Nature's extravagance: The Río Grande Gorge

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Hundreds of feet beneath a steel deck arch bridge, the Río Grande (“Grand River”) snakes and tumbles over boulders and smaller rocks on its 1,900-mile journey from the Continental Divide in the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. It is one of the longest rivers in the country. 

The Río Grande Gorge, which runs northwest to southeast through the Taos area, is about 50 miles long. The river was made a part of the National Wild and Scenic River System in 1968, among the first eight rivers Congress designated under that system. This river is managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

The water came into the rift valley after being created by faulting and volcanic activity due to separation in Earth’s crust when the North American and Pacific plates scraped against each other some 29 million years ago. Those tectonic plates still show some activity, as evidenced by the sustained hot springs in the area, such as at Ojo Caliente and the Manby Hot Springs near the John Dunn Bridge (in Arroyo Hondo, just north of Taos off State Road 522).

The canyon ecosystem descends 800 feet from rim to river, creating a unique diversity in plant and animal life. It is home to ancient piñón and juniper forests. Wildlife includes mule deer, red-tailed hawk, mountain blue bird, cutthroat trout, prairie dog, river otter, bald eagle and Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. A good place to view bighorns is the West Rim Trail that extends from the rest area west of the Río Grande Gorge Bridge and runs south along the canyon rim to State Road 567 above the Taos Junction Bridge in Pilar.

The Río Grande Gorge Bridge was erected along U.S. 64 in 1965. It sits 650 feet above the Río Grande and spans 1,280 feet. It is the second-highest bridge on the U.S. highway system and is the fifth-highest bridge in the country.

The fabled overpass has had cameos in many films, beginning with "Easy Rider" (1969). That appearance was followed by others in "Twins," "She’s Having a Baby," "Natural Born Killers," "Wild Hogs," "No Country for Old Men," "Terminator Salvation," "Paul" and "This Must be the Place."

Besides the bridge, other good places to view the Río Grande Gorge are the overlook on State Road 68, about 8 miles south of Ranchos de Taos, and The Wild Rivers Recreation Area, about 35 miles north of Taos. To get to Wild Rivers, drive north toward Questa on State Road 522 to another 3 miles on State Road 378. At La Junta Point, the Red River converges with the Río Grande.

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