Where the Rio Grande thunders through the cliffs on the north end of its gorge, bullying its way through the chasm, and where the Red River careens out of the Latir Peak Wilderness and tumbles into the Rio Grande, marks a spectacular scenic high point of the Wild Rivers Backcountry Byway.
But it’s far from the only one on the 13-mile, closed-loop road that provides access to the Wild Rivers Recreation Area within the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument. The Backcountry Byway is a double-lane, low-speed, paved road that delivers one unforgettable photographic moment after another.
It delivers a contrasting nibble of the scenic overload that makes northern New Mexico such a deliciously delightful spot to visit.
Atop the arid plains, the byway winds through the high steppe filled with scruffy sagebrush and piñon-juniper trees, while 600 to 800 feet down, the rivers course in their traditional, unfettered manner.
And above, the state’s high peaks, led by the granddaddy of them all, 13,161-foot Wheeler Peak, stand majestically as a sky-scratching background tableau.
The byway follows N.M. 378 just north of Questa, along N.M. 522 and passes through the tiny village of Cerro while skirting to the north of 8,751-foot Guadalupe Mountain, which is accessible via an out-and-back hike of four miles to its peak.
The route then turns south and drifts toward the edge of the escarpment. Views are noticeably immense, stretching some 40 miles to the north and south.
“When you enter the national monument, the buildings fall away and you have miles of pristine wilderness as far as you can see,” said Lynn Skall, director of the Questa Economic Development Fund. “The road circles around the top on the rim of the gorge.”
Along the route, there are scenic pullouts, as well as dispersed campgrounds as well as numerous hikes into the gorge, Skall said.
“For a cyclist, for a road biker, it’s a fantastic place to ride,” she said. “The pavement is beautifully paved. There’s little traffic and everybody is going slow and it has gentle, rolling hills.”
When it comes to hiking, Skall said her favorite is the Big Arsenic Hike out of the Big Arsenic Springs Campground.
“You hike down into the gorge of the river,” she said. “It’s a well-maintained BLM hike that is fairly steep, lot of switchbacks going down and I’d say it was moderate. Coming up is a lot harder. The trial has interpretive signs that tell you about the flora and fauna and rock formations and the animals. My recommendation is hike down and read them on the way back up because you’re going to be looking for place to rest anyway.”
At the bottom is more rudimentary camping site, as well as a hidden surprise.
“When you get to the bottom, a quarter-mile up river, there’s a myriad of petroglyphs just right there,” Skall said. “They are amazing. You wonder why they picked that rock? What did they did they mean and what message were they trying to send. You don’t see them anywhere else in the park.”
This part of the river is called the Middle Box of the Rio Grande is a popular rafting area when the water is high enough, said Bill Blackstock, one of the partners of Far Flung Adventures.
And the rafters are visible from the byway’s pullouts.
“There are places there you can see the rapids,” he said. “A lot of times when the river is up high enough, you can hear the rapids.”
And even for folks who want to leisurely take in the views from their vehicle, that’s absolutely worth it, Skall said.
“We’ve seen big horned sheep up on the edge along the rim,” she said. “Rock climbing specifically in that area. Amazing fly fishing, right at the confluence of Red River and the Rio Grande, coming together right there in that area.”
The confluence can be seen from La Junta Overlook, where the byway’s visitor’s center sits.
“You can drive right up to it and get amazing views of the confluence looking down into the gorge,” Skall said. “For people who just want drive, it’s an amazing scenic drive.”