With one day remaining of our Labor Day weekend getaway to Taos, we headed out of town to the west. Today, instead of climbing to the highest point, we would be descending to the lowest elevation area in the Taos Valley region: the gorge cut by the Rio Grande. Actually, we’d be descending and then ascending and then doing it all over again… first by car and then on foot as we made our way through Rio Grande del Norte National Monument.
This isn’t a well-known national monument, likely because it’s relatively new and also because it’s administered by the Bureau of Land Management rather than the National Park Service. It’s a long skinny monument, running along the Rio Grande from just west of Taos all the way up to the Colorado border. I actually didn’t know the Rio Grande flowed through Colorado at all, but some research reveals that its headwaters is in the southern part of the state. It also happens to be the third longest river in North America. The more you know.
We began our tour of the monument at the southern end at Rio Grande Gorge Visitor Center near the town of Pilar. It’s a very tiny town originally settled by the Spanish, but located on the native land of the Ute and Jicarilla Apache. From here, we drove into the monument on a narrow, winding road and caught our first glimpse of the Rio Grande. This area of the monument is also called the Orilla (or-ee-ya) Verde Recreation Area.
The road parallels the river for a while before crossing it, turning to dirt, and beginning to climb up out of the gorge. It was steep and curvy but our Subaru had no issues. I think most cars would be able to make it.
At this point, we temporarily exited the monument as we followed the highway north. Upon intersecting with Highway 64 – the main route west out of Taos – we found ourselves back within the monument boundary and at the main attraction: the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. Rising nearly 600 feet (183 m) above the river, this is one of the highest bridges in the US.
There’s a large parking area with viewpoints, and sidewalks run along the bridge so you can actually walk all the way across it and stop at a few viewing platforms. We decided to do so, and it was a somewhat frightening experience. I’m not afraid of heights… but standing in the middle of the bridge, looking 600 feet down to the river, and feeling the concrete vibrate beneath your feet as cars drive by is a little (okay, a lot) unnerving.
It was difficult to capture just how disorienting it was to look down at the river from up here, but I tried.
After walking back across the bridge on foot, we drove across it and continued our northward journey. There are many dirt roads that cut through areas of the monument, but no paved roads connect the northern and southern sections. It’s about a 45 minute drive out and around to reach the north entrance. Our first stop, upon reaching the northern half of the monument (also called Wild Rivers Recreation Area), was the Wild Rivers Visitor Center to get some information on hiking options.
Due to road construction, the La Junta Trail down to the confluence of the Red River and the Rio Grande was inaccessible. However, the confluence can also be reached by descending the Little Arsenic Springs Trail into the gorge, turning onto the River Trail, and following it to the confluence.
When we reached the confluence, we decided to take off our shoes and soak our feet in the Rio Grande. The cold water felt amazing on such a hot day, and although my feet didn’t enjoy being shoved back into my hiking boots afterwards, overall I felt refreshed.
It ended up being about a 5 mile (8 km) hike with 1200 feet (365 m) of elevation gain, which isn’t all that much longer than the La Junta Trail would have been. Some of the gain was gentle undulations as we walked along the river, but about 700 feet (210 m) of it was at the very end of the hike when we climbed back up from the river to the rim of the gorge.
There are also pullouts along the road in this section of the monument, and a few short trails out to the rim. We stopped at all of them, and even enjoyed our lunch on a bench at the edge with no one around. Most people don’t visit the northern portion of the monument.
If I visited this monument again, I would flip flop our itinerary and start in the northern section. Climbing up out of the gorge in the hot midday sun was not ideal, and the lighting when we visited the bridge wasn’t great either. Hiking in the morning when it’s cooler and visiting the bridge in the afternoon when the sun is higher in the sky would have been much better. But despite the hot temperatures and subpar lighting, we enjoyed our visit to this lesser-known national monument and would recommend it for anyone who is in the area!
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: the southern entrance is located at Pilar off NM 68 about 20 mins southwest of Taos, the bridge is on US Highway 64 about 15 mins west of Taos, and the northern section can be reached by turning onto NM 358 in Cerro, about 35 mins north of Taos
- Fees and passes: $3 per day for visits longer than 30 minutes, or hang your interagency pass from your rearview mirror
- Hiking: there are many hikes in the monument; here is a list. We chose the Little Arsenic-La Junta hike to the Rio Grande and Red River confluence; it was about 4.8 miles (7.7 km) with 1200 feet (365 m) of elevation gain round trip (most of the gain was at the end)
- Where to stay: there are a handful of small campgrounds in both the north and south portions of the monument, as well as backcountry campsites along the river; no reservations are accepted
- Maps & information: the monument is administered by the BLM and I don’t find their website to be as user-friendly as the NPS website; here is the information for the southern Orilla Verde section of the monument and here is the info for the northern Wild Rivers section
- Other: this is a long skinny monument that isn’t well connected; many 4WD roads traverse it but no paved roads connect the northern and southern sections; it’s about a 45 minute drive out and around from the bridge to the northern section