ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Hikers have embarked on a 500-mile expedition that will traverse New Mexico. The mission: Chart out the best route and identify what challenges might lay ahead as the state moves closer to establishing the Rio Grande Trail.
Following in the footsteps of other states, New Mexico is looking to capitalize on its vistas, mild weather and culture with the creation of a long-distance trail along one of North America's longest rivers.
The Rio Grande stretches down the middle of the state, from the southern end of the Rocky Mountains near the Colorado state line to the bustling desert region where New Mexico and Texas intersect with the U.S.-Mexico border.
With its diverse scenery, supporters say the Rio Grande Trail has the potential to make the list of the country's more famous long-distance routes, including the Appalachian Trail that runs from Georgia to Maine and the Continental Divide Trail that crosses a handful of Western states. Neighboring Colorado and Arizona have their own namesake trails, and there are several others that are designed as national scenic trails.
Outdoor recreation in New Mexico alone is already a multibillion-dollar industry, and the benefits of the Rio Grande Trail could be profound, said Jeff Steinborn, a New Mexico state senator who pushed legislation in 2015 to create the commission charged with establishing the trail.
"We can't even begin to appreciate all the opportunities that it will unfold for our citizens, for economic development and for frontier communities," he said.
In the East, more than 3 million people visit some part of the Appalachian Trail annually. The trail's advocacy group is currently working on a study to better determine the spending that results from those visits and the branding campaigns that go along with such long-distance trail systems.
Jordan Bowman, a spokesman for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, said it's all tied to the draw of experiencing the American backcountry.
"It's whatever adventure you want to make out of it," he said. "So people can find a nice smooth section if they just need to get out for an afternoon or it can be a monthslong adventure where you walk out with a beard and this incredible story of how you survived a blizzard or whatever the case may be."
In New Mexico, the Rio Grande Trail Commission last week approved an official logo. A master plan is in the works.
While the official alignment has yet to be decided, this month's expedition by volunteers with the Southern New Mexico Trail Alliance is aimed at scouting proposed segments and gathering as much data about water sources, camping spots, supply stops and not-to-be-missed scenery that could be incorporated.
"A lot of those little details we can't pick up until we're actually there on the ground walking it," said Peter Livingstone with the alliance.
He has traveled more than 120 miles in five days. He expects the whole trip to take about a month.
A small solar panel sits on the top of his backpack, charging a collection of GPS and satellite communication devices that are tracking the journey.
"I have a map and compass if all that fancy stuff fails," Livingstone said.
The expedition so far has taken him along the volcanic ridge that makes up the Rio Grande Gorge near Taos. To the west, there are numerous homes dubbed earthships built out of recycled materials. Wheeler Peak — the highest in New Mexico — is visible to the east.
Livingstone also talked about petroglyphs, adobe churches, driving rain, hail and being greeted by locals with beans, rice and tacos.
"Life is a wonderful adventure, or it is nothing," he said in a recent post .
The trek will end near Mount Cristo Rey, where the faithful make a religious pilgrimage each year. Steinborn plans to join the hikers there.
Close to 50 miles (80 kilometers) or more of trail already have been designated and there's another 100 miles (160 kilometers) or so being planned with the federal government and conservancy districts in the Middle Rio Grande, Steinborn said.
"There's work to be done but what an incredible start. It's coming to life in front of our eyes," he said.