Late winter hiking: Wild Rivers in the Río Grande del Norte National Monument

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With warmer days and spring approaching, the hunt is on to find nearby trails that are not too muddy or too snowy to traverse. 

You might consider the Wild Rivers Recreation Area near Questa for this time of year. It offers a variety of trails, including those that go down to the Rio Grande and the Red River, and those that head up to Guadalupe Mountain and across ridges back east toward Questa.

Teddy Lucero, recreation manager at Wild Rivers for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), says that with the recent warm weather there has been lots of snow melt. But Lucero says hikers should still be prepared for changing conditions, including snow, ice and mud. Hikers may prefer to head out in the morning when it is still cold, before the sun begins to warm the earth and create muddy surfaces. Lucero points out the trails that face west and head down to the Rio Grande are probably in the best shape now, while the eastern facing trails like Pescado that goes over a ridge to the Red River Fish Hatchery will be snow-packed until later in the season.

In pursuit of trails that are accessible now, I explored three options near the entrance of Wild Rivers. All of these trails face west and get some sun. It was a beautiful day to be at Wild Rivers, with the rocky red cliffs of the gorge set against the bright blue sky. Trail conditions varied from snow-packed to muddy in sections.

East Rim — Sheep Crossing Overlook

The Sheep Crossing Overlook is the first pull-out you will see on the right after entering the Wild Rivers area. The East Rim Trail begins here and follows along the edge of the Rio Grande Gorge for more than three miles. The trail intersects with sections of two-track that continues north of Ute Mountain almost to the Colorado border.

There is a gate to the north of the parking area. A single track trail leads to an overlook of the Rio Grande and soon runs into a fence. If you want to continue north on the East Rim Trail, begin on the other side (east) of the fence and look for the trail joining a two-track road. On a recent warm, breezy day, parts of the trail were still muddy. Although there is a rough trail down to the Rio Grande here, it is not a developed trail and is used mostly for taking cattle down and across the river.

Chiflo trail

Chiflo refers to the sound of the wind whistling over the mountain, according to BLM staff. The Chiflo trailhead is located just a short distance farther down the road. The trailhead has picnic tables and outhouse facilities.

The trail makes its way down to the Rio Grande in just under half a mile, descending about 350 feet. On my recent visit, the trail was still a bit muddy at the top. The rest of the trail had some snow-packed and dry sections and was very passable.

On the way down, there is a shelter that overlooks the river and a rock bench built into the side of the gorge. When the trail meets the water, there are areas to sit near the rushing green river. Large black lava rocks form pools that slow the water here, just before the river reaches a set of rapids that churn the water, throwing up sparkling drops in the sunlight. This time of year, the reeds that grow near the river are dry and allow easy access to some spots to sit near the river. There is also a shelter here. This is a great place to stop and enjoy lunch by the river in the sun.

Bear Crossing

The next trail is at Bear Crossing and is located an additional mile into Wild Rivers. This is a primitive trail that drops more quickly to the river in about 1/3 of a mile. This trail is more shaded and when I visited recently, the trail was covered with snow and hard to follow.

Lucero explains that these three trails are outside of the BLM fee area and therefore do not receive the same level of maintenance that some of the longer trails within the fee area such as Big Arsenic and La Junta do.

Clothing, gear

Weather conditions can change very quickly here at this time of year. Be sure to check the forecast before heading to the area. Dress in layers that can be removed easily as the day warms. Carry some sort of traction device with you in case you encounter snowy or icy conditions. As always, bring plenty of water, high energy snacks and sunscreen. Sturdy hiking boots are recommended for these trails, as they are often rocky. A hiking pole can be helpful for maintaining balance on steeper sections. For flatter trails in shaded areas such as the Red River fault loop, you may wish to bring cross country skies or snowshoes.

Wild Rivers Visitor Center

Hours at the visitor center are Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. when staff is available. The hours will expand closer to the summer months. All trails and campgrounds are open, although conditions will vary depending on the weather. For more information, call (575) 586-1150.

Directions

From Taos Plaza, drive north four miles on Paseo del Pueblo to the intersection with U.S. 64 and N.M. 150 (Ski Valley Road). Here the road becomes N.M. 522. Continue north an additional 22 miles. You will pass through Questa. Look for the sign to Wild Rivers and Cerro (N.M. 378) about two miles north of Questa. Turn left and follow N.M. 378 3.5 miles to the entrance to Wild Rivers, Río Grande del Norte National Monument. 

Brown is the author of the Taos Hiking Guide, winner of the 2016 New Mexico-Arizona book award for sports and recreation. The guide is available at local retailers and at nighthawkpress.com. Reach Brown at cindybrowntaos2010@yahoo.com.

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