It has been over a year since the Taos County Public Works Department closed two switchbacks on the west side of the John Dunn Bridge due to a mudslide that moved rocks and debris onto the admittedly treacherous terrain. As county residents near the top of the road and east of Tres Piedras have again voiced concerns, the county maintains the closure is the appropriate safety measure.
The road, formally known as County Road B-007, was first closed in June of 2021 by Taos County Public Works Director and Deputy Manager Jason Silva after a mudslide left several motorists stranded at the Black Rock Hot Springs on the west side of the bridge. “Due to unstable rocks and debris in the area, we have decided to close it on an emergency basis, while we address the situation," said then-deputy county manager Dominic Martinez in 2021, adding that regular river access remains open.
Joe Kairo lives near the top of the west side of the John Dunn switchbacks and said the closure has been a huge inconvenience to him and his neighbors, who now have to use US 64 west to access nearby areas like Arroyo Hondo and Questa.
“I live by Tres Piedras Estates. That's kind of between the gorge and Tres Piedras. From there, I’m four miles from the switchbacks,” explained Kairo. “Usually I just need to go to [Arroyo] Hondo. My family's still there, I get my mail there, there’s a grocery store there.” Now, a trip that used to take Kairo a quick 15 minutes takes about 45 minutes.
“I think they should open it back up,” he said, but acknowledged that parking for hot springs was another issue that needed to be taken into account. “It’s been getting out of hand ever since GPS started telling people how to get there. There were times when it was tight getting around those switchbacks, so I think that’s something to get managed if they do open it. But I think that’s the right move instead of shutting the whole thing down. There's a whole community just on the other side of the gorge.”
The road is also frequented by hot air balloonists, who typically launch from the west side of the gorge, just at the top of the switchbacks. Ken Eske, who runs Eske’s Balloon Paradise, said driving around on US 64 to get to the launch site has been “a pain in the ass.”
“It all has to do with driving time,” said Eske. “We have to go back out to the west on Highway 3, back onto Highway 64, back across the Gorge Bridge, and back towards where we think we might land.”
Chris Winkler, another resident who lives near the top of the switchbacks, used the road frequently in the past. As a foreman for the Double D Ranch near Tres Piedras, he said it was his go-to route for accessing areas like Questa, San Cristobal and Arroyo Hondo.
“It’s been a major inconvenience driving 45 minutes to get to a water source to cool off or to get to work,” said Winkler. “It’s a more treacherous road, definitely. But we live in the desert, there’s going to be treacherous roads out here.”
Winkler said he has seen a couple of landslides in the past several years from the summer monsoons, and that in the past, the county has smoothed out the road. However, he said when he has recently walked the road, it has been clear of obstacles. “I really did not notice anything disastrous or any landslides of any sort.”
Kairo agreed: “The last time I walked [the road], which was a few months ago, there were no obstructions, nothing.”
However, Silva explained it’s only a matter of time before the road becomes washed out again, and said it typically happens two-to-three times a year. “Over the years, Public Works crews have had to, at least a couple times throughout the year, open up the road because the sides cave off and they just clean it up.”
Silva said the next step is to conduct a feasibility study to help determine what the needs of the road are. Because the road is maintained by Taos County, but the land is technically part of the Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument, the Bureau of Land Management will play a role in its eventual reconstruction. “The road is Taos County’s, but all the vertical faces are part of the [Rio Grande Del Norte] monument. So I can't touch any of that unless we go through [Natural Environmental Protection Act] studies. There's a whole caveat of information because that’s BLM property.”
Silva acknowledged the long closure. “My hope was it wasn't going to take this long, but I haven't found any money through the county to invest in it,” said Silva. “We are still trying to invest in Blueberry Hill Road repairs … So, do I invest $11 million in Blueberry Hill, or do I invest in the John Dunn switchbacks?”
He said quotes for the switchback repairs were ranging from $5 to $8 million dollars. Silva said he submitted three grant applications for possible repair funds, but said two of the applications were not chosen. “They said they will be focusing their funds on other needs. The County is submitting a couple of different grants, so we're all kind of battling against ourselves on this,” he said.
When asked if he would consider opening the road without moving forward with a feasibility study, he said he did not feel like it was the right decision. “I just don't feel comfortable opening it up. We do have access to everybody on the other side of the river through US 64, so it's not like we're denying anybody access, we're just denying them a shortcut,” he said. “If we didn't have an access, I would open this immediately.
“Maybe I'm overstepping my bounds in saying that this is more of a safety issue than it needs to be. But I would rather feel more comfortable allowing this to be closed til we can identify a source of funding,” he added. “I just feel that the money that I could be paying in a lawsuit could actually be fixing this road eventually.”