drive (a gravel road) for several miles to the rim of the gorge, where you'll find the trailhead. There are no signs, so a GPS unit or a smartphone with a decent maps app will be handy for finding the springs.
Another popular activity in the gorge is whitewater rafting, particularly in the spring and early summer, when water levels are at their highest. The most noteworthy section of river for local rafters is the Taos Box, a 15 mile stretch of river with Class III-V rapids that offers some of the best whitewater rafting in New Mexico. The Taos Box starts at the John Dunn Bridge, on County Road B-007 between Wild Rivers and the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, and ends at the Orilla Verde area. There are no boating fees, but registration is required with the monument field office; call +1 575 758-8851. The stretch of river below the Orilla Verde area is also popular with rafters, with mellower rapids and multiple pull-out points along NM 68, allowing for shorter trips better suited for families and beginners; note that the section of river past the village of Pilar is a quiet zone where voices need to be kept to a conversational level. Several rafting companies that offer equipment rentals, guided trips and lessons are available in Taos, Santa Fe, and along NM 68 in the small towns between Taos and Española.
Fishing and hunting are also offered in the monument. Anglers can find brown trout, rainbow trout, and northern pike in the Rio Grande; anglers must have a valid New Mexico fishing license, which are available at the Río Grande Gorge Visitor Center. The Taos Plateau offers deer, antelope, and elk hunting; hunters must have a valid New Mexico hunting license.
The only formal shop in the monument is in the Rio Grande Gorge Visitor Center in Pilar, which has a gift shop with books, maps, and souvenirs. At the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, you're likely to see some local vendors selling various crafts and knick-knacks during the peak summer tourist season. Nearby Taos is famed for its art galleries, and driving on the main roads near the monument you're likely to pass some roadside galleries selling locally-made folk art.
Both the Orilla Verde and Wild Rivers areas offer plenty of lovely picnic sites, but there's really no place to get food within the monument itself. Taos has plenty of excellent dining options, as well as pretty much the only grocery stores in the vicinity. The villages of Pilar and Questa, near the Orilla Verde and Wild Rivers areas, respectively, both have a diner or two and a small general store.
Save for perhaps a couple of vending machines and drinking fountains at the developed sites, there isn't really a place to get drinks in the monument; Taos is your best bet for anything resembling nightlife. Tempting as it might be, don't drink untreated water from the river; Giardia parasites are common in local rivers and streams.
Within the monument itself, there are plenty of camping options offered. The Orilla Verde area has seven campgrounds: Pilar Campground, Rio Bravo Campground, Arroyo Honda Campground, Lone Juniper Campground, Petaca Campground, Taos Junction Campground, and Rio Pueblo Campground, each with tables, fire grills and restrooms, and four of which also have drinking water and shelters. A limited number of RV campsites with water and electric hookups are also available at the Pilar and Rio Bravo Campgrounds. The Wild Rivers area has five campgrounds: Big Arsenic Springs Campground, Little Arsenic Campground, Montoso Campground, La Junta Campground, and El Aguaje Campground, all with tables, grills, drinking water, and restrooms. Wild Rivers has no RV camping sites, but it does have a limited number of primitive walk-in campsites along the Rio Grande at the base of the gorge. Camping is $7/night for one vehicle, $10 for two; RV sites are $15 per night; walk-in river campsites at Wild Rivers are $5/night.
As with the rest of northern New Mexico, Rio Grande del Norte is in the high desert at elevations well over a mile above sea level, so those prone to altitude sickness should take the proper measures to acclimatize to the high altitude before taking any strenuous hikes. The dry climate and frequently cloudless skies also lend themselves to dehydration and sunburn; drink lots of water and wear sunscreen. Don't drink untreated water from the river; Giardia parasites are common in local streams and rivers.
The area is prone to some pretty extreme variations in weather, particularly in the summer and winter months. Monsoon season lasts through July and August and is marked by frequent afternoon thunderstorms that can form in a hurry, bringing sudden downpours and lightning; take raingear and try not to get caught unaware in a vulnerable place. Winter sees sharp variations in temperature, with sunny, mild days frequently giving way to very cold nights; snow doesn't commonly fall, but it can linger at higher elevations, particularly in the shade.
A fairly unique hazard to the gorge is the danger of rock slides. In addition to the trails that climb the gorge, NM 68 between Espanola and Taos passes through the gorge near the monument, and rock slides there can leave large rocks in the roadway capable of damaging the undercarriage of your vehicle; take curves with caution and be prepared to slow to avoid hazards.
The nearby town of Taos offers plenty of attractions for the visitor, including a thriving arts scene, museums, historic sites, and the iconic Taos Pueblo, one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in North America. Behind Taos is the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, which offers numerous opportunities for hiking and backpacking, as well as skiing in the winter. Following the waters of the Rio Grande south will take you to the town of Española, located about mid-way between Taos and Santa Fe, the state capitol and primary tourist destination of New Mexico, with numerous museums, art galleries, and excellent dining.
|Routes through Rio Grande del Norte National Monument|
|Farmington ← Chama ← Jct N S ←||W E||→ Taos → Raton|
|Santa Fe via ← Española ←||SW NE||→ Taos|