Saturday, February 28, 2015

New Mexico’s Rio Grande Gorge Bridge by Kaye Spencer

Taos, New Mexico is one of my favorite places to visit. ('X' marks the Taos-spot on the map.) From where I live in the southeastern corner of Colorado, it’s just a long day trip, so I’m fortunate to be able to go there every few years. The history of the area draws me. With each visit, I make sure to find a new and different place to see.
At any given time of the year in Taos, you’ll find “artsy” activities going on around town, which are always entertaining experiences. During the summer and early autumn, especially in the early morning, the skyline will be dotted with hot air balloons in flight.

Taos of the 1880s is one of the settings in my western historical romance (Gunslingers & Ghostriders – currently out-of-print for 2nd edition revision). A block from the Taos Plaza is an old church, Our Lady of Guadalupe, which I will talk about in a future blog.

My most recent trip to Taos was on October 1, 2014. After my usual drive around the historic downtown area, my destination was the Rio Grande Gorge, which is northwest of town about 12 miles. Having never been there nor having researched anything about the gorge, it was quite a surprise to one minute be driving over nondescript, flat prairie with the San Juan Mountain range off to the northwest and the Sangre de Cristo Mountain range on the east and the next minute to come upon a bridge out in the middle of nowhere. Really. Nowhere.

Rio Grande Gorge, Taos, NM - flat prairie view

Rio Grande Gorge Bridge - south side view from rest area
…the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge is the second highest bridge on the U.S. Highway System. The bridge is a three-span steel continuous-deck-truss structure with a concrete-filled steel-grid deck. It was called the "bridge to nowhere" while it was being built because the funding did not exist to continue the road on the other side.

At 650 feet (200 m) above the Rio Grande, it is the fifth highest bridge in the United States. The span is 1,280 feet; two 300-foot-long approach spans with a 600-foot-long main center span. The bridge was dedicated on September 10, 1965 and is a part of U.S. Route 64, a major east-west road.

In 1966 the American Institute of Steel Construction awarded the bridge "Most Beautiful Steel Bridge" in the "Long Span" category. The bridge has appeared in several films, including Natural Born Killers, Twins, She's Having a Baby, Wild Hogs, and Terminator Salvation.

Kaye Spencer fall 2014

There is raised concrete walking path along both sides of the bridge. A four-foot-high steel railing keeps the observer from toppling over the edge, but if you have vertigo, a dislike of looking down from a high vantage point, or you don’t particularly care for feeling the bridge move under your feet from the traffic (especially trucks) crossing the bridge, you won’t be a happy camper here. There are "look-out points" on both sides that allow you to step farther out over the edge of nothingness. From these places, you get a good view of the gorge floor. Even without binoculars or a zoom lens on your camera, you can see the white water rapids. Apparently over the years, these lookout stations have been the jump off point for suicides.

Rio Grande Gorge - rapids

On the west end of the bridge you'll find a dirt parking area and a plethora of roadside vendors, who have touristy wares to sell. A state park rest area, with additional parking, is a short walk up a slight slope. In March 2013, President Obama designated 242,455 acres, which includes the Rio Grande Gorge as the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument.


  • The Rio Grande Gorge is a “rift valley”, which is a separation in the earth’s crust due to fault activity some 29 million years ago.
  • The valley appeared before the river, which is not typical as rivers tend to create valleys, canyons, gorges, and similar geologic features.
  • The gorge has many ancient petroglyphs along its walls.
  • There are hidden hot springs and ancient ruins along the river.
  • The river and immediate surrounding area offers camping, fishing (brown and rainbow trout and northern pike), boating, and rafting opportunities (Class II to Class V white water rapids).
  • The gorge is approximately 50 miles long running northwest to southeast of Taos.
Rio Grande Gorge from the bridge looking southerly

Rio Grande Gorge from the bridge looking northerly

For more information about the Rio Grand Gorge and the bridge:

Having had more than my fill of the bridge trembling under my feet, I wandered away from the highway and walked along the canyon rim as far as the safety fence allowed. As the highway noises faded, and I took in the sight of the vast, wide-open scenery, I imagined standing here a hundred and fifty years ago. I thought of cowboys searching for cattle and wild horses or outlaws hiding from the law. From the petroglyphs and ancient ruins that tell their tales 650 feet below, it wasn't difficult to imagine Native Americans engaged in spiritual prayer and ritual in this hidden sanctuary. I thought of the animals that sought shelter, food and water, and protection from predators down in the bottom of the gorge.

My husband tells stories of a favorite fishing spot in the southern end of the gorge. He also says there are places that have a reverence about them—places where ancient memories still linger. Maybe it was the coming dusk, and maybe it was just my writer's imagination, but there was a mystical feel in the air as I stood there on the canyon's rim watching the shadows lengthen and obliterate all traces of the gorge. Perhaps Mother Nature was drawing the blanket of serenity over the secrets that lay between the canyon's walls.

Until next time,


Note: Photographs are Kaye’s – permission granted to use and redistribute


  1. I do agree. The gorge is a very special place. Photos simply cannot convey the feeling of it. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. I'd like to take a hot air balloon "float" along the Rio Grande Gorge. While seeing the gorge from the view of the bridge is well worth the experience, to travel the entire length at a leisurely pace from the vantage of a hot air balloon would be an awe-inspiring adventure. Maybe someday...

  3. Thanks for the warming. I'll avoid it at all costs. LOL

  4. The gorge looks amazing, Kaye. We saw and walked by the Rio Grande for a short way when we drove route 66 last summer. Amazing to think of it flowing through that deep gorge.

    1. It is amazing to think about the amount of water that once flowed in the Rio Grande to have been able to cut such a deep and wide canyon. I'm ashamed to admit that I live about 800 miles from the Grand Canyon and I've never been. My parents, however, rode the mules to the bottom of the Grand Canyon--twice. ;-)

  5. I also love Taos. Don't get there as much as I would like, but have fond memories of each trip.
    The gorge and bridge I haven't been to yet. It will be fun to compare the views with Royal Gorge Bridge and the bridge from Cripple Creek to Victor. I know all have such wonderful feelings of history. Traveled inside the Royal Gorge many times, and you are right, the history seeps into you. Doris McCraw/Angela Raines

    1. I've been close enough to the Royal Gorge bridge to *wave* as I drive by, but I've never actually been there. I hope to take the wine/dinner train along the Royal Gorge this summer.

    2. I love it. I've taken that train for fun, and for work when I do 'murder mysteries' . I never tire of the view, either from above or from below. Enjoy that trip.

  6. I love that part of New Mexico. You're right...a quarter of a mile before reaching the bridge, there is no clue you're about to pass over a 650-foot deep crack in the earth. Did you also see the earthship community just west of there? There are definitely some strange sights in the Land of Enchantment.

  7. No. LOL I didn't go any farther than to the bridge and back to Taos, so I missed the earthship community. Have you watched a movie called "Off the Map"? It's set in New Mexico, and it is interestingly odd, bittersweet, funny, sad, and, in my opinion, a "sleeper" that hasn't received the accolades it deserves. Sam Elliot portrays the dad who is clinically depressed in the midst of raising a spunky daughter and his wife is a free spirit. JK Simmons and Joan Allen are also in the movie. I mention this movie, because the New Mexico setting takes on its own character in the story in a personification sort of way.

    1. I haven't seen "Off the Map" but it sounds like a good movie. I'll check it out.