Featured Wilderness: Ute Mountain and Rio Grande Gorge

Ute Mtn with desert flowers (Stuart Wilde)Just south of the Colorado line, Ute Mountain rises to an elevation of 10,093 feet, dominating the New Mexico landscape. Surrounded by plains of wild sagebrush, this former volcano stands out as an iconic landmark. To the west, the Rio Grande has carved a 200-foot-deep, 150-foot-wide canyon, creating the stunning cliffs of the Rio Grande Gorge.

Located 28 miles north of Taos, N.M., the dry plains along the Rio Grande are home to eagles, hawks, bears, cougars, elk, pronghorn, and bighorn sheep. The area is also important for many species of birds. It's a major stop on the Rio Grande Migratory Flyway, and the cliffs of the gorge are a key nesting spot for raptors. In addition to the rich wildlife of the area, the plant life ranges from piñon, white pine, and Douglas fir covering Ute's slopes to the blue grama and western wheatgrass of the plains.

Ute Mountain and the Rio Grande Gorge comprise a breathtaking landscape and a large diversity of habitats that would be permanently protected under the Rio Grande del Norte National Conservation Area Establishment Act (S. 667), introduced in March 2011 by Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.). Reps. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) introduced a companion measure (H.R. 1241). This legislation, which would establish a 236,000-acre national conservation area and designate two new wilderness areas (Cerro del Yuta and Rio San Antonio) totaling about 21,000 acres, was the result of years of collaboration among local stakeholders and New Mexicans statewide. The measure would ensure that these special places are protected for all time for New Mexicans and others to enjoy, while guaranteeing the continuation of traditional activities such as gathering firewood and piñon nuts.

The spectacular views, significant wildlife and plant life, and dramatic geological features of Ute Mountain and the Rio Grande Gorge provide for some of the best recreational opportunities in the state. Visitors from around the world come to hike, picnic, bird watch, and raft throughout the area while viewing the spectacular scenery.

One popular whitewater rafting area is known as the Box, a 16-mile stretch of the Rio Grande that Frommer's Guide to New Mexico calls a “heart-throbbing romp.”

For those who prefer the serene mountain air to the river's rapid rush, Ute Mountain provides incredible opportunities for solitude. There are no designated trails, and the rugged mountain is vast enough that its many visitors can still find isolated spaces of their own.

Despite the strong local support for protection of this area, the proposed Rio Grande del Norte National Conservation Area Establishment Act is moving through Congress slowly. Safeguarding this unique area would ensure that future generations of New Mexicans will enjoy rafting through the Box and the solitude of hiking the rugged Ute.

Last April, the Santa Fe New Mexican editorialized in support of the pending legislation, writing:

“It would preserve one of our nation's last outstanding ecosystems, rugged land isolated by the great gorge—and so dry and rugged that it discouraged settlement.

“It's a land of eagles and hawks; elk, antelope and bighorn sheep; of cougars, bobcats and bears. It was long ago described as land without water; enough, perhaps, for wildlife—but not enough to invite villages or towns.

“Its touristic possibilities, however, are great—not only for visitors willing to abide by the rules of non-mechanization that come with national wildernesses, but also as part of the open-land setting that never fails to astound city dwellers on vacation.

“This is terrain well worth preserving. We salute Sens. Bingaman and Udall, along with Reps. Luján and Heinrich, for recognizing the need to set it aside—and we wish them well as they guide it across Capitol Hill.”

With persistence and the continued broad-based local support for these bills, Ute Mountain and the Rio Grande Gorge and surrounding areas will get the protection they deserve and will forever stay as they are today.

Learn more about Ute Mountain and the Rio Grande del Norte National Conservation Area.