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The Rio Grande River: Facts and History

Updated on April 7, 2015
Paula Atwell profile image

Paula Atwell is a freelance writer with WriterAccess, webmaster, member of Pinterest Party on FB and the owner of Lake Erie Artist Gallery.

The Remarkable Story of the Rio Grande River

The Rio Grande is an undeniably iconic river and it rightfully became an American Heritage River in 1997 as a symbol of its significance. It is an important landmark for Americans and Mexicans alike because it forms the border between the two nations and shapes the geography of a vast section of North America and it therefore has a great tale to tell. The best way to tell this story and share the history of this remarkable river is to trace its journey from its origins in Colorado, through the changing terrains of New Mexico and Texas right up to the delta at the Gulf of Mexico.

View of the Headwaters of the Rio Grande

View of the Headwaters of the Rio Grande
View of the Headwaters of the Rio Grande | Source

The Rio Grande's origins in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado

The Rio Grande begins its long journey at Creede at the base of the Corby Mountain in Colorado. In a drastic contrast to the rest of the terrain along its route, these waters flow softly beside the Denver railroad and the gentle landscapes of the National Forest. What is noticeable about this region is the high altitude, which is to be expected given the mountainous climate, however this does not decrease as significantly as you would expect once the Rio Grande reaches New Mexico. Throughout its journey the river maintains a great height above sea level, even as far south as El Paso.

Tourism and recreation is an important part of this Colorado section of the river and there are many activities that people can enjoy if they are prepared for the altitude. The still waters of the reservoirs that form at Rio Grande's birthplace are full of trout and this makes them ideal spots for fishing. In other areas visitors can partake in some rafting or just enjoy the local wildlife. The forest is famed for eagles, beavers, elk, muskrat and so much more.

The Rio Grande: An Eagle's View
The Rio Grande: An Eagle's View

The Rio Grande: An Eagle's View

Beautiful gift for anyone who loves the Rio Grande

The Rio Grande: An Eagle's View chronicles one of the world's most significant and endangered rivers, showcasing its exquisite beauty and importance. Designated an American Heritage River in 1997, the Rio Grande is the third largest river in the United States, twentieth in the world, and runs nearly 1,900 miles.

Onwards through New Mexico and the stunning Rio Grande Gorge

When the Rio Grande makes its way into New Mexico the landscape changes dramatically and this is no better seen than with the Rio Grande Gorge. Here the river runs through the a volcanic Field and the gentle flow of its origins gives way to white water and hot springs. One of the most famous and attractive features of this iconic landmark is the bridge that bears the gorge's name. This extraordinary piece of engineering stretches for 1280ft across the gorge and is eye-catching because of its simplistic, steel design; however it is advisable not to look down because the gorge can reach a depth of 800ft.

The Rio Grande River travels for 470 miles through New Mexico. Here, and in Colorado, the length of the river is defined, however in Texas there is some confusion over the correct length of their stretch of the river because of the way it formed. Along this journey, the Rio Grande passes by the city of Albuquerque. The river is valued greatly by the residents of this otherwise arid city and this is partly due to the State Park that offers them an area of outstanding natural beauty.

Sandhill Cranes, Rio Grande South of Socorro, New Mexico, USA

Sandhill Cranes, Rio Grande South of Socorro, New Mexico, USA
Sandhill Cranes, Rio Grande South of Socorro, New Mexico, USA | Source

Transforming into the Texas-Mexico Border

As the Rio Grande River passes through El Paso and on into Texas it takes on a new identity. Here it is more than just a river and water source, it is the border between nations and it has therefore been an important boundary since 1948 and the treaty imposed following the Mexican War. So much attention is given to the subject of immigration and the Mexican border these days that it is worth remembering that at one point people were fleeing in the opposite direction. Slavery was abolished in Mexico in 1928 and as a result many slaves fled Texas across to river to freedom.

A glance at a Rio Grande River map will instantly show you that this stretch of water is a crucial part of not just the river and US boundaries but also the identities of Texas and Mexico, with the river bordering the states of Chihuahua, Coahulia, Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon. These clear lines have not always been evident; the boundaries were only defined completely following the treaty. Additionally, before the banks were reinforced, Mexican land was displaced and transferred to the American side of the river by the force of the water and was subsequently relocated.

Surface Water: A Day In The Life Of The Rio Grande

The Final Stages Towards the Valley and the Gulf of Mexico

Before this mighty river reaches its final destination at the Gulf of Mexico it passes through yet another important area in Texas - The Rio Grande Valley. Once again this means a complete change in the landscape on offer, and a distinct contrast from the barren, rocky gorge of New Mexico. The Valley - known as the "magical" valley to some - is a fertile plain perfect for agriculture, and as a result residents can produce sugarcane, cotton and citrus fruits. The region is in fact America's third largest citrus producer. As well as agriculture, the area is famed for its wildlife and is home to wildlife refuges where rare cats and falcons roam.

Finally, the waters flow past this beautiful region towards the sandy delta where it meets the ocean at the infamous Gulf of Mexico. Once steamboats sailed along the Rio Grande's waters from Brownsville to the south up as far as Rio Grande City - the rest of the river being un-negotiable for large vessels - but in recent times such journeys have ceased. This is partly due to the sandbars that periodically form at the river's mouth, barriers which occasionally block the flow of the river and separate it from its final destination.

Evolution of the Rio Grande

Rio Grande: A River with a Fascinating Story to Tell

So there you have the Rio Grande's story. It is tale of many chapters and an interesting history, a story that has become richer as the centuries have progressed and the American and Mexican citizens have embraced its potential and significance. From its origins in the mountains, it journey through the gorges and valleys and finally the delta near Brownsville, there is so much to learn about this incredible river. Hopefully this story has helped broaden your knowledge and inspired you to learn more.

Rio Grande Documentary


Traveling the Rio Grande is a true adventure that you can enjoy with the whole family. There are plenty of activities both on and off the river in surrounding cities for children and adults.

Have you ever been to the Rio Grande?

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    • donaldwilson profile image

      Don Wilson 5 years ago from Yakima, WA

      I've crossed it into Mexico once, so I've only seen it near a populated area and from a bridge. You've described much more than what I'm familiar with.

    • profile image

      lawofficesoftware 5 years ago

      No, unfortunately. Nice lens and I didn't have to wade through a whole lot of stuff to read the info.

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      Echo Phoenix 5 years ago

      yes, I traveled alongside it while taking an Amtrak across country on their southernmost route... definitely a highlight of the trip:)

    • Paula Atwell profile image

      Paula Atwell 5 years ago from Cleveland, OH

      @sherioz: Thanks Sheri. Yes, it is lovely.

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      sherioz 5 years ago

      I have never been there but your photos certainly make it a place to put on my list of must-visit sites in the world.