The Best Hot Air Balloon Flight in the World /
Just before sunrise a light breeze picks up and races along the ground rolling miniature tumbleweeds, swirling dust and bringing a shudder to the sagebrush. We are standing on the sharp volcanic rim of the Rio Grande Gorge about ten miles north of Taos, surrounded by rugged peaks. The Rio Grande del Norte National Monument lay before us, spreading all the way to the Colorado border. The river, 800 feet below, runs south. The sky is a crisp blue. The balloon lifts and then drops almost immediately into the gorge. As we sink slowly towards the river the light morning winds take us upstream past a wall covered in ancient Native American petroglyphs. There is a herd of bighorn sheep scattering up the steep walls of the canyon. A red tail hawk sails by. An otter cuts across the water looking for breakfast. Then the basket gently touches the surface of the river and the starts to move downstream. After a half hour in the gorge we fly up over 1000 feet above the mesa. We can see hundreds of miles in every direction. Nothing quite compares to having what is perhaps the best hot air balloon flight in the world right in your backyard.
The Red Belly Fights Again
Up the valley the creek creates small pools gouged out by the falling water. Some of the pools are several feet deep despite the fact that the creek itself might only be two foot wide. That is where you’ll find the rare Panza Colorada otherwise known as the Rio Grande Cutthroat trout. Once upon a time, this ancient New Mexican was found throughout the region and fed both the Native Americans and the Spanish settlers. Over the years however,
human activity negatively impacted the habitat of this amazing fish. In the last 100 years the Cutthroat has also had to contend with introduced Rainbow and Brown trout. Thankfully, our mountain wilderness offers shelter to the “cutties” that remain. One of those is the Columbine Hondo Wilderness Study Area, a massive roadless area just northeast of Taos. This, the rooftop of New Mexico, is often shrouded in clouds whose moisture feeds the creeks that flow down to the Rio Grande. If you hook one of these fish you’ll be stunned by the fight it puts up. If you land it, you’ll be equally stunned by the wild colors of this wet New Mexican. These days, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, along with Trout Unlimited and New Mexico Trout, are reclaiming streams for the Cutthroat.
Ancient Art of the High Plateau
One recent Saturday evening I was at the Taos Mesa Brewery for the first anniversary celebration of our new Rio Grande del Norte National Monument. Outside we had typical northern New Mexico spring weather. A storm was snowing, raining, sleeting, hailing, blowing and casting lightning all around – all at once. By chance I ran into two friends who, as rather youthful retirees, have spent the last few years working diligently to record the massive amount of Native American petroglyphs in the Taos area. It is no small task. There are literally tens of thousands of Native American petroglyphs spread over several hundred thousand acres of northern New Mexico. I joined them the next day down in the Rio Grande Gorge to scout out a number of 200-300 year old Comanche petroglyphs. The petroglyphs in the Taos area date from deep prehistoric times to the Spanish colonial era and to near modern times. The Taos Archaeology Society volunteers are working with the Bureau of Land Management and local tribes to document, study and interpret these priceless treasures of the high country. They also run a SiteWatch program where a team of volunteers help to keep watch and protect the amazing cultural sites of the Upper Rio Grande area.
Fresh, Local and Fun – Taos Farmers Market
It only takes us five minutes to walk there and so many sunny, summer Saturday mornings the kids and I head down to the Taos Farmer’s Market for coffee, scones and a giant green chile breakfast burrito. Well, that one is for me. Sitting under the cottonwoods lining the parking lot at the Taos Town Hall next to the library we eat our breakfast while a group of musicians howl out traditional New Mexico music and farmers come and go with their produce. The market runs mid-May through October. A walk around finds heirloom tomatoes, apple varieties found only in northern New Mexico and a host of other local vegetables and fruits. One grower specializes in honey, another in cheeses and dairy products. There are grass-fed meats, eggs from chickens that are truly free-range. Then there are the jams, chutneys and baked goods. Flowers, herbs and handmade treasures are also to be found in the market. Our typical buy is what we need for a picnic that afternoon. After the party dies down we pack up our finds and head for the high country to enjoy the fruits of the lands.
The Weminuche Wilderness – Where the Rio Grande Begins
It is hot down in the valleys in the summer. That withering dry heat we specialize in up here in the high country. The only answer then is to head still higher up and we have plenty of that. Up above the town of Pagosa Springs, west of Alamosa, CO, sprawls the massive and famously rugged Weminiche Wilderness area. This is the largest roadless area in Colorado. This is the type of place where the topo maps can leave you unprepared, where you’re forever surprised by the next ridge and where you’re likely to come face to face with a grass-munching bighorn sheep. At one time the government and Robber Barons believed this land was chockful of gold and a backpacking trip into the highlands reveals the remains of mining camps, ore crushing facilities and odd holes in the ground from the prospectors who long ago disappeared. From Pagosa Springs you can easily access any number of the trailheads that lead into cooler areas just upslope — 12,640 foot high Pagosa Peak is a popular one to climb and the views from the top are stunning. From nearby Wolf Creek Pass you can easily pick up the Continental Divide Trail and head north to wild- flower fields framing aquamarine alpine lakes, or east to the many trails and streams of South Fork.
Award-winning writer and photographer Jim O’Donnell lives in Taos and is the author of Notes for the Aurora Society: 1500 Miles on Foot Across Finland and Rise and Go.