It was late morning before MaryAnn and I left our motel in Taos and started a brief one-day tour of the recently designated Rio Grande del Norte National Monument.
The Monument consists of two segments. The southern part, called Orilla Verde, is reached through the village of Pilar and closely follows the Rio Grande. This paved road was deserted when we were there, a crisp Monday morning in April with a trace of snow clinging to the shady spots.
The Rio Grande in this narrow canyon was simply gorgeous, as were the huge, dark basalt boulders that appeared to have tumbled out of the sheer canyon walls. Across the Rio, a beaver dam formed a pond beside an island. White-throated swifts darted and dodged over our heads.
There are several trailheads and six small campgrounds on the road along this part of the Lower Gorge. Some of the campsites are right on the banks of the Rio Grande. With the gorge being hundreds of feet high, it is quite a sight. The road continues north for about six miles before coming to the Taos Junction Bridge. The old road to Taos used to pass through here to the east. However, these days that part of the road is simply called The Slide, and for obvious reasons, is now only suitable for hiking.
As we crossed the bridge to the west side of the river, the pavement stopped and the road began its climb up the side of the gorge to the western rim. This gravel road was not particularly hazardous and the pavement resumed at the top. We followed the road north and turned right on highway 64 to the Taos High Bridge with its spectacular, if somewhat unsettling, view of the canyon below.
The Upper Gorge is called the Wild Rivers section. The road in this part stays on the eastern rim. From US64 turn north on NM522. About three miles past Questa turn left on NM328, through the village of Cerro to the Upper Gorge. This paved road reaches several more campgrounds.
The most well-known destination in the Wild Rivers section is Big Arsenic Spring. There is a beautiful campground with shade structures at the rim. For hikers and backpackers a trail descends 680 feet over the course of a mile to the Rio Grande, where tall trees and a cold water spring await. This interpretive trail is called “an excellent first time hike” by the Monument staff.