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The Rio Grande Gorge is a geological feature in northern New Mexico where the watercourse of the Rio Grande follows a tectonic chasm. Beginning near the Colorado border, the approximately 50-mile (80 km) gorge runs from northwest to southeast of Taos, New Mexico, through the basalt flows of the Taos Plateau volcanic field. The gorge depth is 800 feet (240 m) just south of the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, which spans the gorge 10 miles (16 km) northwest of Taos.
Geologically, the Rio Grande Gorge is a rift valley, a separation in the earth’s crust caused by faulting and other earth movements when the North American and Pacific plates scraped against each other some twenty-nine million years ago.
The canyon ecosystem descends 800 feet (240 m) from rim to river, creating a unique diversity in plant and animal life. Ancient pinon and juniper forests are home to 500-year-old trees. Wildlife include mule deer, red-tailed hawk, mountain blue-bird, and prairie dog.
The climate is semi-arid with summer thunderstorms common in July and August, and snow possible from November through March. Summer temperatures range from 45 to 90 °F (7 to 32 °C) and in winter from −15 to 45 °F (−26 to 7 °C).
In 1968, the Rio Grande was among the first eight rivers the US Congress designated into the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System to protect outstanding resources values. The Wild and Scenic River flows through the Rio Grande Gorge Recreation Area. The recreation areas include the Wild Rivers area in the north and the Orialla Verde area in the south, which provide hiking, boating, fishing and camping facilities.
The gorge has Class II to Class V white water rapids that are managed for recreation by The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The BLM maintains two developed recreation areas along the river that include hiking, biking and other recreational opportunities. In New Mexico, The Rio Grande has two main sections for rafting near Taos: the Taos Box and the Racecourse Run. The Taos Box, a more dramatic, deep canyon, is famous for its big, technical Class IV rapids, while the Racecourse Run is a Class III stretch better suited for first-time rafters and families.
The gorge is also the site of many ancient petroglyphs. At the bottom of the gorge, the Rio Grande is flanked by hidden hot springs and many ruins. The former Chili Line also ran there.