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Natural Resources


rio chama overlook
Millions of years ago, a geological rift during the Cenozoic Era formed the bed where the Rio Grande now flows. The Rio Grande Rift, as it is known, is a massive rent in the Earth’s crust, 20 miles wide and several miles deep. Stretching for miles, it forms Colorado’s San Luis Valley and slashes New Mexico in two. As explained by the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, the rift resembles “a plowed furrow with raised shoulders.” The shoulders are the high peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains on the east and the Precambrian volcanic rocks of the Tusas Mountains on the west. With the rift as bed, the Rio Grande courses south, cutting through the Taos Plateau and the Española Basin, its many tributaries forming a hub of water resources in an otherwise arid and semi-arid landscape. One important tributary, the Rio Pueblo de Taos, for example, originates high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and passes through the center of Taos Pueblo, a World Heritage Site inhabited for more than 1,000 years. Joining the Rio Pueblo near the town of Taos are the Rio Lucero, Rio Fernando de Taos, and the Rio Grande del Rancho – all tributaries of the Rio Grande – that flow together into the 800-foot-deep Rio Grande Gorge, where the National Register-listed Rio Grande Gorge Bridge offers a spectacular view of the geologic rift. [Rio Grande Gorge]
To the northwest, the Rio Chama comes down from the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and cuts across the San Juan Basin of Rio Arriba County before it joins the Rio Grande a few miles north of Española. On its way, the Rio Chama cuts a colorful sandstone canyon, 24.6 miles of which have been designated by Congress as a Wild and Scenic River. [Wild Scenic River Rio Chama]
Joining the Rio Chama north of Hernandez is the Rio Ojo Caliente, which flows south from La Madera and through the town of Ojo Caliente, noted for its mineral hot springs. [Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs]
The 46-mile-long Santa Fe River, with headwaters in the high country east of the city of Santa Fe, runs through New Mexico’s state capital before it joins the Rio Grande, its entire watershed covering about 285 square miles and providing a home for humans and wildlife.
rio grande at san ildefonso
Hot springs stem from the Heritage Area’s volcanic past. North of Tres Piedras in Rio Arriba County, for instance, the isolated, volcanic dome of San Antonio Peak swells up from the Taos Plateau. Farther south are the Jemez [HEH-mehz] Mountains, a volcanic field that developed simultaneously with the Rio Grande Rift. Near the center is the Valles Caldera, a 12-mile-wide crater formed by a collapsed super volcano and crowned by a series of post-collapse lava domes. The caldera is one of only three super volcano sites in the United States, and is listed on the National Registry of Natural Landmarks. New Mexico’s highest peak, 13,161-foot Wheeler Peak, rises in the Taos Range of the Sangre de Cristos, which are uplifted, fault-block mountains. Near Glorieta Pass, southeast of Santa Fe, the Sangre de Cristos mark the southern terminus of the great Rocky Mountain chain. Like northern New Mexico’s rivers, the rocks and their ancient movements, coupled with the eroding work of water, wind, and sun, shaped New Mexico’s spectacular landscapes, from its mountain peaks, flat-topped mesas and piñon/juniper foothills, to its sandstone canyons and Rio Grande Gorge. The Piedra Lumbre and Ghost Ranch Centers in Abiquiu are excellent places to explore the geology, paleontology and archeology of the Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area. At the Ruth Hall Museum of Paleontology visitors will see well-preserved skeletons of the Coelophysis (SEE-Low-FY-sis) dinosaur and geology, flora, and fauna from the Triassic period. [Ghost Ranch]


The Heritage Area comprises immense topographic and geologic differences and distinct eco-systems that vary by elevation and climactic conditions. Ecosystems range from the San Luis Shrub Lands and Hills, to the Taos Plateau and the varied eco-regions of the Southern Rockies – from grassland parks, to foothill woodlands and shrub lands, to sub-alpine and mid-elevation forests, both sedimentary and volcanic. Vegetation is as varied as the region: Sagebrush, yucca, and piñón/juniper dominate on the plains and foothills, where it is warm and dry. Scrub oak and ponderosa pine grow at higher elevations, on the broad mesas and sides of mountains, then give way to mixed conifers – Douglas fir and blue spruce, which appear at elevations of 8,500 to 9,500 feet. Above 10,000 feet, harsh weather dwarfs the spruce, but hardy plants and wildflowers sprinkle the landscape. These eco-regions provide habitat for antelope, gophers, prairie dogs, coyotes, crows, ravens, eagles, several species of hawks, butterflies, bats, and a veritable encyclopedia of nocturnal flying insects. Waterways support native cut-throat trout, naturally reproducing brown trout, rainbow trout, bass, and other game fish. Pronghorn and mule deer roam the rolling plains, while black bears, mountain lions, mountain sheep, and elk are found in higher elevations. Occasionally, herds of bison are seen from the highway on various Pueblo lands. While species have adapted to the region’s tremendous differences in altitude, rainfall, and temperature, dozens of species have been identified as endangered. Endangered mammals include the Black-footed Ferret, New Mexican Meadow Jumping Mouse, Southwestern Otter, Townsend’s Big-eared Bat, the Spotted Bat, American Marten, and the Rocky Mountain Big-Horned Sheep. Endangered fish include the Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout and Rio Grande Silvery Minnow. Birds include the Mexican spotted and Western burrowing owls, the Bald Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Southwestern Willow Flycatcher, and the Mountain Plover. The Mountain Toad and Jemez Mountains Salamander are listed as endangered, as are the New Mexico silverspot butterfly, the Sangre de Cristo pea clam and Cockerell’s striate disc, a snail. An inventory of birds compiled by the Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area and others, including the Española Field Office of the U.S.D.A. Natural Resources Conservation Service, counted 194 types of birds in the three-county area, from the Black-Chinned and Broad-Tailed Hummingbird to Golden and Bald Eagles to finches, teals, flycatchers, and nine types of sparrows. A number of important bird areas are situated in the Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area, including Chama River Gorge/Golondrina near Tierra Amarilla, Los Luceros at Española, and Burford Lake near Dulce. In Santa Fe, the 135-acre Randall Davey Audubon Center & Sanctuary offers guided bird walks where approximately 130 species can be found.


Within the Heritage Area there are 17 designated National Landmarks, one World Heritage Site (Taos Pueblo), and two National Monuments. Bandelier National Monument and most of the National Landmark sites identify places of historical significance within the native and Spanish cultural settlements. The Bandelier and Puye Cliff dwellings preserve the living quarters and communities of early native peoples, ancestors of the current Pueblo cultures. Other landmark sites include churches, government buildings, and community facilities reflecting the history of Spanish colonization. The recently designated Rio Grande del Norte National Monument falls within the boundaries of the National Heritage Area.


Three major National Historic Trails emerge from or terminate in the National Heritage Area: El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail, the Santa Fe National Historic Trail, and the Old Spanish National Historic Trail. The Camino Real is the original Royal Road connecting Mexico City to the northern frontier capital city of Santa Fe. It served Spanish and Mexican trade since it was forged in the original colonization of the northern territories in 1598 by Juan de Oñate. The Santa Fe Trail was opened in 1821 with the opening of trade between the United States and Mexico from Missouri to the capital of Santa Fe. The Old Spanish Trail established trade between Santa Fe and Northern New Mexico and the ranches in southern California at Los Angeles. A more recent national road running through the Heritage Area is the path of Route 66, which crosses into Santa Fe County and through Santa Fe on its way west. The Enchanted Circle National Scenic Byway in Taos County loops 84 miles through the Carson National Forest, encircling Wheeler Peak, while the Wild Rivers Backcountry Byway winds its way along the rim of the Rio Grande Gorge. Passing through the towns of Madrid and Cerrillos in Santa Fe County, the Turquoise Trail National Historic Byway offers spectacular views of mountains, canyons, and bizarre rock formations, as well as safe access to dozens of pre-1900 mines.


The Heritage Area’s abundant natural resources – its rivers and streams, lakes, forests, ecosystems, and almost limitless vistas – enhance the region’s quality of life and economic value. Open space, parks, recreation areas, scenic lands, and vistas attract businesses and ecotourism and strengthen the region’s communities by providing a connection to nature and incredible opportunities for outdoor recreation. Half of the roughly 6.5 million acres comprising the Heritage Area is federal, state, or tribal land. Vast expanses, some 3.2 million acres, are part of the Carson and Santa Fe National Forests. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management owns an additional 880,000 surface acres (as well as subsurface mineral acres leased for natural gas and oil). Federal lands include wilderness areas, wild and scenic rivers, scenic byways, and historic trails. The State of New Mexico also owns significant acreage in the Heritage Area. State Trust Lands comprise about 320,000 acres, the majority of which are leased, but not exclusively, for grazing. Other state agencies maintain state parks and wild management areas, while eight pueblos own tribal land. Carson National Forest, in Rio Arriba and Taos counties, offers some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in the Southwest, including the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and Red River Canyon. The national forest is known for trout fishing, while hunters seek out mule deer, elk, antelope, and small game such as rabbits. Hiking, horseback trails, and scenic byways offer an excellent introduction to the region’s flora and fauna, while winter sports enthusiasts will find places to ski or snowshoe. The Santa Fe National Forest, in Rio Arriba and Santa Fe counties, lies on both sides of the Rio Grande in a region rich in natural resources. The Santa Fe National Forest includes more than 300,000 acres of wilderness area, including the Pecos Wilderness, near Pecos, and San Pedro Parks Wilderness, northeast of Cuba. The Pecos Wilderness comprises 223,667 acres, which include 15 lakes and key streams that sustain plant and animal habitat, including the native Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout. Terrain ranges from open meadows in the Pecos River Valley to 13,102-foot Truchas Peak. The San Pedro Parks Wilderness features large, grassy meadows framed by dense stands of spruce and mixed conifers. Fishing and hiking are popular in the summertime; cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the wintertime.


The Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area includes numerous lakes and state parks. In Rio Arriba County, the impoundment of Willow Creek created Heron Lake, set among tall pines west of Tierra Amarilla. A five and one-half mile trail along the Rio Chama connects the lake and state park to El Vado Lake State Park. El Vado Lake State Park is a place to water-ski, hike or cross-country ski in the winter. Heron Lake State Park is designated as a “quiet lake,” where boats operate at no-wake speeds only. The lake is noted for its excellent fishing. At Abiquiu Lake and Dam an interpretive trail highlights the region’s plant life, cultural history, and water conservation. In Taos County, Cimarron Canyon State Park is part of the 33,116-acre Colin Neblett Wildlife Area, the largest in New Mexico. About 12 miles north of Taos is the 13,304-acre Urraca Wildlife Area, purchased in 1966 to provide habitat for deer and elk. The area rises from dry sagebrush flats to aspen and pine groves found at more than 11,000 feet in elevation. Near Chimayo, Santa Cruz Lake Recreation Area occupies a semi-arid region at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, offering recreational opportunities for anglers, boaters, picnickers, and campers. At Santa Cruz Lake, the Rio del Medio and Rio Frijoles are impounded behind Santa Cruz Dam, built in 1929 by the Santa Cruz Irrigation District, which regulates water releases for agricultural use in the Santa Cruz Valley. The Bureau of Land Management manages the recreation area.