By Mike Matz
My family likes to take advantage of school breaks around the holidays to explore a new locale, and this past Thanksgiving we traveled to the Rio Grande del Norte in north-central New Mexico. Sen. Jeff Bingaman has proposed this as a 236,000-acre national conservation area, with two new wilderness designations—the Rio San Antonio and Cerro del Yuta. Four days and three nights of car-camping couldn’t have been a better way to spend our holiday.
On our first day, we drove to the edge of the gorge where the Rio Grande cuts through the surrounding plateau of igneous rock and looked down 600 feet to see its shimmering, roiling waters. Traveling on rugged routes marked by the Bureau of Land Management, we startled a herd of pronghorn, which raced across the sparsely vegetated tablelands at an astonishing clip—beautiful white flanks flashing in the sun.
Each of the brisk mornings in the predawn darkness, we were serenaded by the yipping and yowling of coyotes, prompting our domestic canine to answer back with annoyed barks. The nights are frigid this time of year, but we had a wall tent, with a wood stove, on which to cook meals, read books, play cribbage, and have a family slumber party. My wife and I gave the kids the choice of pulling up the stakes and heading into Taos each day, and they voted to stay and camp.
The plateau surrounding the gorge is remote and full of Elk tracks and pellets. Though we never caught a glimpse of any, it’s abundantly clear they’re there, and the mixed sagebrush and lush pine forest provides excellent habitat, which makes this region a hunter’s paradise.
On our way out, across the bridge spanning the gorge, we saw six bighorn sheep in the craggy boulders below—one of them a regal ram with a full curl of horns.
You can visit this spectacular place virtually by clicking here.
Sen. Bingaman’s legislation has cleared the committee with jurisdiction over public lands and may yet see floor action this year. If time runs out, the Obama administration could make the Rio Grande del Norte a national monument. Just this past weekend Interior Secretary Salazar held a listening session in Taos to receive feedback from local residents about protecting the area. Either way, this spot—with its towering Ute and San Antonio mountains as landmarks framing the vast high plains, and the cleft in the lava-formed plateau incised by the grand river—is eminently worth adding to our nation’s protected public lands. That’ll be something to be thankful for, when it happens.