Hiking the Rio Grande del Norte

A hike almost anywhere in New Mexico is rarely just that. While some of the trails closest to Santa Fe and Albuquerque are most commonly valued by locals for their ease of access, one does not have to venture far to experience the complex history, geography and ecology that has entrapped generations of New Mexicans. In Northern New Mexico, these treasures can be found in disparate landscapes from the Bisti Badlands to the Valle Vidal, but few places offer such a concentrated wealth of natural and historical wonders as the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument.

Stretching from Pilar to the Colorado border, the monument hugs the Rio Grande in its southern reaches and flares out to the east and west as it stretches north. Along the way, it includes 74 Wild and Scenic river miles along the Rio Grande as well as four Wild and Scenic miles of the Red River. The Monument includes the famous Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, which spans one of its defining features––an 800-foot-deep canyon that runs the course of the monument. At 10,093 feet, Ute Mountain, one of eight extinct volcanoes in and around the Monument, marks its high point for the otherwise flat plateau that defines the land above the gorge.

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Downstream view from John Dunn Bridge

Established on March 25, 2013, by President Barack Obama, the 242,000-acre Monument is celebrating its fifth anniversary this year despite its inclusion in last year’s review, conducted by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, of 27 national monuments across the country. Although Sec. Zinke, whose review trimmed down the size of some Monuments, has said he will not alter the boundaries of Rio Grande del Norte, he did call for some management changes to allow grazing, hunting and fishing––uses that are already permitted––leaving advocates scratching their heads.

While the Monument’s future seems to be mostly certain, its five-year anniversary offers the perfect impetus not only to explore and enjoy this unparalleled track of protected land, but to watch, observe and foster closer connections to the natural and human histories that make this place so special. Due to its size and diversity, this could be a life-long task, but here are three hikes to get you started:

Manby Hot Springs to John Dunn Bridge

Just past Taos Mesa Brewing on US-64, Tune Drive leaves the highway to the north and passes numerous earthships before dead-ending at the rim of the gorge in a large dirt parking area. The .4-mile trail to the river follows an old road built in the 1880s used by tourists traveling to Taos. The old roadbed can still be seen on the other side of the river as well as the abutments from the ferry used to shuttle people across the river. In 1890, a frustrated British entrepreneur, Arthur Manby, claimed the Antonio Martinez land that included the springs. The resort he dreamed of building never materialized, but the foundation of a few small buildings still stand near the springs—and the springs, hovering around 100-degrees Fahrenheit, are well worth the soak.

To extend this hike, continue upstream along the bank of the river. In places, the walking is easy, but some scrambling over boulders is necessary. More than 100 springs trickle from the canyon walls, and you will cross dozens of these small seeps in the two miles to John Dunn Bridge.

Keep an eye out for watercress, an edible plant related to mustard, radish and wasabi that grows in verdant habitats. Despite the otherwise arid climate, the springs create the perfect conditions for watercress’s growth, and it makes for a refreshing snack as you walk.

On this stretch of river, also be sure to look out for otters. Extirpated by mid-century, otters returned to the region 10 years ago, following reintroduction efforts by the Taos Pueblo. The Pueblo released 33 otters on the Rio Pueblo de Taos, downstream of Manby Hot Springs, and the aquatic mammals quickly adapted to their new home, spreading throughout the Monument and into numerous tributaries.

If you’re in the mood for more soaking, when you reach John Dunn bridge, cross to the west side of the river, and hike a short way downstream to Black Rock Hot Springs. Either return the way you came or consider dropping a car to shorten your journey.

Wild Rivers Hiking

Prior to the Monument designation, the Wild Rivers section, accessed west of Questa, has long been a favorite hiking destination in New Mexico, as it offers the best opportunity to experience the canyon gorge. With the River Trail paralleling the Rio Grande, the Rim Trail meandering above the gorge, and the handful of trails that connect the two, numerous loops are possible. But a personal favorite starts down the Big Arsenic Springs Trail to the river and returns to the rim via La Junta Trail at the confluence of the Red River and the Rio Grande.

Starting down the carefully carved stone steps, be sure to ponder the geography that created the canyon. Prior to the existence of the gorge, Lake Alamosa covered present-day San Luis Valley in Colorado. But when two tectonic plates began to diverge––one moving west and the other moving east toward the Sangre de Cristos––the earth that held back the lake destabilized. As water from the lake began to drain downstream, erosion carved the canyon that we know today.

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Sadie in the Wild Rivers section

The views along the mile-long trail to Big Arsenic Springs make the effort well worth it. As you approach the river, look for petroglyphs on the many basalt boulders carved by Native Americans from as far back as 1,000 years ago to as recently as the 1600s. Thanks in part to its protected status as a Wild and Scenic River and a National Monument, the immediate surroundings have changed little since those first visitors made their mark. So as you sit and listen to the roar of the river, be sure to consider the singular opportunity to enjoy such an untouched landscape.

Big Arsenic Spring (as well as Little Arsenic Springs downstream) features its own unique history. Despite its ominous name, the clear, ground-fed spring is free of any toxic elements. According to local lore, just as Iceland and Greenland were named to confound potential pioneers, the springs were named to ward off additional homesteaders.

As you continue downstream along the River Trail toward the confluence with the Red, admire the scenery and keep your eye out for wildlife, especially the big horn sheep that may be perched on the cliffs above you.

New Mexico’s state fish, the Rio Grande cutthroat rout, once populated rivers and streams throughout Northern New Mexico, but today occupies less than 10 percent of its historic range. Despite this decline, New Mexico Department of Game & Fish, along with numerous nonprofit organizations, has worked to recover the fish over the past decade. Each March, the Department hosts an event where volunteers carry bags of hatchery raised cutthroat fry to this stretch of river and release them back into the wild. Before the snows melt each spring, there’s a hatch of caddisflies, so with the right conditions, look out for rising trout, and with any luck, they could be these resilient natives!

Where the River Trail meets La Junta, turn left to return to the rim. This section of trail is extremely steep, so go slowly and drink plenty of water, but don’t forget to turn around and admire the view as you climb out of the canyon. Once you’ve reached the rim, continue north along the rim trail back to Big Arsenic, unless you’ve elected to drop a car at La Junta to shorten the loop.

Ute Mountain

While the most popular areas of Rio Grande del Norte are focused on or near the river, a hike up Ute Mountain in the northern half of the Monument offers a wholly different experience that punctuates the region’s ecological and geographical diversity.

The 2.1-million-year-old extinct volcano rises 2,500 feet above the plains around it and provides habitat for deer, elk and pronghorn. Along with the surrounding plateau, lower stretches feature treeless grasslands, while ponderosa forests dominate the upper reaches.

There’s no official trail to the top of the mountain, so it’s recommended to take a map, GPS or a friend who’s familiar with the hike. No matter what, it’s guaranteed to offer excellent views—to the north, the 14,000-foot Sierra Blanca; to the east, the Latir Peaks; and to the south, the deepening Rio Grande Gorge. Again, take a moment to consider the geological forces that shaped the region.

Although the land is included in the Monument, a proposal to designate the Ute Mountain area along with land surrounding the Rio San Antonio in the Monument’s northwest corner as Wilderness is awaiting a vote in the House of Representatives. The proposal, which would afford this highest level of protection to 21,000 additional acres between the two areas, passed the Senate last year. It’s easy to assume protected lands will always remain as such, but as the last year demonstrates, we must continue to stand up for these special places.

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