Two Days in the Rio Grande Gorge: Finding Solitude in Orilla Verde Recreation Area

Days 3-5 (August 2019)
Orilla Verde Recreation Area in Rio Grande del Norte National Monument

Camping in Orilla Verde Recreation Area

In August 2018, we crossed the Rio Grand Gorge Bridge, stopping to walk the bridge and peer 650 feet down to the river below. For the past year I have been looking forward to returning to Taos, and venturing into the gorge. After our half-day in downtown Taos I could wait no longer. The 30-minute drive from Taos via Hwy 68 (the “low road” to Santa Fe) is a scenic one. Turning on NM-570, I pass through through the twee artist community of Pilar and into the Orilla Verde Valley, the road paralleling the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River.

Orilla Verde Recreation area in Rio Grande gorge

Within a mile I reach the boundary to Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument, finding within its southern boundary the Orilla Verde Recreation Area, where dogs are welcome.

Pictures of the Rio Grande Gorge cannot capture its exquisite beauty. You must see it with your own eyes, hear the flowing river and rustling of the sages and grasses, feel the breeze and warm sunshine on your face. The desert varnished brown and red rock walls are strewn with boulders… the crevices in between filled with sages, teddy bear cactus, pinion pines, junipers, and dozens of other species of plants and shrubs. Closer to the river a surprising variety of wildflowers grows.

I melt into this lovely landscape as I travel a few miles at the 25 mph speed limit, pulling over a few times to take pictures and check out the campgrounds. I see a bridge up ahead, with a handful of adobe shade structures perched on the hill across the river. We’ve arrived at the Taos Junction campground, an ideal spot for a night or two.

Subaru at my campsite at Taos Junction Campground in Orilla Verde Recreation Area

The campground’s adobe pavilions offer welcome shade in this very sunny spot, and a place to get out of the rain, yet only kind of because they are old and leaky. The campground doesn’t have many level spots, so tent camping isn’t the best here but is fine for me in the Subaru. A couple of campers have pitched their tents inside the pavilions.

Taos Junction campground even has flush toilets, a sink, and soap and paper towels in the bathroom. The bathrooms are 50-60 years old look a little rough, but are clean. My site is sheltered by a cottonwood tree, and has both a grill and a fire pit. All of this for only $7 a night!

A steady breeze blows through the valley, keeping most of the bugs away, and we stay cool and comfy in the shade. I am taken with the framed view of the gorge from inside my pavilion, and I shoot pictures of the scene throughout the day as the light changes.

View from the adobe shade pavilion at my campsite at Taos Junction Campground in Orilla Verde Recreation Area

A path through sage and wildflower meadow leads from the campground down to the river, which is running quite high due to welcomed summer rains.

Juniper the Wonder Dog in the August wildflowers alongside the Rio Grande in Orilla Verde Recreation Area

Juni plays in the wildflowers, wades, and bites at the ripples on the river’s surface. I am quite pleased that she is developing more confidence about being the water.

August wildflowers alongside the Rio Grande in Orilla Verde Recreation Area

Juniper the Wonder Dog in the August wildflowers alongside the Rio Grande in Orilla Verde Recreation Area

View from the adobe shade pavilion at my campsite at Taos Junction Campground in Orilla Verde Recreation Area

After another nap (Juni) and a couple of hours of writing (me), we check out a small beach and boat ramp across the river…

View of the Rio Grande from Taos Junction Bridge in Orilla Verde Recreation Area

Rio Grande viewed from sandy beach below Taos Junction Bridge in Orilla Verde Recreation Area

Taos Junction Bridge across the Rio Grande viewed from sandy beach in Orilla Verde Recreation Area

And through my picture window, I watch the light slip from the sky.

View from the adobe shade pavilion at my campsite at Taos Junction Campground in Orilla Verde Recreation Area

Hiking the Picuris, Klauer, Rift Valley, and La Vista Verde Trails

After a fitful night of sleep, we wake early and at 7am we set off for the Picuris trailhead, just a short walk across the Taos Junction bridge from the campground. The Picuris trail is .7 mile (one way) from the river to the Eastern Rim of the gorge.  A beautiful trail with views of the river gorge, Picuris trail is notably difficult with its rocky and loose-pebble trail surface, and elevation gain of 675 feet to an altitude over 6500 feet.

Juniper the Wonder Dog in the wildflowers on Picuris Trail in Orilla Verde Recreation Area

Juniper the Wonder Dog on the Picuris Trail in Orilla Verde Recreation Area

Large Petroglyph on the Picuris Trail in Orilla Verde Recreation Area

Awesome views but loose rock on the Picuris Trail in Orilla Verde Recreation Area

Reaching the Eastern rim, we head north on the Klauer trail, hike it for a couple of miles, and venture off-trail via a dry creek bed that I think will take us to the Eastern rim. This path gets a little hairy and I’m seeing both bighorn sheep tracks and fresh mountain lion tracks. Playing it safe, we head back to the Klaur trail and then hike the Rift Valley trail for a bit. During our hike near the rim, Juni obsesses over lizards and I am constantly trying to keep her away from cactus and pulling the spines off of her. She doesn’t even seem to notice them.

Along the Klauer Trail in Rio Grande del Norte National Monument

Along the Klauer Trail in Rio Grande del Norte National Monument

Deer or Bighorn Sheep and Mountain Lion Footprints in Rio Grande del Norte National Monument

Orilla Verde Recreation Area in the Rio Grande Gorge, viewed from Eastern Rim trails in Rio Grand del Norte National Monument

Although it is only half past nine, the sun is high and Juniper is struggling with the heat. After about four miles of hiking, we turn back, taking water breaks in the shade and taking advantage of the cell service up here to catch up on texts.

Orilla Verde Recreation Area in the Rio Grande Gorge, viewed from Eastern Rim trails in Rio Grand del Norte National Monument

Juniper the Wonder Dog at the end of the Picuris Trail in Orilla Verde Recreation Area

We will drive that fun-looking road tomorrow.

Orilla Verde Recreation Area in the Rio Grande Gorge, viewed from Eastern Rim trails in Rio Grand del Norte National Monument

Juniper the Wonder Dog seeking shade along the Picuris Trail in Orilla Verde Recreation Area

View of the tiny Taos Junction campground and NM-570 up the Western side of the Rio Grande Gorge

Back down in the canyon, it’s a perfect day for being on the river.

Rafts launching on the Rio Grande in Orilla Verde Recreation Area

After relaxing at camp for a few hours, I walk Juniper down to the river for a swim and to eat all of the duck poop treats she can find. Ewww! Juni rolls around on the sandy riverbank and runs around like a crazy dog, at least as much as a 16 foot leash allows – which is surprisingly a lot – before tackling me and covering me in Rio Grande sand. This is the dirtiest that Juniper has ever been, and she could not be more thrilled about it. I feel (and look) much the same.

We relax on the sandy shore for a spell, watching a few rafts and an SUP float down the river. In this moment, all is well in our world and we are both blissfully happy under the warm New Mexican sun.

Juniper the Wonder Dog and rafters on the Rio Grande

SUP on the Rio Grande in Orilla Verde Recreation Area

Juniper the Wonder Dog after swimming in the Rio Grande

Back at the campground, I meet Camp Host Ed, who has hosted in Orilla Verde for five seasons. He tells me about the various trails, where to find more petroglyphs, bighorn sheep, and of his two bobcat sightings. Ed also tells me that this campground will soon be razed and rebuilt. New facilities and level tent pads will be nice, though I’m sad to see the adobe shade pavilions and large picnic pavilion with its 60’s mod fireplace lost to history.

I fix lunch and do some writing while an exhausted Juni naps in the car for several hours. She may be young and full of energy, but I can definitely out-hike her. As I walk to the water spigot, I see the ass-end of a marmot scurrying up the hill behind my campsite.

Subaru at my campsite in Taos Junction campground in Orilla Verde Recreation Area

Juniper enjoys the comfort and familiarity of the Subaru, and this campsite makes it easy for her to hop in and out of the back as she pleases while still being on her 16 foot tether. Gratuitous cute dog pictures follow.

Juniper are you read for another walk? Not quite yet…

Juniper the Wonder Dog ready for a nap

How about now? No mama, I’m still tired.

Juniper the Wonder Dog ready for a nap

As Juni rests, I spend another hour or two writing, and while prepping dinner find that she is finally ready to get up. (Looking at this picture, I realize that this is the exact moment Juni lost her puppy face. She is earning character in this wild place!)

Juniper the Wonder Dog in the back of our Subaru Outback

After dinner we head across the bridge and down to the sandy beach next to the boat ramp, which during our September trip will become a favorite spot of Juni’s when she has her first off-leash (unfenced) play experience with some local dogs.

Small sandy beach in Orilla Verde Recreation Area

We walk north to the nearest campground looking for the petroglyphs that Ed mentioned, but find only later Spanish carvings in an overgrown area that’s too difficult to access with Juni.

The Orilla Verde Valley is wonderfully peaceful. I really do not wish to leave tomorrow, though the Jemez mountains are calling and I’ve already missed seeing them on two prior trips due to forest fires.

Through the sage, the Rio Grande in Orilla Verde Recreation Area

I fix dinner, write for a while, and we turn in early. Hours of lightning keep Juni up – but through the night result in only a few unsatisfying bursts of sprinkles – just enough that I wake up five times to close the windows and five more times to open them when the car gets too hot. Before 6am we give up on sleep and are on the move by 7:00. It’s time to leave the tarmac and drive up the rough, windy dirt road NM-570 that ascends the western side of the Rio Grande Gorge.

Just a short distance up, I finally spot my first bighorn sheep, a large ram! (In our 4 months out west last year we were disappointed that we did not see a single one).

Bighorn Sheep in Orilla Verde Recreation Area

I’m parked at pull-off in the road just past the first switchback when I spot that big boy a hundred feet up on the rocks, so I roll down my window, shoot a quick iPhone pic and then realize that video would be better, so I record him running down the rock wall until I realize the sheep is running straight towards my car – yikes! I roll up the window as the big ram sprints down the road seemingly straight at me, passing just three feet to the left of my car, never slowing his roll or turning his head to look at me. Such a strange encounter – both terrifying and exhilarating – and it happens so fast that Juniper doesn’t even know what to think. With a puzzled look she questions, “what the heck was that?”

My heart still pounding, I continue driving the rutted road up, stopping a few times for pictures. The views from NM-570 grow even more spectacular as I continue up the road toward the western rim.

View of the Rio Grande halfway up the gorge on NM-570 in Orilla Verde Recreation Area

View of the Rio Grande gorge on NM-570 in Orilla Verde Recreation Area

Upon reaching the rim, I turn around, pop the Subaru in X-mode while I descend the roughest section of road and the uppermost switchback, and make my way back down to the campground to make some coffee and finish packing up. I see camp host Ed and ask if he has ever known of this herd of bighorn sheep being aggressive toward humans and he replied that he hadn’t. Still, I am wary.

Not quite ready to leave the Rio Grand Gorge yet, at 8:20 we are headed halfway up that same rough road to La Vista Verde trail for a short hike with a chance of catching sight of the herd of 30-40 bighorn sheep that live in this area.  I have arrived too late in the day, or perhaps the sheep smell Juniper coming. After my encounter with the ram just down the road I’m still a little on edge and am not terribly disappointed that we do not spot any more sheep today.

Juniper the Wonder Dog on the Vista Verde trail in Orilla Verde Recreation Area

La Vista Verde trail is quite pretty, and without much elevation gain or loss it makes for a leisurely stroll. Or perhaps we are just leisurely because Juniper stops to sniff every plant an animal has brushed against, and tries to head down every sheep and deer trail.

Vista Verde trail in Orilla Verde Recreation Area

We detour off-trail to hike a wash, stopping here when the elevation drops off steeply, way too steeply to climb down with a dog. Juni really wants to explore but seems to be struggling a bit with the heat already, and solo hiking off-trail here isn’t a great idea, so we head back.

Detour down a creek bed off the Vista Verde trail in Orilla Verde Recreation Area

Orilla Verde Recreation is a great place to find solitude on the trail. I selfishly wanted to skip this post because Orilla Verde is pristine and uncrowded and a bit of a secret from those living outside of New Mexico. I hope it always stays that way.

Rio Grande del Norte National Monument Sign in Rio Grande gorge near Taos, New Mexico

NEXT: Driving the High Road to Española and Camping at Bandelier National Monument.

See more New Mexico wandering here.

Wondering where else we’ve wandered? Check out our Parks List.

9 Replies to “Two Days in the Rio Grande Gorge: Finding Solitude in Orilla Verde Recreation Area”

  1. Wow, what a place. Every post I read has me wanting to head that way. Back in 2015, my dad and I spent 12 weeks exploring the Sonoran desert and my yellow lab tried licking a prickly pear! It took me days to get all the spines out of his mouth, at least Juni was smarter than that!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh no! I’m not sure that Juni would be smarter than that if she were in the same setting though 😉

      12 weeks exploring the Sonoran desert sounds wonderful! I am always going, going in order to dram as many places in as I can, but it also means I miss a lot. It also means I Ilose way too much time setting up and taking down camp. “Slow” travel sounds really good to me. If only I could work from the road, I would plan a trip like that!

      Like

  2. What a great snapshot of your journey. I’m so impressed you can identify animal tracks! The picture of Juniper literally giving you puppy dog eyes from the back of the ‘Ru is adorable. The graffiti on the rock makes me want to cry… or scream. Maybe both.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha! Thanks for the Juniper compliment. She is pretty adorable :-). I am not able to identify many animal tracks, but am a bit obsessed with seeing bighorn sheep (and have great fear of the mountain lions who follow them). That graffiti pissed me off too. I was wondering if anyone would notice and make comment. Marring such a beautiful landscape is inexcusable and unfortunately there were a few other examples to be found along that dirt road.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Once, on a road trip back from Coeur d’Alene for the husband’s Ironman, we stopped for the night in Arco, Idaho. The town had these beautiful cliffs towering over it. Unfortunately, decades ago, a graduating HS class decided to hike up there and spraypaint “Class of ’66” (or whatever year it was), and every year the graduating class has followed suit. It is appalling and disgusting and a total eyesore. It made me sick.

        Liked by 1 person

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