Great outdoors

Rio Grande Trail: Putting a 500-mile path on the ground

By Cindy Brown
The Taos News
Posted 9/26/18

At the beginning of the month, two members of the Southern New Mexico Trail Alliance headed south from the Colorado-New Mexico state line. They were starting a month-long odyssey to …

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Great outdoors

Rio Grande Trail: Putting a 500-mile path on the ground

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At the beginning of the month, two members of the Southern New Mexico Trail Alliance headed south from the Colorado-New Mexico state line.

They were starting a month-long odyssey to follow the Río Grande all the way to its southern point in New Mexico. Like a modern-day myth, the journey has been full of beauty, danger and daily adventure. Because the journey is taking place in New Mexico, it has also included chile, beans, rice and green chile cheeseburgers.

The hike is the first time that the full length of the proposed 500-mile plus route of the Río Grande Trail will be explored. The trail was authorized in 2015 and a commission was established to study the route along the river from Colorado to Mexico. The recreational trail is intended for hiking, biking and horseback riding, taking people along the Río Grande and through different natural landscapes each with their own deep cultural history.

On the ground

The two members of the Southern New Mexico Trails Alliance in Las Cruces volunteered their time to make the trip. Peter Livingstone, a director with the SNMTA is hiking the whole trail and has been joined for portions of the hike by Dan Carter. Both are experienced hikers and ultra-long-distance runners.

Their organization has been working with the state-funded Río Grande Trail Commission from the start, serving on work groups to move the project forward. "Now, it is time to put it on the ground," they say.

The pair began their trek Sept. 1, headed south from the Colorado state line through the northern reaches of the Río Grande del Norte National Monument. By Labor Day, Sept. 3, they had arrived west of Taos at the Río Grande Gorge Bridge. In two and a half days, they had covered about 59 miles, seen bighorn sheep, soaked in the Black Rock Hot Springs and spotted hot air balloons in the gorge.

"The days feel so long in the best way. You hike all day and have seen so much and experienced so much: the experience feels rich," said Carter.

Whenever possible, the two followed established trails, but sections of the path have not been formally established and bushwhacking was required along with occasional detours to the road. The pair followed the rim, going down towards to the river at times along old shepherding trails.

"Yesterday was by far the most strenuous section, hiking down into the gorge. It reminded me a lot of the Grand Canyon," said Livingstone. The trail plan calls for some additional river crossings in this section to take advantage of existing trails.

Mapping the trail

Carter is an experienced long-distance hiker, having completed the Pacific Crest Trail, which is 2,650 miles from Canada to Mexico. Carter's impressions from the first few days on the New Mexico trail: "The views are fantastic. While walking along some of the two-track sections on the rim, the trail is pretty mellow, so you can enjoy looking at the river, the weather and the mountains," he said.

They had encountered daily rain and some lightning storms, along with a funnel cloud near Cerro.

At the beginning of the hike, they were able to carry the water they needed and were finding water sources every 10-12 miles. They had water purifying systems for when the time came to drink water from springs or the river. They are also carrying a satellite communication device, solar charger, tent and other camping equipment.

Using maps from the proposed alignment of the trail and others developed by the Bureau of Land Management, the two are recording GPS data showing where they were able to walk using multiple devices, including a GPS watch and an app on the cell phone.

"Sitting, planning this out with maps on a computer, is a little different than the reality of being out here, seeing a storm coming and having to pay attention to how much water you have before you make a decision about where you are going to go," said Livingstone.

The goal of the exploration is to have one computer file generated from the data with notes, photos, route information and elevations. "We are noting possible campsite and water sources and obstacles, such as a gate or a road that doesn't go through," says Carter.

All the data will go to consultant Alta Planning and Design that is working with the Río Grande Trail Commission. Alta will finish up the draft proposed alignment by the end of the year.

"We are hoping this information will help them refine the work they have done," says Carter, "and also get people excited about the new trail. There are still a lot of sections to be designated and built and that takes a lot of volunteers and groups to get it done. Hired crews and volunteer groups often coordinate to build trails. That is usually how the other long-distance trails get built and maintained."

The Río Grande route will be accessible for day hikes, biking and horseback riding, in addition to through-hiking to cover the whole 500 miles.

End of the trail

The plan is to finish the hike by the end of September. By day 20, Livingstone had reached Las Cruces, having traveled about 430 miles. Along the way, people have brought him food, including chile rellenos, tacos, beans and rice in Socorro and a green chile cheeseburger in San Antonio.

Before he arrived in Las Cruces, he encountered rain and flash flooding in the Caballo Lake area.

"The proposed trail was actually under water," said Livingstone. "After hiking through some knee-deep water in cold rain, I called my wife to pick me up and take me home to Las Cruces. The forecast looks dry, so I'll be back where I left off."

Over the journey, he has lost about five pounds. Livingstone says it doesn't sound like much, but he only weighed 138 pounds to start, so it's a decent percentage of his overall weight.

The final section is an estimated 110 miles to Mount Cristo Rey. A celebration is planned at Insights El Paso Science Center's DinoTracks site in Sunland Park to welcome Livingstone, who is providing daily updates on his progress and estimating when he will arrive.

Reflecting on his experience after 20 days on the trail, Livingstone said, "My overall impression of the journey is that it is a lot harder than I originally thought. I find I underestimate the difficulties of most things like this where there are many unknown variables. I've learned I really need to rely on the good-natured help of people, both strangers, as well as old friends and family, to do something like this hike."

Steps toward reality

More steps are required to move the trail forward to reality. The Río Grande Trail Commission met on Tuesday, (Sept. 25) at the Taos Town Hall to vote on the final trail alignment. Additional miles of trail within the Río Grande del Norte National Monument were discussed and Alta Planning and Design presented the master plan documents and the draft alignment maps for review.

A Trail Designation Celebration is being planned for Tuesday, (Oct. 2) at 11 a.m. at the West Rim Trailhead near the Río Grande Gorge Bridge. The community is invited to join local, state and federal officials to designate an additional 35 miles of trail.

For more information

To learn more about the trek from north to south along the Río Grande, find the Southern New Mexico Trail Alliance on Facebook and Instagram. For information on the Río Grande Trail and to see a virtual open house, visit Ríograndetrailnm.com. The Río Grand Trail Commission website also has additional information and maps at emnrd.state.nm.us.

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