Rio Grande del Norte (Wild Rivers) – Awesome camping!

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Rio Grande del Norte (Wild Rivers) – Awesome camping!

If you’re looking for a place to go camping and/or hiking in northern New Mexico, go to Rio Grande del Norte, aka Wild Rivers. Just do it! You won’t regret it. πŸ™‚

If you check it out, here’s what you’ll find…

    • You’ve got the wide open vistas of sagebrush plains with the mountains behind, that always makes me think New Mexico could be named “Big Sky Country”, too.
    • You’ve got the spectacular Rio Grande Gorge, with the mighty river swirling and tumbling over rapids far below.
Perfect spot at Rio Grande del Norte
Sitting on the rim of the Rio Grande Gorge
  • You’ve got the confluence of the Rio Grande and the Red River, joining forces to create an even wilder river.
  • You’ve got campsites right at the top of the gorge, with a precipitous view into the depths just steps from your tent.
  • You’ve got hiking trails that take you down to splendid riverside spots, where you can relax in the shade of ponderosa pines, or do some fishing if that’s your thing.
  • If that’s not enough, you can also search out the ancient petroglyphs that bear witness to the popularity of this spot in bygone days.

Yes, Wild Rivers has it all!

Quick Navigation

Rio Grande del Norte – The Basics

Where is it?

This superb spot is about an hour north of Taos, New Mexico, and lies west of the little town of Questa.

The main area for camping and hiking is on a mesa in between two deep river canyons – the Rio Grande on the west side, and the Red River on the east. The mesa narrows to a point, above the confluence of the two rivers.

What’s with the two names?

I’ve hiked at the Wild Rivers Recreation Area many times before, but when I showed up this year, I was surprised to discover that it has been upgraded to the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument. In 2013, President Barack Obama declared this new national monument, saying

“Canyons, volcanic cones, wild rivers, and native grasslands harbor vital wildlife habitat, unique geologic resources, and imprints of human passage through the landscape over the past 10,000 years. This extraordinary landscape of extreme beauty and daunting harshness is known as the RΓ­o Grande del Norte.”

This place is amazing, and well deserves the additional level of attention and protection that it should get as a national monument.

In any case, you may see this listed on maps or phone navigation under either name, so if you don’t find one name, check for the other. I was wondering why Siri couldn’t find the name I was asking for!

Camping at Rio Grande del Norte

There are several different campgrounds heres. A few are on the west side, overlooking the Rio Grande Gorge. One campground is on the east side, overlooking the Red River, and one is near the confluence, above the point where the rivers meet.

I got some amazing campsites on my visits this year. A few of my favorites:

  • One time I got site #5 at Big Arsenic campground, with super views both directions along the Rio Grande Gorge. The river was far below, but you could hear its rushing water from camp. This is close to another site, but since there was nobody there, it was perfect!
  • Site #9 at Big Arsenic looks absolutely stellar, but it’s been taken when I’ve camped here.
  • I also got to stay in site #26 at El Aguaje campground, and had the canyon of the Red River right beside my camp. Divine! πŸ™‚
El Aguaje campground at Rio Grande del Norte
Camped at El Aguaje. The Red River canyon is directly behind my spot.

Not all of the campsites are this close to the rim of the canyons, so it pays to drive around and check different campgrounds and sites until you find one you really like.

The campgrounds are in good shape, with shade structures, picnic tables, fire rings, grills, well-maintained pit toilets, drinking water, garbage service, and recycling (at selected locations).

If you’re looking for big pull-through campsites with full hookups, then you’re not going to find those here. But the nearby town of Questa could accommodate you if you want to park your RV there, and hike around Wild Rivers for the day.

And a bonus… I even had good T-Mobile cell phone reception here – better than in some parts of Taos!

The campgrounds were far from full when I was here on summer weekdays, but your results may vary, especially if you’re trying for something like a holiday weekend.

For $7/night, this is a bargain, and I’m happy to support such a fabulous place.

More info here —> Rio Grande del Norte – Official website

Hiking at Rio Grande del Norte

There are free information sheets at the park that give you a list of hikes in the area, but basically your options fall into two categories:

  • Hikes that go down to the river(s)
  • Hikes that stay at the top

Hiking down to the river

If you’ve got the energy to make the climb back out of the gorge, then the hikes that head down into the canyons are definitely the way to go. It’s a bit of a workout on the way back up, but oh so worth it!

The canyon is an “inverted ecosystem“, in that as you go down into the canyon, you find the plants which you normally would see when you head up into the mountains. At the top on the mesa, it’s all sagebrush and pinon-juniper woodland. As you descend into the shadier reaches of the canyons, you find large ponderosa pines, and even douglas firs.

At the floor of the canyon, the trail winds along the river, giving you numerous photo ops. There are springs, rapids, calm pools, and ever-changing vistas of the canyon walls above you.

Hiking in the Rio Grande Gorge
Hiking along the river in the Rio Grande Gorge

The riverside trail connects with several of the trails that come down from the top, so that you can travel down one trail and up another, and make a big loop hike out of it.

Hiking around the top

If looking down into the gorge makes you feel like you don’t want to tackle the climb back up from the river’s edge, there’s a 6-mile Rinconada Loop trail that winds around the top of the mesa. You can start this at any of the campgrounds, and follow it either direction.

You’ll see sweeping views of the mountains, as well as glimpses into the gorge whenever the trail nears the edge. In between, you’ll wander through sagebrush and juniper. It’s quite a delightful trail, though not as dramatic as descending into the canyon.

If you have time, do both! On my last visit, I hiked down into the canyon a couple of days, and did the loop hike on the rim another. It’s all good! πŸ™‚

The Rinconada Loop hike at Wild Rivers
The rim-top Rinconada Loop hike on a glorious winter day

And on my “Next time” list

I would LOVE to go backpacking here sometime! There are official campsites down in the canyon that are so beautiful, it takes your breath away. Just like the car camping sites at the top, each of these has a shade structure, picnic table, and fire ring, and there are pit toilets, too. This is NOT what I’m used to for backpacking! πŸ˜‰

But what makes these so idyllic is the riverside environment, which is totally different than what you find at the top. You’ve got cool shade during the daytime, and the river running right by your campsite, lulling you to sleep with its soothing wash of sound.

I could happily spend a few days just hiking around the canyon, exploring here and there, and relaxing by the river with a book in my down time. I don’t fish, but I bet people who do would think this is heaven.

View from a backpacking camp at Rio Grande del Norte
Backpackers can camp by the river, with a view like this!

Another thing I’d like to check out sometime is the west side of the Rio Grande. This is part of Rio Grande del Norte too, but it’s not developed like the Wild Rivers area is. The west side would involve wild camping, and discovering your own trails. I’ve heard there are ways to descend into the canyon on that side too, though I don’t have any more details on it.

But that’s for another time!

For now, I’ll just say that Wild Rivers / Rio Grande del Norte gets my highest recommendation. If you’re anywhere in the area, be sure to check it out!

El Aguaje, Big Arsenic & 3 other campgrounds – National Monument
Official campsites. There are picnic tables, shade structures, fire rings, grills, pit toilets, drinking water, and garbage collection. No hookups. Good cell service.

Rating: 5*****
Altitude: 7,486 ft
GPS: 36.666712, -105.672866 (El Aguaje CG)
Price: $7/night

Questions? Comments?

Have you visited Wild Rivers for either hiking or camping? I’d love to hear about your experiences, so please share with us in the Reply section below. Thanks!

PHOTO CREDITS: Sitting on the rim – Don Jones, All others – Deanna Keahey

Deanna sunset

Hi! I’m Deanna, creator of Uphill Zen. I’m currently yondering around North America with my 1986 Toyota motorhome, Zennie. What makes my heart sing is travel, adventure, and the awe-inspiring wonders of nature. Finding ways to share that joyous spirit is what this is all about.

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4 Responses

  1. Amanda Garcia

    I’m glad I came across your website! I was looking all day for someone or something to tell me if there are fire rings at the lower river camp spots. We do backpacking and it is always good to know if you need to bring your own gas grill/percolator or not for heating up food.

    • Deanna

      Hi Amanda –
      Thanks for your comment! That is SUCH a gorgeous spot! Hope you thoroughly enjoy your trip!
      – Deanna

  2. Griff

    My wife and I want to plan a trip to Wild Rivers Recreation Area but she is concerned about rattlesnakes. I have yet to read anything about snakes. What is the story about this?

    • Deanna Keahey

      Hi Griff –
      I haven’t seen any rattlesnakes there, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some. They’re pretty widespread across the western states, though I’ve hiked all over Wild Rivers on a bunch of occasions without seeing any. BUT last I heard Wild Rivers was closed to camping due to Covid, so be sure to check on the latest status before you head out.
      Good luck and happy trails! – Deanna.

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