The Río Grande del Norte National Monument
By Cindy Brown
Along the Río Grande, the voices of the ancients still echo in the symbols they left carved in rock. Although the meanings are veiled in mystery, one way to hear about possible interpretations of these petroglyph carvings is to join a guided hike.
Summer is the perfect time to walk along the river under the spectacular azure sky. If you go with a ranger, you might get the chance to see some hidden petroglyphs, along with blooming cactus and wildlife, including big horn sheep. This summer, a series of hikes will be offered in the Río Grande del Norte National Monument led by rangers with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The rangers share their knowledge of the land and you will come away with a sense of awe, as you see the deeper meaning of the landscape.
La Vista Verde
On an early Saturday morning, I joined BLM Ranger Randy Roch for La Vista Verde hike. These hikes often begin fairly early, as it can get hot here later in the day.
La Vista Verde Trail is found on a wide bench of land above the Río Grande near the Taos Junction Bridge. The hike is 2.5 miles roundtrip over gently rolling terrain and is generally an easy hike. The trail is located at 6,400 feet in elevation and concludes at a point overlooking the Río Grande. On our hike, we saw a bright red blooming cactus, known as the Claret Cup. Roch provided an overview of the Río Grande Rift, which is a 600-mile long split in North America that has allowed the Río Grande to run from its headwaters near Creede, Colorado, through New Mexico and on to the Gulf of Mexico.
On La Vista Verde Trail, there are several areas hidden from view that contain petroglyphs left by Native peoples, as well as Spanish travelers, who moved through the area. Spanish crosses can be seen near the trail. In an area farther from the path, there is a grouping of circular designs, as well as depictions of human-like figures and long flowing curves. Merrill Dicks, archeologist with the BLM, says that there are many interpretations for these symbols, but in most cases the meanings are not certain because they have been lost or held secret. According to Dicks, the long, flowing extended designs are thought to tell the story of a journey.
“The Field Guide to Rock Art Symbols of the Greater Southwest” by Alex Patterson has a key to petroglyphs’ designs. Water, irrigation, rainbows and plumed serpents are among the symbols that look similar to the extended designs on La Vista Verde Trail.
Although we didn’t see any big horn sheep on this guided hike, they are often present in the rocky areas near the Río Grande. You might also see birds, such as golden eagles or red-tailed hawks. Collared and spiny lizards are often visible along the trail, sunning themselves or scurrying under rocks. Although not often seen, there are snakes in the area, including the prairie and western diamondback rattlesnake. If you encounter a snake on the trail, back off and give it room to escape.
Be sure to wear a hat as protection from the sun and bring plenty of water and high energy snacks whenever you venture out to hike.
This year, the hikes begin in late spring and run through early October. On the schedule are areas that are harder to find on you own such as Ute Mountain and San Antonio Mountain (tentatively planned), which are both north of Taos. These hikes will include an overview of wilderness characteristics and cultural history of the area. “We have completed our inventory of lands in the monument having wilderness characteristics, and we will schedule some ‘rambles’ with a knowledgeable guide,” says monument manager John Bailey.
In the Orilla Verde area, south of Taos, there will be several bird walks and activities for kids beginning at the Río Grande Gorge Visitor Center in Pilar. On June 17, the BLM will partner with Amigos Bravos to put on a River Celebration near the Taos Junction Bridge. “Amigos Bravos will provide food and they will work with other partners to have some hands-on opportunities to learn about what makes a watershed healthy, and to talk about some of our ‘charismatic’ wildlife, such as bighorn and river otters,” says Bailey.
Early this fall, a one-day BioBlitz will provide participants with direct experience in inventorying and monitoring wildlife along the Río Grande. The event is sponsored by the BLM, National Forest Service, along with local partners and educators.
In 2017, the Río Grande del Norte National Monument marks its fouryear anniversary. It was established in 2013 by proclamation under President Obama. It covers more than 242,000 acres of land full of river gorges and the cones of extinct volcanoes, including Ute Mountain — the highest point in the monument at more than 10,000 feet. There are signs of ancient dwellings and more recent homesteads. The monument extends all the way north to the Colorado border and south to Pilar. Monument status means that no additional mining or mineral exploration will be allowed on the land, but recreation, as well as traditional uses such as grazing and wood-gathering, will be protected in perpetuity.
Directions and more information
From Taos Plaza go north four miles on Paseo del Pueblo to the intersection with U.S. Highway 64 and State Road 150 (Ski Valley Road.) Turn left and drive west seven miles to the Río Grande Gorge Bridge. Shortly after the bridge, turn left on West Rim Road and go just over eight miles to the stop sign. Take a slight left toward Pilar. Follow the road as it turns to dirt and descends the switchbacks until you see the trailhead on the left.
For more information, go to blm.gov/nm/riograndedelnorte or call (575) 751-4703 to be added to the email list to receive a flyer each month. The BLM Visitor Center in Pilar can be reached at (575) 751-4899.
Cindy Brown is the hiking columnist for The Taos News and the author of “Taos Hiking Guide.”