The sagebrush and pinon-juniper flatlands of the Taos Plateau are sliced by a steep chasm of black rock carved 600-800 vertical feet to a ribbon of river, circled by volcanic cones, cliffs and the Sangre de Cristo's white-dusted peaks. Deceptively tame, the Wild Rivers Backcountry Byway provides ready access to the rock-strewn, riffling upper reaches of the Rio Grande before dams and diversions dampen the river's unruly ways – a haven for hikers, cyclists, wildlife-viewers, sport-fishermen and sightseers. The spectacular 360-degree vista at La Junta Overlook, where the Red River joins the Rio Grande 800 feet below, is singularly worth the drive.
The byway loops through the Wild Rivers Recreation Area, managed by the Bureau of Land Management Taos Field Office (505-758-8851) and is open year round, although it may be snow-packed in winter. Beginning about two miles north of Questa on N.M. 378, the road winds between Our Lady of Guadalupe Church and the flag-studded cemetery in the agricultural village of Cerro. As the byway enters the pungent sage flats, Cerro Chiflo is visible jutting out of the gorge at Bear Crossing. On clear days, the frothy peaks surrounding Mt. Blanca in Colorado peek over the horizon's edge. Dirt parking areas dot the road at trailheads bearing such colorful names as Chawalauna, El Aguaje and Big and Little Arsenic Springs.
Rumor has it that Big Arsenic Springs were so-named because a hermit living at the bottom of the gorge told folks there was arsenic in the water so he could keep it to himself. Today, Big Arsenic Springs offers a self-guided nature trail, a developed campground and trail access to the river, where visitors may hear the cascading song of a canyon wren or the whistle of a hawk overhead. Several trails reach the river and backcountry campsites at the bottom of the gorge. Porous volcanic rocks tumble down the cliffs into the water, useful as stepping-stones or basking boulders for those in a lizard state of mind.
Guadalupe Mountain, Red River Fault and Rinconada hiking and biking trails explore the unique geology and plant life of the Taos Plateau, ranging from the level stroll of Rinconada Loop's wide gravel path along the rim to the 1,000-foot uphill grunt at Guadalupe Mountain, which rewards the energetic with expansive views, tall pines, wildflowers and cool air. La Junta Trail descends sharply in a series of switchbacks, stairs and a ladder to the Red River-Rio Grande confluence, where ponderosa pines offer tall shade for trout anglers.
The Taos Plateau is the largest volcanic field within the Rio Grande Rift, its layers of thick basalt deeply sliced north-south by the river. Rifts are cracks in the earth's crust along faults that pull apart, tilting downward to form a valley and mountains. Here, the Sangre de Cristo Range edges the horizon to the east and the Tusas Mountains to the west, while numerous dormant volcanic cones pop impertinently out of the broad tortilla flatlands of sage. Ute Mountain looms to the north and the domes of Pot Mountain and San Antonio to the west and northwest – all three providing habitat to elk, mule deer and pronghorn as well as coyote, badger and other wildlife.
Red-tailed hawks circle the cliffs and mesas, their tails flashing copper in the sunlight, while mountain bluebirds dart across the mesa like tiny pieces of the Southwestern sky torn off and set aflight. Mule deer drift soundlessly at dusk and tracks of cougar and bear may be traced in the sand.
The upper reaches of the Rio Grande are a whitewater wonderland for kayakers and rafters in years of abundant snowfall. The river enters New Mexico like a lamb and then, at the Class 4 Razorblade Rapids near Ute Mountain, begins to roar. Dropping 200 feet per mile into the Upper Taos Box, it is too dangerous for rafting until it reaches the mellower flows at the Rio Grande-Red River confluence. Boating within the Wild Rivers Recreation Area is hazardous and requires a permit, while swimming is dangerous due to swift currents and icy temperatures.
Anglers find the challenge of rainbow trout, northern pike and brown trout enhanced by deep pools and a rush of rapids that echo from black cliffs framing a sliver of sky. Those feisty browns grow up from small fry that “trek” the steep icy trails each winter, packed in 5-gallon water jugs on the backs of Game and Fish officers and volunteers from the Bureau of Land Management, the Carson National Forest and local sportsmen's groups. The annual Rio Grande Brown Trout Trek is a midwinter work party shared by local fishing enthusiasts and biologists. Nearby Red River Hatchery (505-586-0222) raises trout for stocking the gorge and other waters in the area. Fishing licenses and a habitat stamp are required and may be purchased in Questa.
The byway loops past the Wild Rivers Visitor Center (505-770-1600) open daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day and contains a mural painted by a collaboration of New Mexico artists who share a passion for the area and its wildlife. Most visitors to the area find its rugged yet accessible wildness engenders a passion of its own.