Rio Grande National Forest
Vista Variety Tour
Mileage: 60 miles
Estimated Time: 3 hours
The Route: The tour begins on the Embargo Creek Road, #650. Embargo Creek Road is 10 miles west of the stoplight in Del Norte, Co. on Hwy. 160. Turn north on Forest Road #650. Road #650 is your tour road and is well marked up to Groundhog Park. There will be roads leading off of 650, but stay on the main road. The end of the tour is 30 miles up Forest Road 650 and is marked by a gate across the road.
The vista variety tour earns its name by the spectrum of scenery visible along the way. From desert grassland to dense aspen and spruce stands, streams, valleys, and high mountain parks, this tour offers it all. The scenery is spectacular and the diversity of ecosystems offers a variety of wildlife.
What a life these sunbathing rodents live! They lie on rocks absorbing sun rays during the summer and hibernate in the winter. These ground dwelling mammals are an unusual member of the squirrel family. They have a chunky body, short legs, and bushy tail. Groundhogs, otherwise known as woodchucks, marmots, rockchucks, and whistle pigs, emit a whistling sound when alarmed. Groundhogs are prevalent throughout the forest, but are usually seen in rock or log piles.
The best way to spot pronghorns is to look for their white rump patch. The white stands out against the green background. Pronghorns are especially adept to open desert country because of their ability to outrun their predators with speeds up to 40 mph! The name pronghorn is deceiving because pronghorns do not actually have true horns. True horns are permanent, while the horns of the pronghorn are periodically shed.
No, a mule deer is not a cross between a donkey and a deer. Rather, the name is derived from the deer's characteristic large ears. Mule deer on the Rio Grande usually occupy separate winter and summer ranges. This tour passes through both ranges. The lower areas characterized by mountain mahogany, four-winged salt brush, and rabbit brush provide the necessary nutrients during the winter. While the high country, characterized by open parks, provides summer forage. Mule deer populations are most often limited by the amount of forage available on the winter range. In order to view these beautiful animals, look in the open areas natural or created by logging where the grass is available for the deer.
Elk, like deer, occupy separate winter and summer ranges. However, elk will move to the high country as soon as the snow melts, while deer might spend the entire summer in the low country. Elk may look like deer to the untrained eye, but they are easily distinguished from deer by their buff rump patch and their larger size. Along the way, notice places where the bark is removed from the bottom of the aspen trees. Those are places the elk spend the winter deriving critical nutrients from the aspen bark. These regal animals are most often seen during the morning or evening hours.
Birders interested in seeing a variety of wildlife will enjoy this tour. The tour passes through low and high country. Common birds in the low country are sage thrashers, Brewer's sparrows, vesper sparrows, black-billed magpies, vultures, mourning doves, pinyon jays, horned larks, green-tailed towhees, prairie falcons, and an occasional golden eagle. A more unusual occupant sometimes sighted is the Bendire's thrasher. Once you pass from the low country to the high country, the bird species change along with the vegetation. Common occupants within the high country are Steller's jays, western tanagers, Williamson's sapsuckers, warblers, Clark's nutcrackers, ruby-crowned kinglets, and hermit thrushes.
Coyotes are prevalent throughout the forest despite efforts to limit their populations. Their success is largely due to their variable diet, which includes carrion, rodents, rabbits, insects, game, poultry, and fruit. Coyotes are elusive creatures that are most active in the morning. In order to see them, morning travel is recommended.
Animal Lover's Tour
Estimated Time: 2.5 to 4 hours depending on stopping time
Mileage: About 30 miles
Best Time To Tour: Early to mid-morning (before 11 a.m.)
The Route: The tour begins at the stoplight in the town of Del Norte on US Highway 160. At the stoplight, turn north on Co. Hwy. 112, and go about 1 mile. Turn left on the paved road to the airport, right after crossing the Rio Grande River. After crossing the canal, turn left on Cty. Rd. 15. Go past the wrecking yard, about 1/4 mile, to the English Valley Road, a 4WD road. Follow the English Valley Road for about 7.5 miles to where the road intersects Forest Rd. #660. Turn east and follow for about 2.5 miles. You will come to Forest Rd. #659, Natural Arch Road. The tour road is about 0.5 mile after Natural Arch Road and heads north. Follow this 4WD road until you come to a fork in the road; stay to the right. Stay on the road for about 10 miles until you come to a stop sign. Turn south at the stop sign (on a gravel road). Follow this road until you hit Co. Hwy. 112. Turn right and that will bring you back into Del Norte.
You will have many opportunities on this tour to view a variety of wildlife. For the animal lover that delights in seeing a herd of pronghorns running across the hillsides, a mule deer hopping into its cover of trees, a bighorn sheep traversing around rocky terrain, or a golden eagle soaring across a beautiful blue backdrop, a couple hours spent on this tour will be worth your while.
All along English Valley Road, you can anticipate seeing pronghorns. Look for spots of white against the brown background. The white is their white rump patch, while the bodies are a brownish-tan color. Pronghorns are not antelope, but the terms are often used interchangeably. Antelope are found in Africa, while pronghorns are found in the United States. Pronghorns are commonly seen feeding on fortes and grasses in the area, but seem to favor blue grama.
Mule Deer are seen regularly throughout the Forest but commonly use separate winter and summer ranges. The amount of forage available on winter range often controls deer populations. On this loop, Mule Deer are seen year-round, but traveling in the morning or early evening provides the best viewing.
Sheep are a little more difficult to spot, but if you travel during the right time of day and with a little luck, you might see some on the ledges of Eagle Rock. There is an information sign discussing the sheep at the bottom of the rock. If you scan those ledges above and around the sign, you will probably spot some of these magnificent creatures. The sheep will be a tannish-brown color lighter than that of the rock. During the day, they are difficult to see, but if you tour before 11 a.m., you might see them moving around. Looking for movement will help in spotting the sheep at these times.
An occasional coyote is spotted in this area. If you happen to see one, it will probably be on the move. Coyotes have the ability to cover large areas as well as adapt to varying conditions. This is the reason for their remarkable success despite efforts by man to exterminate them. A coyote looks like a grayish-brown, medium-sized underfed dog. It eats mainly rabbits, hares, and rodents, but also can be seen feeding on carrion, livestock, wild birds, and fruits.
On English Valley Road the birdwatcher may see horned larks, loggerhead shrikes, vesper sparrows, and Brewer's sparrows. On the second part on the tour on the turn toward Eagle Rock, potential sightings include mountain bluebirds, bushtits, pinyon jays, green-tailed towhees, flycatchers, song sparrows, and savannah sparrows. Finally, around the rocky ledges of Eagle Rock, potential sightings include golden eagles, prairie falcons, ravens, rock doves, white-throated swifts, and rock wrens.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication