The Río Grande del Norte National Monument is comprised of rugged, wide open plains at an average elevation of 7,000 feet, dotted by volcanic cones, and cut by steep canyons with rivers tucked away in their depths. The Río Grande River carves an 800 foot deep gorge through layers of volcanic basalt flows and ash. Among the volcanic cones in the Monument, Ute Mountain is the highest, reaching to 10,093 feet.
This area has attracted human activity since prehistoric times. Evidence of ancient use is found throughout the area in the form of petroglyphs, prehistoric dwellings, and many other types of archaeological sites. More recent activity includes abandoned homesteading from the 1930s.
The Monument is an important area for wintering animals, and provides a corridor by which wildlife move between the surrounding two mountain ranges.
The unique setting of the Monument also provides a wealth of recreational opportunities. Whitewater rafting, hunting, fishing, hiking, mountain biking, and camping are some of the more outstanding activities that can be enjoyed in the Monument.
The Monument is divided into multiple regions that used to be National Recreation Areas before President Obama joined them as a National Monument in 2013. The Wild Rivers Recreation Area is located near Questa and Cerro in the northern region high on a mesa that splits the Rio Grande and Red Rivers. The two rivers meet at La Junta Point below the tip of the mesa. A wild, and windy, overlook offers stunning views of the confluence and the hiking trails down below. Multiple campgrounds are available along NM Hwy 378 (also known as Wild Rivers Back Country Byway) that traverses the recreation area and leads to a Visitor Center about half way around the 13 mile loop.
The southern region of the Monument is found along NM Hwy 570. A second Visitor Center is located in Pilar, a small unincorporated community in Taos County. Unlike Wild Rivers that sits high above the gorge, the former Orilla Verde (Green Shore) Recreation Area lies within the gorge at river level. The many campgrounds in this area offer access to the nearby river.
Gentle waters with occasional small rapids through Orilla Verde provide an ideal area for canoeing, kayaking, and non-whitewater rafting. Anglers along the Río Grande will be challenged by brown trout, rainbow trout, and northern pike. Because of the dramatic changes in elevation from the river to the rims of the gorge and the diversity of plant life, Orilla Verde draws many species of animals, including eagles and hawks, songbirds, waterfowl, beaver, cougar, ringtail, mule deer, and more.
While brother Dave and I were just passing through on October 3, 2016 to get a sense of what was available, both Wild Rivers and Orilla Verde offer dozens of hiking trails that plunge from the mesa tops into the gorge, and follow the Rio Grande as it meanders through rugged volcanic backcountry. We will no doubt be back. As you can tell from the pictures, it was stormy in the morning at Wild Rivers, yielding to a beautiful afternoon at Orilla Verde. What a contrast.