It was a thrill when President Obama declared the upper Rio Grande area the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument this week, as it is truly one of New Mexico’s natural gems. The scope of the protected lands starts at Pilar in the south and extends north to the Colorado border, encompassing a number of visitor-friendly locations.
Barbara Hussey and I revisited the area last summer and early fall as part of our site research for Birding Hot Spots of Santa Fe, Taos and Northern New Mexico, with particular attention on the bird species in each of the rugged canyon areas.
As we turned onto NM-570 just past the Rio Grande Gorge Visitor Center, we left the traffic of folks driving to and from Taos behind and entered Orilla Verde Recreation Area. The pace was more serene on our mid-week visit. The road meandered along the Rio Grande at the base of the rocky cliffs rising 800 feet on either side. At locations where the canyon widened, there are several campgrounds and day use areas that provide opportunities for birding.
Our first stop was the almost-deserted Rio Bravo Campground where Plumbeous Vireos nest in early summer. Lark Sparrows played at the base of the cliffs next to the road and we watched a Say’s Phoebe.
At a day use area just south of the Taos Junction Bridge, the canyon widened
and there was a flurry of bird activity. Cedar Waxwings busied themselves feasting on berries at a tree alongside the road. Yellow Warblers flitted in the willows between the road and the river, and two Blue Grosbeaks perched in a tree.
We ate our lunch near the Taos Junction Bridge listening to the descending trill of a Canyon Wren.
We approached the Taos Gorge Bridge from the west, stopping at the rest area, where we walked south along the rim trail while Turkey Vultures soared overhead. Most of the birds along the rim were taking a siesta in the mid-day sun.
Next we headed north from Taos to Arroyo Hondo and drove west to the John Dunn Bridge through rolling farmlands, giving way to the canyon leading to the gorge. Fishermen along the river were scrambling to their vehicles as we encountered a summer thunder shower.
On the way back we stopped to admire an immature Black-crowned Night Heron perched on someone’s gate.
In early October we visited the Wild Rivers Recreation Area west of Questa, another area included in the new national monument. The recreation area sits on the mesa overlooking the gorge below. It was past the tourist season and we almost had the area to ourselves as we stopped at the numerous viewing areas to admire the stunning vistas of the gorge.
We didn’t have time to hike the La Junta trail down to the confluence of the Red River and Rio Grande.
Instead, we walked along the Nature Trail. It was a time of transition and Western Bluebirds and Townsend’s Solitaires had descended from their upper elevation breeding grounds to spend the winter along the rim of the Rio Grande.
After making the Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway loop and returning to Taos, we stopped for one last view of the gorge before heading back to Albuquerque.