RIO EN MEDIO — More than two years since its closure following the 2020 Medio Fire, much of the idyllic lower portion of Rio en Medio Trail is now but a memory.
The devastating mid-summer floods that caused nightmares for residents of Rio en Medio also wreaked havoc on the landscape upstream of the tiny village nestled in a canyon north of Tesuque, washing away or burying large sections of the trail that was a favorite for locals and led hikers to a 20-foot waterfall.
Santa Fe National Forest personnel have been fielding frequent questions from the public about when the popular trail will reopen ever since its closure order.
The answer: Not anytime soon.
“There are little bits and pieces of the trail you’ll find now and then, but for the most part, it’s gone,” said Lynn Bjorklund, recreation team lead with the Española Ranger District of Santa Fe National Forest.
Bjorklund ventured into the canyon a couple months ago to survey the state of the closed portion of the trail between the Rio en Medio trailhead and the Aspen Ranch trailhead. She said she wound up spending much of the time doing more climbing and gymnastics than hiking as she maneuvered around large debris piles and severely eroded banks over the course of four-plus miles.
Bjorklund estimated about 70 percent of the trail between the Rio en Medio trailhead and the Aspen Ranch trailhead is gone. It could take years for the trail to be reestablished and deemed safe for public use, she said.
“It’ll be something else to try to rebuild it,” Bjorklund said. “There are places where I can’t even figure out where you’d put a trail because you’ve got this sheer cliff on both sides and all this rubble in between. It’ll be a feat.”
Searching for solutions
During the indefinite closure of the trail, officials and community members are hoping to find a solution to a headache that local residents faced prior to the floods and fire.
Along with its beauty, Rio en Medio Trail was notorious for its tiny parking area at the end of a one-lane road, Santa Fe County Road 78B. With capacity for only about four vehicles at the trailhead, hikers would park along the narrow road, preventing access for emergency vehicles.
Local resident John Kadlecek said that at one point early in the coronavirus pandemic, when most entertainment venues and businesses were closed and people were flocking to trails, as many as 40 cars were parked along the road, which has no shoulder.
Santa Fe County eventually put up signs to warn visitors that vehicles parked along the side of the road or blocking driveways will be towed, which Kadlecek said improved the situation.
Still, the current trailhead location is far from ideal and there is discussion about relocating it.
A top option being considered would be to adopt what’s known as the Double Discount Trail, a moderately popular trail used predominately for mountain biking, into the U.S. Forest Service’s trail inventory.
Double Discount spurs off south from Rio en Medio Trail about a mile upstream of the current Rio en Medio trailhead and runs for about three miles before coming out on Pacheco Canyon Road, an area where there could be more parking options that would have less impact on local residents.
Kadlecek said he thinks relocating the trailhead to Double Discount is a great idea.
“[The trailhead] doesn’t belong here,” he said of the current Rio en Medio trailhead. “We love people enjoying the trail. This is beautiful land, and everybody ought to be able to enjoy it. It’s not about that. It’s about not being able to have emergency vehicles get in here.”
Double Discount is mostly on U.S. Forest Service land but passes over private land in a couple of areas. Bjorklund said there will likely be a public planning period at some point in 2023 to discuss the path forward and work toward a resolution. An archaeological survey of the area the trail passes over would also need to be performed.
Kyle Klain, president of the Santa Fe Fat Tire Society, said his organization has been advocating for the U.S. Forest Service to adopt Double Discount Trail into its inventory for years. He feels the move could alleviate issues for multiple stakeholders.
“In a sort of weird and unfortunate twist of fate, the fire and the flood have forced their hand,” Klain said. “We’re really happy they’re considering remediation on this area regardless because it felt like an area that needed it. This could be a win for a lot of people.”
While the beginning portion of Rio en Medio Trail has a gradual rise and was a family friendly hike prior to the flooding, Klain said Double Discount has a steeper grade. He said the trail follows a creek bed for much of its length and has some nice variety.
“It’s a really interesting zone there because you’ve got ponderosa forest, so you get the shade, but it also opens up in areas where you get yucca and juniper and piñon,” Klain said. “It’s kind of an interesting trail because you go through all these different biomes. It’s beautiful.”
Klain said he rode Rio en Medio Trail with friends the day before the Medio Fire. It’s a popular, technical mountain biking trail, and he said Fat Tire Society members will be ready to help rebuild it when it’s deemed safe to begin work.
“Why a lot of mountain bikers are really eager to see this trail reopen is because it opened up so much of the mountain, access-wise, that losing it cut off about 30 percent of our trails,” he said. “The Rio Nambe Trail, the Viejo Trail, Double Discount, all that stuff has been off limits, and it’s unfortunate because those are some of the most scenic, some of the most challenging trails.”
Bjorklund said some portions of the trail could remain unsafe to work on next year due to instability and the threat of flooding.
Likely to look differentResidents saw the strength of the floodwaters firsthand when their properties were under siege during the summer.
Kadlecek said his neighbor used to have one channel running through her land that was 4 feet wide and 6 inches deep. After the flooding that took out her bridge over Rio en Medio, Kadlecek said she now has three channels that are 30 feet across and 8 feet deep.
“It’s unbelievable, just unbelievable,” he said.
Bjorklund said the portion of Rio en Medio Trail just below the Aspen Ranch trailhead is more stable and that personnel and volunteers should be able to begin rebuilding in the area as soon as the weather allows in the spring.
Whenever lower Rio en Medio Trail finally reopens, it will likely look much different than what people remembered. But Bjorklund said it should still provide an enjoyable experience for hikers and mountain bikers in the resilient landscape.
“That’s the thing with fires and floods,” Bjorklund said, “it’s never the same as it was but you’ll still find beauty, even in the changed landscape.
“Even the changed portions are going to adapt and have their own beauty of new beginnings.”