Rio Grande del Norte National Monument
Rio Grande del Norte National Monument is a United States National Monument in North Central New Mexico, 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 was added to the national parks system when it was proclaimed as a national monument by Preseident Barack Obama in 2013. It was assembled out of a collection of lands held by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), who 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 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 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.
Fees and permits
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 Bridgeaddress: US Hwy 64Perhaps 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.
Rio Grande Gorge Visitor Centerphone: +1 575 751-4899address: at the intersection of NM 570 and NM 68Near the entrance to Orilla Verde Recreation Area, the visitor center has exhibits about the gorge and monument, with rangers on hand to answer questions.
Orilla Verde Recreation AreaAlong 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.
Wild Rivers Recreation AreaAt 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 Centerphone: +1 575 586-1150Information about the park, with rangers on-hand to answer questions.
La Junta PointAt 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 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 , 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 is even steeper, making an elevation change of 760 feet from rim to river. Another excellent hike is the , 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 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, follow the directions and map on this Taos web page: http://taos.org/what-to-do/water-activities/hot-springs-by-the-rio/ . There are no signs, and GPS for this area is usually wrong in its directions.
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.
Within the monument itself, there are plenty of camping options offered. The Orilla Verde area has seven campgrounds: , , , , , , and , 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: , , , , and , 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.
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.