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Confluence of the Rio Grande (right) and Red River in the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument
Photo credit: —Barb Belknap

Gorgeous gorge

—Ty Belknap, Signpost

The Rio Grande del Norte National Monument is an approximately 242,455-acre area of public lands in Taos County, New Mexico, proclaimed as a national monument on March 25, 2013, by President Barack Obama under the provisions of the Antiquities Act.

His proclamation read:

“In far northern New Mexico, the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River flows through a deep gorge at the edge of the stark and sweeping expanse of the Taos Plateau. Volcanic cones, including the Cerro de la Olla, Cerro San Antonio, and Cerro del Yuta, jut up from this surrounding plateau. Canyons, wild rivers, and native grasslands harbor vital wildlife habitat, unique geologic resources, and imprints of human passage through the landscape over the past ten thousand years. This extraordinary landscape of extreme beauty and daunting harshness is known as the Rio Grande del Norte, and its extraordinary array of scientific and historic resources offer opportunities to develop our understanding of the forces that shaped northern New Mexico, including the diverse ecological systems and human cultures that remain present today.”

That man sure has a way with words. It’s a gorgeous gorge, and now, as John Q. Public, it is all mine.

On August 12, I loaded my bike and dog in the car and took my wife Barb to our new monument for her birthday. We drove about one hundred miles north through Santa Fe, then up SR 68 to the Rio Grande Gorge Visitor Center at Pilar. With a stack of maps and literature, we turned onto SR 570 and entered the monument into the Lower Gorge (Orilla Verde). This drive along the Rio Grande was familiar as we had camped and rafted here quite a few times before this recreational area was included in the monument.

A fee of three dollars is required for day use. Overnight camping is seven dollars, unless you are lucky enough to be in the company of an old guy with a National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass, in which case entry is free, and camping is half price. We camped in one of four sites just across the Taos Junction Bridge. It included a picnic table under a shelter big enough for the tent, a fire pit, running water, and flush toilets. Barb walked the dog to the river while I rode my bike in a light rain up a side canyon to the rim. Some maps still show this as SR 570, even though it was abandoned after a rockslide and is now a trail called “The Slide.”

Back at camp, I took a shallow dip with the dog, and we enjoyed happy hour birdwatching at sunset. The skies cleared in time for the Perseid Meteor Showers, which come every year in celebration of Barb’s birthday. Isolated monsoon thundershowers lit up the western horizon and moved in after we had gone to bed.

Next day, we headed north to the Upper Gorge, stopping along the way to hike and bike the Rift Valley Trail off SR 68. The trail winds nine miles through sagebrush along the rim of the Gorge overlooking our former campsite. Visitors can drive through Taos, then north along the east side of the monument on SR 522 or cross the High Bridge on US 64, head north at Tres Piedras and drive the west side of the monument into Colorado.

We turned off SR 522 north of Questa and took SR 378 through Cerro to the Wild Rivers Recreation Area of the monument. Wild Rivers dates back to the 1960s, though we had never been there. The drive to our second night’s campsite at Big Arsenic Trail was about another one hundred miles. From our camp on the rim we had, all to ourselves, a view of fifty miles of the Rio Grande, flowing through the Gorge to the north and the peaks of the Latir Wilderness to the east. Once again, for just $3.50, we had an enclosure for the tent and picnic table. Somebody left us a nice stack of firewood.

In the morning, we hiked down eight hundred feet in a mile—twenty switchbacks to the river and Big Arsenic Springs. Interpretive signs pointed out the inverse nature of hiking down from piñon-juniper high desert to Ponderosa and a cool, lush riparian area. We sat in the river, threw sticks to the dog, and toured some well-preserved petroglyphs.

Most of the newly proclaimed part of the monument is only accessible by four-wheel-drive rough-bladed roads or two-track surfaces. We’ll come back with more time and somebody else’s truck. It’s open year-round.

For more information, visit riograndedelnorte.org.
 
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