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The National Monument – News and The Back of Beyond

On Sunday I set off on a 25 mile bike ride into the back of the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument.

Technically, it is the middle of the monument. There is a road that runs right up the spine of the monument, pretty much straight north, to the Colorado border. But I always think of it as the backside because it is the more inaccessible section of this huge area despite the road – which can be pretty rough.

And there is nobody out there. In a nation of something like 400 million people there is still a place you can go and ride your bike for several hours and never see another human being.


(all the photos in this post were shot with my iphone – click the panorama images for full size)

The old Hispanic folks in the area call this La Otra Banda. There is no water – no lakes, no rivers, no creeks and no springs. The closest water is several hundred feet down, beneath the basalt bedrock that blankets the entire plateau. The water was always elusive – which made permanent settlement out here pretty much impossible.

In the arroyos that line the face of Cerro Montoso or “timber mountain” a few settlers gave it a go however. They constructed dams of interlocking ponderosa logs shaped like a series of cribs. Then they filed the cribs with soil and heaps of busted up three-million year old basalt and rhyolite. It was a feeble attempt at capturing that elusive water.

The land leaks however. The water seeped through the fractured bedrock and disappeared like the virga above.

I stashed my bike….not like there was anyone else out there who might steal it…and took a short hike up to the top of Montoso. From there, Taos is barely visible. Forests of piñon and juniper edge the sagebrush in a crenulated ribbon. Several Turkey vultures picked up the thermals and rose in circles over the remains of what was once the home of Dorr K. Smith, a World War One veteran and one of the homesteaders.

the national monument

But there was a reason that nobody was living out here as late as the 1920s when Smith arrived. The local Hispanics and Native Americans already knew that water wasn’t the only problem. The local climate – dominated by long bitterly cold winters, followed by springtime full of relentless winds and then dry, hot summers and rainless autumns – made the area wholly unsuitable for farming. Smith and the other homesteaders must have figured it out pretty fast for within just a few years they were growing but beets and potatoes and turned to harvesting timber along the the national monumentslopes of these cerros, hauling the logs by wagon to Taos or Antonito, Colorado.

And then they turned to moonshining. You can’t really go wrong with illegal intoxication. It is a sure money-maker.

But by the time the second war came along the homesteaders were gone, chased from the land by the wall of reality that smashed their fantasies. Today what remains of that Montoso community dot the central portion of the national monument.

The First Guide to the National Monument is Ready

I’m proud to announce that the first guide to the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument is ready. I am also proud to say that I authored the guide and that a number of my photos feature RioGrandeDelNorte_COVinside.

(Download a free 32-page PDF copy)

This was far from a solo project however. The creation of the guide was headed up by the amazing Janet Webb and her amazing crew including designer Burrell Brenneman.  Several other notable Taos photographers also contributed their images to the effort. MARKETAOS, a public-private marketing initiative served as the publisher with financing with grant funds from New Mexico Tourism Department, Taos County, the Wilderness Society, the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, the Conservation Lands Foundation, Chevron and additional sponsorships from numerous environmental agencies and private outfitters. The Partnership for Responsible Business and BLM are also partners in the initiative.

The guide will be available in April 2015 at welcome centers throughout Taos County as well as the BLM.

No Transmission Line

Stunning as it may seem, almost as soon as President Obama issued the proclamation declaring the national monument a major power company showed up with plans to build a massive transmission line right smack through the middle of the monument.


But there is good news on that front too. Through the hard work of numerous folks the plans for the transmission line have been revoked. A special shout out goes out to Taos resident Bill Brown who spent a lot of time working to stop what could have been a disaster. Brown was also one of the key players in keeping CBM drilling out of the Valle Vidal unit of the Carson National Forest, another national treasure.

Tri-State Generation and Transmission is nixing a proposal to bring a high-capacity transmission line across the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument. “After careful consideration of the Monument designation and review of technical, financial, regulatory, and environmental criteria… Tri-State has decided not to pursue development of the [line],” reads a statement from Tri-State.

Without a doubt they will be back.  Count on it.

The Big Walk

My friend and fellow Wilderness aficionado state Senator Jeff Steinborn has succeeded in getting a bill passed through the New Mexico state legislature to fund the creation of a hiking trail that the national monument

will stretch from one end of the state to the other along the Rio Grande. The northern portion would be inside our new national monument. He was even successful in getting conservative Governor Martinez to sign the bill.

Not exactly un-impressive work.

The law’s supporters say the river trail commission will have broad representation from tribes, land and river advocates, local, state and federal governments, and other groups. The measure also creates a fund so supporters can lobby for money to build sections of the trail. The commissioners will look at existing trails near or along the Rio Grande and suggest ways of linking them all together into one long tread.


The Rio Grande Trail might eventually hug the 50-mile long Rio Grande Gorge in Northern New Mexico, a rift valley plunging 800 feet deep that was created millions of years ago. The area is part of the Bureau of Land Management’s designated Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River, with some trails already established. Big horn sheep, river otters and Rio Grande cutthroat trout are among the wildlife species living in the gorge.

An old railroad track called the Chili Line also winds along a portion of the gorge. South of that, the river crosses the lands of several pueblos. Each pueblo and tribe along the river will have to be consulted individually about the potential for a public trail.

Near Santa Fe, the Rio Grande Trail might pick up a few miles of existing tread off Old Buckman Road near the Buckman Direct Diversion project. Several groups have worked for years to clean up the area, plant trees and establish good trails there.

This is not without controversy however and while I’m a big supporter of this trail it comes with risks. It is imperative that in the creation of this trail ALL values are taken into account, not just economic and recreation values. The preservation of wildlife and ecosystem values are a priority. The opportunities to promote environmental stewardship via this project are huge but we have to take them seriously.

Don’t look for this trail to be ready any time soon however. It is going to take years of work but you can be sure that I will be one of the first ones to hike the whole thing.

~ ~ ~

I tooled on all the way to Cerro Chiflo. Without a doubt though the looming thunderhead to the west had me nervous. I’ve been caught out in severe lightening storms a number of time and havethe national monument
developed a serious respect for them.

That nervousness is one of the key highlights for me when I’m out in the back of beyond, be it in New Mexico, Panama or Central Europe. I hate to admit it but I’m a bit of a worrier and yet at the same time I rather relish the tinge of fear that is for me an important part of a wilderness experience.

Be it in thunderstorms, wild carnivores (!), a potential failure of your body, getting lost or the possibility of running out of food and water there is a primordial pleasure in having a bit of nervousness out on the land. There is a thrill that really, there just might be something out there that maybe…just maybe….wouldn’t mind eating you. That’s part of my definition of freedom.

Then there is the part of it all where I overcome those worries and that bit of fear…conquer it and put it away. The experience becomes all the more magical.

The storm moved off north and over the Colorado border near Antonito however and the way back south to my car was hurried along nicely by a nice cool tailwind.


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