Big Arsenic Springs (Rio Grande del Norte NM) 26-Jun-2018

Big Arsenic Springs Rio Grande del Norte National Monument New Mexico

After days and days of art appreciation, some other family members were finally open to doing a hike.  Despite the allure of shady forests, climbing a peak or going to altitude weren’t in the offing, so we picked a short loop hike in the Wild Rivers Recreation Area of the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, which was established in 2013 and is administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The original plan was to descend the Big Arsenic Springs Trail to the river (at a well known fly fishing spot), go south on the River Trail, and return to the plateau via the La Junta Trail, near the confluence of the Red River and the Rio Grande. However, when we got to the trailhead we found that the La Junta Trail was closed indefinitely due to rockfall. So we settled for a shorter loop down the Big Arsenic, along the river, and up the Little Arsenic Trail. This was a fortuitous settlement because we’d under-estimated the climbing and the heat, so even this shortened loop proved to be more than enough for some of our crew.  Let’s just say the electrolyte-rich libations flowed freely after our return to basecamp…

From the Big Arsenic Springs Trailhead, we had a great view north up the Rio Grande Gorge,

Big Arsenic Springs Rio Grande del Norte National Monument New Mexico
The Rio Grande Gorge from the Big Arsenic Springs Trailhead

as we started our 680-foot descent on the steep trail plastered to the canyon’s rim wall,

Big Arsenic Springs Rio Grande del Norte National Monument New Mexico
Ramping down the Big Arsenic Springs Trail

with its ever-present view of the Rio Grande Gorge.

Big Arsenic Springs Rio Grande del Norte National Monument New Mexico
Further down the Big Arsenic Springs Trail

We’d made most of this descent in the shade and the cool of the morning, but as we connected with the River Trail on a bench above the river, the sun found its way over the rim. Things would be hotting-up real soon ~ cue sound of hikers frying.

Big Arsenic Springs Rio Grande del Norte National Monument New Mexico
The sun broaches the rim

We followed the Big Arsenic Trail north from its junction with the River Trail for about 0.4 miles to where we could look down on the campsites at Big Arsenic Springs. These are three-sided sheds with a picnic table and a fire ring – pretty nice accommodations for a backpack or a fishing trip.

Big Arsenic Springs Rio Grande del Norte National Monument New Mexico
Big Arsenic Springs

We descended another 300 feet to the river and explored the springs and the campsites.

Big Arsenic Springs Rio Grande del Norte National Monument New Mexico
One of the springs at Big Arsenic
Big Arsenic Springs Rio Grande del Norte National Monument New Mexico
Looking downstream from Big Arsenic
Big Arsenic Springs Rio Grande del Norte National Monument New Mexico
Looking upstream from Big Arsenic

According to the BLM map, the trail continues up-river for another half-mile or so to two additional campsites. But rather than press on, we turned around here and climbed back to the junction with the River Trail.

Big Arsenic Springs Rio Grande del Norte National Monument New Mexico
Back at the junction of the Big Arsenic Springs and River Trails

We followed that trail south across sagebrush-strewn flats,

Big Arsenic Springs Rio Grande del Norte National Monument New Mexico
Going south on the River Trail

past fractured outcrops of basalt,

Big Arsenic Springs Rio Grande del Norte National Monument New Mexico
Russ hikes along the River Trail

and on down,

Big Arsenic Springs Rio Grande del Norte National Monument New Mexico
Russ and Di look for birds from the River Trail

almost to the river.

Big Arsenic Springs Rio Grande del Norte National Monument New Mexico
The Rio Grande at low flow is mostly boulders
Big Arsenic Springs Rio Grande del Norte National Monument New Mexico
The LovedOne follows the River Trail

We passed a campsite at Little Arsenic Springs (not nearly as good a flow as Big Arsenic), the junction with the Little Arsenic Trail, and then took advantage of the picnic tables and trees at Little Arsenic Springs Camp for a cooling and snack break.

Big Arsenic Springs Rio Grande del Norte National Monument New Mexico
Little Arsenic Springs Camp
Big Arsenic Springs Rio Grande del Norte National Monument New Mexico
A flower in the desert

It was very pleasant sitting by the river under the Ponderosa pines but with the day heating vigorously, and the La Junta Trail closed, we decided it was time to bail via the Little Arsenic Trail. The Little Arsenic is well-graded and was in good condition, but the 780-foot climb out of the Gorge was entirely in the hot sun, with only a faint breeze now and then. Reminded us of that march to Fort Zinderneuf.

Big Arsenic Springs Rio Grande del Norte National Monument New Mexico
A hot climb up the Little Arsenic
Big Arsenic Springs Rio Grande del Norte National Monument New Mexico
Almost to the plateau, with Bart displaying the enthusiasm of youth

It took a while for everyone to exit the Gorge and for some of us to finish hiking the loop (to get the car) while the others cooled off. After re-grouping, we drove down to the overlook at the top of the closed La Junta Trail to take in the view up and down the Gorge.

Big Arsenic Springs Rio Grande del Norte National Monument New Mexico
The confluence of the Red River (L) and the Rio Grande (R) from the La Junta Overlook
Big Arsenic Springs Rio Grande del Norte National Monument New Mexico
Looking north along the Rio Grande Gorge from the La Junta Overlook

Despite the heat and the climbing, it turned out to be a pretty good hike (4.4 miles; 1,100 feet of elevation gain) for all involved. Descending past the rim rock and into the Gorge was an amazing experience, as was the Gorge itself and the fabled Rio Grande that carved it.

Big Arsenic Springs Rio Grande del Norte National Monument New MexicoI did a little (a very little) fly fishing years ago (all in California’s Sierra Nevada) but gave it up once it was obvious the fish were smarter (or at least sneakier) than me. But I still have a warm spot in my heart for all the fussiness involved in hurling little bits of feather on a high tech string toward a fickle creature that you won’t catch anyway (and have to release if you do). No bitterness here! But it was good to at least walk by some of the Rio Grande’s fabled (or intimidating or fish stingy or maddening or mystical) fishing spots. I was even persuaded to pick up a copy of John Nichol’s (perhaps best known as the novelist behind the Robert Redford-helmed film The Milagro Beanfield War) latest book, The Annual Big Arsenic Fishing Contest!, at the Taos Fly Shop, opened in 1980 by Taylor Streit, a well-known local fishing guide and friend of Nichol’s. Both the book and my ability to catch fish are fiction.

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