Rio Grande del Norte National Monument
The Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument is a swath of more than 240,000 acres of protected public land in northern New Mexico. Much of the monument’s land abuts fifty miles of the Rio Grande as it courses through a variety of high desert habitats, from sagebrush plains to pine-forested mountains. The monument is adorned with several steep volcanic cones, including the tallest, Ute Mountain (in Colorado) at 10,093 feet.
The monument encompasses the awe-inspiring Rio Grande gorge, an 800-foot deep slash in the Taos plateau that dramatically reveals the depth of the lava flows in the area. The Monuments’ two main rivers are the Rio Grande and the Red River. They were among the first eight rivers Congress designated as National Wild and Scenic Rivers. The headwaters of the Rio Grande are fed by the snow melt of the San Juan mountains in Colorado. From there the Rio Grande journeys 1,900 miles to the Gulf of Mexico.
The Obama administration established the Río Grande del Norte National Monument on March 25, 2013. The monument includes almost 242,500 acres of rugged plains, volcanic cones, and steep canyons, including the 800-foot gorge that cuts deep into the volcanic basalt flows and ash that fill the high plains around Taos, New Mexico. Furthermore, the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River area protects 74 miles of the Rio Grande as it passes through the gorge.
The Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, locally known as the “Gorge Bridge” or “High Bridge Overlook” is a steel deck arch bridge across the gorge 10 miles northwest of Taos, New Mexico. Towering 565-feet above the Rio Grande, it is the seventh highest bridge in the U.S. and the 82nd highest bridge in the world. It was initially known as the bridge to nowhere in the late 1960s, because the state didn’t secure enough funding to continue Highway 64 west. As a result, the road came to an abrupt end after crossing the bridge for several years after the bridge was completed.
Overall, the monument includes portions of the Taos Plateau volcanic field. Significant volcanic peaks include Cerro de la Olla, Cerro Chiflo, and Ute Mountain. Geologists believe that the numerous large natural springs, many of them hot, are outflow from flooded lava tube systems.
Cerros del Norte Conservation Act
Co-sponsored by Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, the Cerros del Norte Conservation Act extends conservation measures within the Cerro del Yuta Wilderness and the Rio San Antonio Wilderness, effectively expanding the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument. Overall, the two wilderness areas created by the Cerros del Norte Conservation Act encompass 21,540 acres of the 243,140-acre national monument northwest of Taos.
Taos is located in one of the most dynamic geologic settings on the planet. The Taos area straddles the boundary between three geographic/geologic terrains and the faults that define their boundaries. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains and Picuris Mountains are split by the Picuris-Pecos fault system. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains and San Luis Basin are separated by the Sangre de Cristo fault zone. The Picuris Mountains and the San Luis Basin are separated by the Embudo fault zone.
The Taos volcanic field is the largest volcanic field in the rift. There are a variety of volcanoes in the field, from cinder cones to steep-sided domes. Furthermore, the plateau shares the expansive valley floor with the Rio Grande, which has eroded through extensive sheets of lava known as the Serviellta basalts to form the Rio Grande Gorge.
From grassy meadows of blue grama, western wheatgrass and Indian ricegrass on the slopes of Ute Mountain, the Rio Grande Gorge cuts a jagged slash across the plateau, dividing Ute from the volcanic cones to the west. The volcanic field extends north to the Colorado border and flows south through the narrow constriction that separates the Taos basin from the Espanola basin.
Buried beneath the Taos plateau is an enormous rift in the earth’s crust. It is several miles deep and twenty miles wide. This rift, known as the Rio Grande Rift, is geologically active based on the occurrence of earthquakes and the presence of molten chambers deep beneath the surface. Evidence of catastrophic seismic and igneous events in the past are visible from anywhere in the Taos area. Fortunately for the current inhabitants of Taos, the earthquakes associated with the rift are usually small tremors and the volcanoes have been dormant for several million years.
In total, the Rio Grande Rift spans 800 miles, cleaving half of Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and northern Mexico. It is one of five continental rifts in the world. The rift itself is a sequence of five basins that formed as the Colorado Plateau and Rocky Mountains lifted. The basins create a furrow, with mountains forming on the fault lines that define the boundaries. In the Taos Basin, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains border the Rio Grande rift to the east and the Tusas Mountains form the western border.
Over millions of year the basins filled with soil and eroded sediment, known as alluvium. For example, the floor of the rift is estimated to be down-faulted 36,000 feet just west of Taos. If you could remove all of the sediment in the Taos basin, it would be six times deeper than the Grand Canyon.
Flora & Fauna
The ecosystems within the monument vary from willow and cottonwood stands along the rivers to sagebrush plains on the plateau. The foliage transitions from piñon pine in the low hills to ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir in the mountains.
The ecological diversity supports an abundance of wildlife, including elk, mule deer, pronghorn and bighorn sheep, as well as predators such as cougar, bobcat, river otters, black bears and coyotes. The plateau provides winter range for many of the larger grazing animals. Similarly, the monument provides habitat for a variety of resident and migrant birds.
The Rio Grande del Norte National Monument provides a critical wildlife corridor between the San Juan Mountains and Sangre de Cristo Mountains. There are abundant populations of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep clinging and leaping on the cliffs of the gorge, as well as bear, mountain lion, elk, pronghorn antelope, coyote, fox and bobcat. The area is home to golden eagles, prairie and peregrine falcons, and numerous bird species. Also, the wilderness areas within the national monument serve as a migratory super highway for birds, including bald eagles.
Humans | Prehistoric to Modern Man
This area has attracted humans since prehistoric times. Ancient people walked the rim of the Rio Grande Gorge and hunted along the banks of the river, including the ancestors of the pueblos nearby, the Ute, Navajo, Comanche and Jicarilla Apache. Evidence of ancient use is found at numerous archaeological sites throughout the area in the form of petroglyphs, pot shards, projectile points and pit houses. Later, hispanic explorers, traders and post-World War I homesteaders arrived.
Optimal Rift Overlooks
- NM Highway 68 is fantastic. The mountains of Colorado are readily visible to the north, the snow-topped Sangre de Cristo Range are to the east, and the vast and serene Taos Plateau surrounds you. The rift narrows and widens within a short distance. It is about 8 miles south of the Ranchos de Taos post office.
- The Rio Grande Gorge Bridge on U.S. Highway 64 is about 10 miles northwest of Taos. There are sidewalks with observation platforms at mid-span, which allow people to gaze down at the narrow ribbon of water cascading through the canyon 650 feet below. Additionally, for an exceptional vantage point, visitors can access the West Rim trailhead from the parking lot on the southwest side of the highway.
- The Wild Rivers Recreation Area is approximately thirty-five miles north of Taos, three miles north of Questa, off Highway 378. The Red River flows into the Rio Grande at La Junta Point. In addition to numerous hiking trails, there are developed campgrounds. Several of the trails descend into the gorge to the banks of the Rio Grande. The 13-mile, paved Wild Rivers Backcountry Byway winds its way along the rim of the Rio Grande gorge, offering the most dramatic overlooks in the state like La Junta Point.
- NM Highway 570 follows the river 6 miles north of Pilar before the dirt road ascends the western wall of the gorge, following the gorge north to Highway 64 (just west of the bridge).
Call the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Taos Field Office at (505) 758-8851 for more information.
Wild Rivers Visitor Center
1120 Cerro Road
Cerro, NM 87519
Taos Field Office
226 Cruz Alta Road
Taos, NM 87571-5983
Rio Grande Gorge Visitor Center
The gorge hosts some of New Mexico’s top trout fishing waters and there are hiking and mountain biking trails along the rim and deep into the recesses of the canyon. Each season offers a different experience: spring cactus blooms, moderate summers, golden aspens and cottonwoods in the fall, and winters coated with snow. If you prefer skiing, visit in the winter. If you prefer hiking and hot springs, head this way in the late spring or early summer. Regardless, there are loads of outdoor recreation opportunities throughout the year. Typically the busy months are May – October.
If you are not near one of the towns in the area, cell phone reception is abysmal throughout the monument. There are a few bars available near the visitor center by the gorge bridge. The moment you descend into the gorge, all bars vanish. Basalt seems to be a very effective muffler for cell towers.
The climate is dry year-round. July and August are the rainiest months (monsoon season), typically with short, intense rain daily in the mid to late afternoon. Snowfall varies, but during a good year, Taos is a winter wonderland and Taos Ski Valley is world class. Cold at night. April is traditionally the windy season. Winds can get intense, particularly in the afternoon. Essentially Arizona and New Mexico dirt relocates to Texas and Oklahoma, millions of grains at a time.
Daytime highs during the summer average in the 80s; however, each evening brings a heat reprieve in the high desert. Lows can dip into the 50s. Winter daytime highs can be in the 50s, while the lows at night dip into the teens. With that in mind, late spring and early fall are ideal in terms of weather and temperature.
The monument is open year around. The visitor center on Route 68, at the southernmost tip of the monument, is open 8 AM to 4:30 PM May through October; and 10 AM to 2 PM November through April. The Taos Visitor Center, is located at the south end of the village of Taos, also on Route 68 (aka Paseo Pueblo de Sur). It is open 9 AM to 5 PM every day. Both provide restrooms, drinking water, and information about the monument and surrounding areas.
The Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, Wild Rivers Visitor Center is located at 1120 Cerro Road in Cerro, New Mexico. Go north on NM 522 from Questa, turn left on State Road 378. The Visitor Center is about 17 miles from the turn off.
Pets are allowed throughout the monument.
All centers are closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
There are numerous choices, from primitive camping in secluded areas to developed campgrounds, trails, and visitor centers. The Wild Rivers area, near Questa, has several campgrounds and non-motorized trails, with hiking access to the river and along the rim. In the southern part of the gorge north of Pilar, Orilla Verde, there are campgrounds, river access sites, and several developed trails. Additionally, the BLM manages 2 developed self-pay camping facilities in the monument. There are additional developed camping areas in Questa and Arroyo Hondo. Tent camping is allowed throughout the monument.
Taos Monte Bello RV Park – Open all Year
Taos Monte Bello RV Park offers tent sites and pull through RV sites with full hookups (30 and 50 amps) and plenty of room for slide-outs. The campground offers stunning views of the surrounding mountains and mesa. It is located just a few miles from the Gorge River Bridge, one of Taos’ most popular attractions. Amenities include convenience store, bathrooms, showers, laundry wi-fi, dump station, Lounge, Library playground, lounge, horseshoe pits and hiking trails. Rates range from, $20/night for tent camping to $38/night for full hookups (50 amp).
Fees are charged at the developed campgrounds and recreation sites in the Wild Rivers and Orilla Verde recreation areas. Self-service pay stations are available.
There are five campgrounds at the Wild Rivers area. All of the campgrounds are equipped with tables, grills, drinking water, and restroom facilities. One of the camping areas requires hiking down into the gorge. Sixteen primitive campsites are located on the banks of the river. Additionally, there are two large group camping sites. In total, there are forty campsites available.
Orilla Verde has seven campgrounds. Each provides tables, fire grills and restrooms. Four of the campgrounds also have potable drinking water and shelters. There are a limited number of RV campsites with water and electric hookups (no sewer) at Pilar and Rio Bravo campgrounds. Also, Rio Bravo campground offers pay showers. Group shelters are available by reservation. Each group shelter accommodates up to forty people.
Fees range from $3.00/day per vehicle for day use to 15.00 per night for RVs; including water and electrical hookups (no sewer).
Hotel Luna Mystica is a vintage trailer hotel and starlight campground in the vast Mesa of Taos, one of the most mystical locations on the planet. Come camp under the famous New Mexico starry sky next to the legendary mountain and feel the “pull” of Taos.
12-plus acres of mesa, 10 vintage trailers, 60 campsites, one planet, one moon, a gazillion stars. Each trailer is equipped with its own deck, bathroom, comfortable bed, and kitchen facilities. Each is unique as they’ve retained its vintage soul while applying modern amenities. Tent sites are also available, as well as primitive RV space.
Head out of Taos and aim for the Rio Grande, turn right at the friendly lights over the Taos Mesa Brewery.
There is an abundance of lodging available in Taos and the surrounding communities. The 84-mile “Enchanted Circle” circles Wheeler Peak, connecting Eagle Nest, Angel Fire, Taos, and Red River. Hotels, inns, B & Bs, cabins, and vacation rentals are readily available. Check the Taos website for listings or the New Mexico Nomad Lodging Guide.
The unique setting of the monument provides a wealth of recreational opportunities in addition to the spectacular scenery of the Rio Grande Gorge and surrounding mountain ranges. The area has fabulous trout fishing in the Río Grande and its tributaries. There is abundant wildlife to be seen while hiking or driving the monument, including Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, mule deer, Rocky Mountain elk, pronghorn, and antelope. The river provides habitat for the recently‐reintroduced North American river otter, and the surrounding area to the river is home to Gunnison’s prairie dog, ringtail, black bear, coyote, red fox, cougars, and bobcats.
Camping, backpacking, hiking, picnicking, rafting (up to Class IV), hot air ballooning, mountain biking, horseback riding, hunting, birding, fishing, off road driving and biking, and wildlife viewing. The BLM Taos Field office provides free guided hikes in the Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument through the summer. Call (505) 758-8851 for details.
There are numerous hiking trails throughout the monument and in the surrounding areas, with a good variety of lengths and difficulty levels. Additionally, several of the trails are open to mountain biking and horseback riding. For additional recreation options, check out the resources available on Taos.org.
Orilla Verde Trails
Orilla Verde Recreation Area, nestled along the banks of the Rio Grande near Pilar, offers visitors a wide variety of recreational opportunities. All facilities are located along the Rio Grande within the Rio Grande Gorge. There are a variety of trails, ranging from the easy Las Minas Trail and the La Senda del Medio Trail to more difficult trails that climb the gorge and overlook the Taos Valley.
DIRECTIONS: South of Pilar via NM 570 at Pilar.
The Wild Rivers Recreation Area is located within the Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument and along the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River and Red River Wild and Scenic River.
FEE: $3.00/day per vehicle to use the area for 30 minutes or more. An annual day use pass, good for the calendar year, is available for $20.00. Camping: $7.00/night for one vehicle, $10.00 for two. Maximum 2 vehicles and 8 people per site.
DIRECTIONS: The Visitor Center is located in Cerro, NM, at 1120 Cerro Road.
The Taos Valley Overlook Trails consist of several single track loops, and two track trails totaling about 16 miles of intermediate difficulty.
DIRECTIONS: Travel 6 miles south of Ranchos de Taos on NM 68 until the end of CR 110.
Black Rock Hot Springs is located north of Taos, west of the town of Arroyo Hondo. Take Highway 522 North. Turn west on County Road B007 at mile 5.3. The road turns hard to the right after about 2.5 miles. When the road forks, take the left. You will head downhill to a narrow one-lane bridge that crosses the Hondo River, followed by the John Dunn Bridge over the Rio Grande. Follow the road to the left, uphill, and park at the first switchback.
It’s about a 5-10 minute walk to two mud-bottomed rock pools on the west bank of the Rio Grande. Pool temperatures are usually about 97 F, depending on how high the river is running. Clothing optional.
Manby (aka Stagecoach Hot Springs)
Located north of Taos, southwest of the town of Arroyo Hondo. From Highway 522 North, turn west on County Road B007 at mile 5.3. Go about 2.5 miles and turn left onto the dirt road that is right before B007 veers hard to the right.
This stretch of road to the Manby Hot Springs parking lot needs to be taken slowly. A high clearance vehicle is ideal. Drive past the Dobson House sign and take the next left fork. Stay to your right until you reach the large parking lots for Manby Hot Springs. At the left side of the parking area, there is a trail to the river. It is about a 15-20 minute walk.
On the eastern bank of the river, there are two rock and sand-bottomed pools in the ruins of an old stagecoach stop. Water temperatures are usually about 97 F, depending on how high the river is running. Clothing optional.
Hot Air Ballooning
A hot air balloon ride is one of the best ways to see the gorge and surrounding areas of the monument. The lofty perspective provides a better vantage point to appreciate the volcanic history of the Taos plateau.
Hunting is permitted in the monument subject to game regulations.
Mountain biking is permitted on designated trails and roads. Off-highway vehicles are permitted on designated roads. There are several paved highways crossing the monument, including the Wild Rivers Backcountry Byway, New Mexico Highway 570, and US Routes 64 and 285. Route 64 crosses the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge.
The scenic waters of the Rio Grande near Taos, Pilar and Embudo are popular with rafters and kayakers, providing incredible whitewater adventures, including the famous Taos Box Class IV (sometimes V) rapids. Beyond the box canyon, the rapids are typically Class II and Class III. Further upstream on the New Mexico-Colorado border, the harrowing rapids around the rock formation known as the “razor blades” is almost impossible to navigate.
Taos is the largest town in the area. There are numerous outstanding restaurant options, from local treasures to world class fine dining. There are several grocery stores in Taos, most with 100% organic and local food options. Cid’s Food Market has the largest variety of organic foods, including a good selection of prepared foods. They can easily accommodate all dietary restrictions.
Smaller towns, like Questa, Arroyo Hondo, and Ranchos de Taos, have a limited selection of restaurants. Often they have shorter hours. It can become challenging to find food if you are vegan, gluten free, lactose intolerant, etc. Also, the grocery stores in the tiny communities are smaller. It can become challenging to forage for food for anyone on a specialty diet. Stock up on supplies in Taos.