Photograph by Erich Schlegel
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Farmland frames the curves of the Rio Grande near Alamosa, Colorado, not far from the river’s source in the San Juan mountains. The Rio Grande flows through New Mexico, Texas, and parts of Mexico.

Photograph by Erich Schlegel
TravelRoad Trip

Road trip along the Rio Grande: A wild and troubled landscape

An exploration of the river in New Mexico shows the value of preservation—and how much more needs to be done.

The Rio Grande, in this part of northern New Mexico, hides in plain view. It is the landscape’s most important feature, but has a shyness about it. Churning in its gorge or slipping silently through cottonwoods, it conceals its power. I was rounding a bend on Route 68, driving north to Pilar from Santa Fe, when it first appeared like a muddy brushstroke in the scrubby flats.

A portion of the upper Rio Grande, a segment stretching 51 miles downstream from the Colorado-New Mexico border, was one of the original eight rivers to earn protection under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which Lyndon Johnson signed into law in 1968. The act established a national system through which designated rivers would be preserved in their free-flowing state, protecting them and their immediate environments from undue development. While the act has endured as one of the great triumphs of the American environmental movement, today it protects a mere 13,000 miles of 226 rivers in the country—less than one half of one percent of the nation’s rivers.

Today nearly 70 miles of the upper Rio Grande are protected. To experience this stark and stunning landscape is to be reminded of the good that can come of visionary public action to preserve our wild spaces—and how much more needs to be done.

Take me to the river

The Rio Grande begins in the San Juan mountains of Colorado’s southern Rockies and curls its way down to New Mexico, where it tumbles south some 400 miles before hanging a left in El Paso to begin its stretch as the Texan southern border of the United States. That iconic border section might be what comes to mind when most people think of the Rio Grande, the second longest river in the lower 48. But when I set out in the summer of 2017, I wanted to see it where I’d first encountered the river on a cross-country camping trip in 1984—in northern New Mexico, near Taos.

Late July might not be the best time of year to visit this part of the world—it’s hot, the river is low, and violent thunderstorms can materialize out of nowhere. But there are very few people around (even in non-pandemic times), and the place takes on a majestic kind of stillness. I pitched my tent just up the road from Pilar and about 10 feet from the riverbank. There were no rapids, just the steady sound of rushing water. The heat lifted once the sun went down.

There wasn’t enough water in the river for the top rafting runs: Taos Box, a 15-mile Class IV stretch that goes under the jaw-dropping Rio Grande Gorge Bridge (a steel span rising 600 feet above the water); or, farther upstream, the Upper Box, a steep and dangerous run of Class V+ rapids for experts only. On my last day I would do a short float near my campsite on the Racecourse section, a few miles of splashing through rapids that run alongside the oldest exposed rock formations in the area—the quartzites and schists of the Pilar cliffs that date to 1.7 billion years ago. But the real highlight of my visit was what I was able to explore without getting in a boat.

Getting to the source

I drove north through Taos and up the Rio Grande Rift, where the continent has been pulling apart for 30 million years. From the road you can look out over the desert and see a great crack in the earth’s crust—the gorge that holds the river. The Rio Grande del Norte National Monument is nearly 400 square miles of basalt plateau, dotted with domed volcanoes and fractured by the gorge.

After driving around Guadalupe Mountain, I headed south along the east rim of the gorge, several hundred feet above Hell Hole, Pleasure Plunge, and Big Arsenic—just a few of the rapids that make the Upper Box whitewater run so treacherous. I saw few other cars or people. A solitary deer studied me briefly before disappearing into the juniper and sagebrush. At La Junta Point, a spit of land that plunges into the gorge at the confluence of the Rio Grande and Red River, a half dozen golden eagles were doing battle with a red-tailed hawk, high in the air above the canyon wall.

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I started down La Junta trail in the early afternoon. Red River, little more than a trickle in the midsummer heat, was once the headwaters of what is now the Rio Grande. But about 300,000 years ago a huge lake that covered present-day Alamosa, in southern Colorado, spilled over the San Luis Hills and poured south across the volcanic plateau, ultimately connecting with Red River (now suddenly a tributary) at La Junta Point, cutting the gorge as we know it today and establishing the modern Rio Grande.

Running dry

As the planet warms and mountain snowpacks diminish, water levels in the Rio Grande are decreasing. But the main threat to the river’s health is irrigation. Only a small fraction of the river’s 1,900 miles are protected as wild and scenic, and there are countless competing interests over water in this arid land.

The river is diverted and impounded and fought over by Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas, which are in perpetual court battles over water-rights decisions that stretch back to the 19th century. Great lengths of the river run dry annually along the U.S.-Mexico border, and in 2018 the river gauge in Embudo, just downstream of Pilar and the oldest gauge in the country, marked the lowest flows ever recorded. This summer, the river is threatening to run dry as far north as Albuquerque for the first time in decades.

La Junta trail stops where the Rio Grande and Red River meet, normally the tail end of a Class IV rapid. But I walked into the river with no trouble, the water so low you could nearly make your way across on exposed boulders without getting your feet wet. A thunderstorm was brewing from the west, so I didn’t linger. The hike was less than three miles roundtrip, but it was brutally hot and the trail’s vertical drop was 800 feet—and at well over a mile in elevation, the air was thin for my coastal city lungs.

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Several months after my visit, a hiker died after falling on the steep trail, which the park service has closed for safety upgrades. The nearby trail at Little Arsenic Springs is open and is a good way to access the gorge and the river. There are numerous beautiful trails throughout the area, but campgrounds within the Wild and Scenic boundary are closed temporarily due to the pandemic.

La Junta Point lies at the heart of one of the original Wild and Scenic rivers. A few hundred miles to the southwest there is a glimmer of hope for what might become the newest river to be added to the system. In May, New Mexico senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich introduced legislation to protect portions of the Gila River and its watershed as the country’s newest Wild and Scenic river. If signed into law, New Mexico will have its fifth designated river, further protecting the environment of the Gila National Forest, which has a history that stretches back to the early stages of American environmental activism—the Gila Wilderness was established as the country’s first protected wilderness area in 1924.

The sky was spectacular on the drive back to my campsite from La Junta, a deep blue backdrop puffed with white cumulus clouds. At my tent I stripped off my salt-stained clothes and waded barefoot out into the river as the setting sun threw orange light on the ancient hillside above. I stepped carefully over the smooth stones. Then I stopped, eased myself into the water, closed my eyes, and let the Rio Grande wash over me.

Austin Merrill is a co-founder of The Everyday Projects and writes about travel and the environment. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter.