They call New Mexico the Land of Enchantment for a reason. Hiking through it, you’ll find magic big and small. The Rio Grande, grand as it is, would fall under the category of “big magic.” History and natural beauty can be found anywhere and everywhere along this river. It flows from Colorado down to the Gulf of Mexico, sculpting the earth as it goes. If you find yourself in or around Taos, a short walk along the Rio Grande Gorge West Rim Trail is a quick, easy way to drink in some of the enchantment.
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A perfect day in New Mexico consists of a burrito smothered in pork green chile followed by a hike through the sagebrush. Those unfamiliar with the desert may feel intimidated by the heat, but a walk along the Rio Grande Gorge is well worth it. This article will guide you on how to get to the West Rim Trail, how to plan for your hike, and some of the nature you might find there.
The Rio Grande Gorge Bridge: A Bridge to Nowhere
The Rio Grande Gorge is reminiscent of the Grand Canyon — a massive separation in the land formed by millions of years of running water. Located on Pueblo, Ute, and Tigua land, the view down into the canyon is its own lesson in erosion’s awesome power. Hiking along the West Rim should be an easy way to take in this great geographical feature — there’s very little elevation change. You may see some stone art along the trail, as well as some bighorn sheep and lizards scampering away. If you go in the late spring, you may be lucky enough to see some cacti flowering. I recommend rubbing the sagebrush gently in between your fingers and then taking a sniff — it’s an aroma synonymous with the New Mexico desert.
As you hike south, you’ll be walking away from the region’s small miracle of engineering, the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. You may hear locals refer to it as “the high bridge,” though it was once known as “The Bridge to Nowhere” because when it was constructed in the 1960s, there was no funding to continue the road on the other side. Standing around 600 feet over the Rio Grande, it may inspire vertigo. It’s made a bit of a name for itself in Hollywood, too, so you may recognize it from movies such as Paul, Terminator: Salvation, and Wild Hogs. The Rio Grande Gorge Bridge blending into the landscape is a great photo opportunity as you hike.
Looking across the gorge, the reddish walls of the canyon appear almost like a cubic mineral formation. The brush stands out against the rock, shifting from sheer drop to gentle slant and back. Floating down the river itself, you could find ancient petroglyphs that speak to the storied relationship between people and the land. This is the great secret of the desert — that it is not in fact arid and lifeless but bursting with life that is all at once resilient, strange, and beautiful.
Just Park & Hike
To get to the Rio Grande Gorge West Rim Trailhead, drive northwest from Taos on US-64. It’s pretty much a straight shot, just hang left four miles out of town to avoid ending up on NM-522. After you cross the Gorge Bridge itself, pull into the rest area on the left. From there, you can follow the signs and the trail along the gorge. It’s hard to get lost–the huge canyon will be on your left as you walk south.
This AllTrails track will take you two miles out, but you can continue further along the gorge if you feel up to it. The trail along the West Rim is well-established. It may split here and there but try to follow the path most traveled. You’ll weave back and forth, nearer to the gorge and then slightly away. Parts of the trail will be quite rocky, so just take care not to twist an ankle. If you have a bike that can handle semi-rugged terrain, you’ll be able to cover a lot of distance on such flat ground. Keep an eye out for benches, picnic areas, and particularly delicious spots for photography as you go
After a total of 10 miles, you’ll find yourself at the West Rim Petaca Trailhead. Petaca will be a similar experience if you’re prepared for a long day, though its path as a whole may not run as close to the gorge. Nearby where the two trails meet is La Vista Verde Trail, another short hike from which you can look down at the confluence of the Rio Grande and the Rio Pueblo de Taos. If you’re interested in sneaking a peek at this area further south, you don’t have to hike the whole way. Take a left onto West Rim Road, just west of the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, and drive there. If you hit the far less impressive Taos Junction Bridge, you’ve gone too far.
Beware Erosion and Beat The Heat
There’s little to no shade to be found in this region, so be sure to bring sun protection and plenty of water. Be careful about bringing your dog with you, as it will get very uncomfortable for them very quickly when the sun chases away the cool morning air. Sunscreen is a must for this hike in the summer. If you have enough water in your car, it may be worth drenching your hat or your shirt on an especially hot day. Nobody could blame you for feeling a little jealous of the lizards happily sunning themselves while you’re struggling to stay cool. You may fantasize about a canoe trip on the Rio Grande, which is another great way to enjoy this part of the world. If you don’t do well with high temperatures, consider taking this hike closer to the winter months.
Approaching the gorge, you’ll see some smaller animal trails that run a little closer to the edge. These will be tempting to follow — you may want to keep looking down at the Rio Grande, and who could blame you? Be careful, though, because erosion is always a threat close to the edge. Stay on the ground that you know you can trust. It’s important to stay on well-traveled terrain as well, honoring the Leave No Trace principles. There’s an especially delicate type of soil in the desert that you must be careful to avoid any time you’re in the Southwest. It’s known as “Crypto.” No, not that crypto — Cryptobiotic Soil. It will look like a dark, mottled crust on the earth. In such a well-traveled area, you’re more likely to see the younger variety, which can be subtle and difficult to spot. Crypto takes a long, long time to form, and it’s vital for preventing erosion in the desert. A single step can destroy it, so take care and stay on the trail
Feel The Magic
Hiking, biking, or driving through the desert can feel like a difficult undertaking. Since sun exposure only needs a couple of hours to take a real toll on the body, you need to know what you’re getting into. Not having sun coverage or not having enough water can leave you taking heavy steps with a sandpaper tongue in your mouth. However, these factors all serve to underscore the beauty of those desert places where the water runs through.
The West Rim Trail, with its view of the bridge, is the perfect spot to watch the sun rise or set. Walk a little ways, bring a breakfast to-go, and unroll a blanket in the early morning. Watching the Rio Grande running through this gorge of its own making is a class in the way things change slowly. The Gorge Bridge spanning that same divide is a lesson in how things change quite quickly.