Adrift in Time – Rio Grande del Norte National Monument

It’s rare that one gets the opportunity to explore a new national monument. This June My Toyota FJ Cruiser and I had the chance to do just this in the newly created Rio Grande del Norte National Monument. The monument was create by presidential decree in the spring of 2013 and encompass the Rio Grande Gorge and BLM lands of the Taos Plateau. The Plateau is made up of isolated volcanic cones that jut upwards from a sage and cactus covered rugged volcanic landscape. The Rio Grande river cuts its way south through the monument in an 800 foot deep gorge known as the Taos Box.

Park boundery

With no current paper maps available I was relying on outdated digital mapping data which prevented my from doing precise route planning. With no well defined route I decided to make my way south from Antonito, Colorado ending in New Mexico at the south end of the monument. With this being more of a scouting trip I planned to spend one night in the monument.

It was a mid June, Wednesday afternoon and I had just crossed Medano Pass in Great Sand Dunes National Park, wishing that I had camped at one of the remote sites along the pass I found all the sites in the park campground full. Well, there was still lots of daylight left so I headed south towards New Mexico in my Toyota FJ Cruiser.

My FJ Cruiser

My goal was to find a dirt route into Rio Grand del Norte National Monument from the north so I started trying county roads south of Highway 160. Even though the digital mapping showed the few county roads heading south and connecting to routes into the park they turned out to be dead ends. With the Rio Grande between me and my goal and no bridge south but the one on 285 I decided to take the highway south from Alamosa to Antonito.

With no signs indicating routes into the Monument, I had to it drive by feel using visual navigation clues. Missing the turn towards the Monument I drove right through Antonito and had to make a quick u-turn at the train depot (Antonito is the rail head for the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad). Heading back through town and using the digital map I found a county road (County Road G) that crossed the rail road tracks and headed east towards the river.

Fence line

Pavement, Gravel, Graded Dirt, and just 2 tracks in the brush, that’s how the road progressed. Passing through agricultural lands the scenery transitioned from irrigated farm land into cactus, sage and random flowers. The route headed east for about 6 miles and then turned right onto County Road F or Punche Valley Road. Good choice, this road started turning to the south and after some miles I crossed into New Mexico and the National Monument.

At the New Mexico border I encountered a sign for the Taos Plateau BLM lands, I guess they have not been out here to change the sign to indicate the National Park. Passing over the cattle guard I was now officially in the Park. Cattle still roam the lands due to the BLM and Park Service retraining historic usage of the lands.

Homestead

Continuing south the road deteriorated into a 2 track trail with a number of unsigned intersections where I had to pick my route. Using the limited digital maps I made a few choices where the trail became a barely passable track. A quick u-turn took me back to the route I needed to follow. The storm I was watching in the distance finally made it to me and a light rain began to fall turning the top layer of dust into a sticky mud that went everywhere. Mud flying all over the FJ Cruiser and a trail of dust in the mirror.

With the sun approaching the horizon it was time to locate a camp for the night. In this part of the park dispersed camping is fine, however finding an established camp and fire pit proved a challenge. After another hours drive a small trail headed to the west. Taking this trail I found an old site that would work well for our camp. A small open meadow reminded me of photos that I have seen of the African savanna. With no other travelers in the area the dogs enjoyed an evening off the leash.

Camp on the Plateau

With our camp being higher than the surrounding plains the view was spectacular. I know the gorge is out there somewhere as it cuts south through the plateau. It was a cool night on the Taos Plateau and a wonderfully clear morning. After enjoying the rising sun and a small breakfast it was time to pack up and head south.

Sharing the road

As I headed south the road became more established, however deep ruts show how bad it can get when the roads are wet. We passed a cool old homestead cabin and explored a few more side roads. Heading further south we started encountering some homes and finally made the dug-way down to the bottom of the gorge and the John Dunn Bridge.

I headed south through Taos made a fuel stop then headed down to the Rio Grande del Norte visitor center at the southern end of the gorge. To complete my route through the park I turned north on 570 which is a pleasant drive up through the bottom of the gorge to the Taos Junction bridge. Crossing the river then climbing out of the gorge the route took me back to Highway 64 where I declared this route complete.

Rio Grande Gorge

Having spent a short amount of time in Rio Grande del Norte National Monument I am ready for a return visit and more exploring of the remote BLM trails. If you choose to head this way just be sure the trails are dry.

Total Distance: 119 Miles

Additional Photos

Geo Locations:

  • Start in Antonito: 106° 0’31.36″W  37° 4’41.54″N
  • Park Boundary: 105°48’3.26″W  36°59’41.90″N
  • My camp: 105°45’41.08″W  36°47’1.76″N
  • Gorge Overlook: 105°42’20.83″W  36°32’37.76″N
  • John Dunn Bridge: 105°42’30.46″W  36°32’2.62″N
  • Visitor Center: 105°47’22.42″W  36°16’3.69″N

Google KML Map File

 

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tomas

Tomas has lived in Colorado since age 5. Having grown up on the Western Slope of Colorado lots of time was spent in the Desert Southwest. Tomas' father introduced him to the love of 4 wheeling at an early age in the high mountains around Aspen, Colorado. While an avid Mountain Biker, Tomas and his Family enjoy adventures in the mountains and desert in the remote locations that can only be reached by 4wd. Day hikes are always a must when on the family trips. While enjoying outdoor activities he wants to share his love as a certified 4wd trainer and ski instructor. Tomas also enjoys caving and cave exploration. Tomas currently resides in Colorado Springs. 

  1 comment for “Adrift in Time – Rio Grande del Norte National Monument

  1. Wade
    January 6, 2015 at 7:39 PM

    Love the FJ… Almost bought one, but got another 4-wheel drive instead. Still wonder if that was the right choice :)

    Anyway… We go to Northern NM… Several times a year some years. I cannot wait to go again… Especially now! We’ve gone up the east side of the Rio Grande River on NM 522 up to an thru Costilla on to the Colorado boarder, but you’ve got me fired up. I want to make that trek on the west side on the dirt roads. A must for 2015!

    I’ve been to the area since it was named Rio Grande del Norte Nat’l Monument, but I’ve not seen the sign you have in one of your pics. When I go to Photos/2014 Photos/RGdNNM, it’s the pic on the far right in the top row… at least on my computer. I’m gonna take a photo of that myself. Is that sign @ the Visitors’ Center you have in your KML file?

    Thanks… Love your site :)

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