Exploring the Upper Rio Grande National Monument

Though the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument is a recent designation, the deep volcanic rift valley containing the Rio Grande in northern New Mexico is known in the wilderness community for its isolation, rugged scenery and abundant wildlife.  A float trip in upper reaches of the monument is a testament to those facts.

  Photo Credit: Irene Owsley

My first experience with this section of river was last June, when I was fortunate enough to be one of the guides on a trip through the Ute Mountain section with Conejos Clean Water, an environmental group interested in expanding the national monument into southern Colorado, as well as renowned nature photographer Irene Owsley. The efforts to expand the monument were eventually halted by the regional farming lobby, but nonetheless the area remains a beautiful and more gentle counterpart to the imposing steep walls of the lower gorge.

Due to lower walls and easier access, the river corridor in the upper monument was a historical hotbed of human activity. Large rivers such as the Rio Grande have always been important to people in the arid southwest, and the numerous petroglyph sites and temporary hunting site dwellings are fantastic examples of the Rio Grande’s central role as the lifeblood of local cultures. Essentially every tributary contains evidence of the passage of ancient peoples on their way to or from the river. Just downstream from the put-in we spent probably an hour exploring the hundred or so petroglyphs around several small stacked-rock hunting blinds.

    Photo Credit: Irene Owsley

As it turns out, humans are not the only ones to find this area inviting. The wildlife is abundant, and due to minimal interaction, not too freaked out by people. The area is actually closed through the spring to allow for the thousands of nesting birds of prey (hawks, falcons, eagles, owls, etc…), of which I saw more than I could count. On top of that, I finally saw my first river otter, a small herd of elk crossing the river, and several rocky mountain bighorn sheep.

Photo Credit: Irene Owsley

For those familiar with skiing or snowboarding, this is an “earn your turns” kind of raft trip. For our Ute Mountain Two-Day trip we hike up the dry riverbed of the Rio Costilla and camp on the canyon rim, which allows for a complete panoramic view not often experienced when rafting in a canyon. Our Upper Gorge Three-Day keeps the trip riverside for camp, but on day three there will be a steep half-mile hike out of the canyon after we go through the class IV Razorblades section–a seldom run jewel on the list of New Mexican whitewater.

Takeaway: It is a blast to get out and explore such a remote and unvisited area. For folks looking for great family friendly wilderness trip with a strong human history component, or just a new stretch of New Mexico river wilderness, this is exactly what you’re looking for.

By | 2017-07-09T15:41:37+00:00 June 2nd, 2017|Uncategorized|Comments Off on Exploring the Upper Rio Grande National Monument

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