Photo of a raft trip on the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River.
The Rio Grande River canyon provides a wide variety of recreational opportunities, luring fishermen, hikers, artists, and whitewater boating enthusiasts. (BLM)

Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River

By Theresa Herrera

Born to be wild!  The Rio Grande is one of the first eight rivers Congress designated in 1968 as part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.  The BLM’s Taos Field Office manages the Rio Grande from the New Mexico/Colorado border to Velarde, New Mexico. 

The Rio Grande flows through one of the major late Cenozoic continental rifts, which shares most of its geophysical, geological, and geochemical characteristics with other rifts of the world, such as the East African Rift.  What is a rift?  A rift is a surface feature characterized by an elongated valley when the Earth’s crust stretches and thins.  The Rio Grande Rift began forming millions of years ago when the Earth’s crust began to spread apart, triggering volcanic activity.  Runoff from the newly elevated alpine regions was captured in the basins and the drainage combined to form the ancestral Rio Grande.  As much as 15,000 feet of rift sediment has accumulated in basins of the Rio Grande Rift, forming important aquifers for some of the largest cities in New Mexico.  Along with these precious supplies of water, the Rio Grande Rift provides fertile floodplain soils for growing corn, beans, and squash, helping to establish an important economic foundation for rural communities.

The river passes through 800-foot chasms of the Rio Grande Gorge, a wild and remote area of northern New Mexico.  Imagine rafting down the Rio Grande, with its towering colorful walls, and watching wildlife cross the river.  The avid rafter might even catch a glimpse of a bald eagle floating through the sky, bighorn sheep, or even the recently introduced river otters.  The canyon provides a wide variety of recreational opportunities, luring fishermen, hikers, artists, and whitewater boating enthusiasts.  The High Bridge offers spectacular views of the Rio Grande. 

The Rio Grande and its tributaries have attracted people for thousands of years.  Spanish conquistadores discovered the Rio Grande’s mouth in 1519, and during the next 100 years, they founded some of the earliest North American settlements along its banks.  These explorers named the river El Rio Grande or “the Great River.”  However, it has been called many other names.  The Pueblo people called it Posoge, or P’Osoge, meaning “big river.”  Shipwrecked British sailors crossed it in 1568 and called it “the River of May.”  Various Spaniards and Mexicans named it El Rio de Nuestra Senora (“the River of Our Lady”) and El Rio Bravo (“the Fierce River”).

The oldest measurement station in the United States, which has been active since 1890, is located on the main stem of the Rio Grande at the Embudo Station.  Modern efforts to measure discharge from streams rely on a series of stream gauges or measurement stations installed and administered by the U.S. Geological Survey and the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer and Interstate Stream Commission.

Many people feel a special connection to the Rio Grande.  Sam DesGeorges, field manager for the Taos Field Office, reminisces:  “When is a place not a place?  As we do the things we do on and along the Rio Grande, I am reminded that this place is not so much a spot on the map, but a part of who I am and who others are.  In 1886, my great-great-grandfather, Etienne, owned and operated a freight company that moved goods and people from Taos to Embudo.  He arrived in Taos from France in 1863 and never left.  Often as I crest the Taos Overlook, and I see the split formed by the Rio Grande and in the distance I see the Taos Mountains, I wonder if he felt as I do—ahh, I’m home!  I am sure this feeling is shared by others; the reason I know is because people felt it was worthy of enduring protection in the form of its wild and scenic designation.”

Theresa Herrera is a public affairs specialist with the BLM’s New Mexico Office of External Affairs.  She has held various positions within the state office and has more than 40 years of public service.