The Rio Grande, or Rio Bravo del Norte, as it is known in Mexico, flows about 1,960 miles from its headwaters near Alamosa, Colorado, through New Mexico and down the Texas-Mexico border through Big Bend to Brownsville and the Gulf of Mexico. It is the fifth longest river in the US, and drains a significant portion of Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Mexico. Altogether, its 335,000 square miles of drainage basin account for about 11 percent of all continental US area. However, paddling in Colorado is generally limited to the Upper Rio Grande above the Town of South Fork, though it is possible to paddle several other sections of the river, as well.
The Upper Rio Grande flows out of Rio Grande Reservoir high in northeastern Hinsdale County along the Continental Divide, then flows generally eastward across the Hinsdale-Mineral County Line to its confluence with the North Fork to form the mainstream of the Rio Grande. Between the lake and Marshall Park (USFS) Campground the river flows about 22 miles on Class II to III whitewater on what is the most popular Rio Grande run in the State of Colorado. The river flows through the very beautiful and scenic San Juan Mountains where it is surrounded by the Uncompahgre, San Juan, Gunnison and Rio Grande National Forests. The San Juan, Piedra, Los Pinos, Animas and Florida Rivers all flow nearby to the south. The river offers a great whitewater run on a remote river where few others will be seen. Access points are limited due to surrounding privately-owned land, but paddlers can put in at River Hill Campground off RD 520 about two miles below Rio Grande Reservoir, then canoe, kayak or raft about 20 miles to Marshall Park The North Fork of the Rio Grande flows into the river a few miles below River Hill Campground, adding additional flow for the last 12 or 13 miles of the run. Several excellent USFS campgrounds in the near vicinity, including River Hill and Marshall Park along the river, offer ample places to pitch a tent. A small canyon, bounded on river right by the Weminuche Wilderness and on the left by vertical walls of 150 feet or more, offers views that hide the nearby SH 149. The ideal time to visit the Upper Rio Grande is from May through June, depending upon dam releases at Rio Grande Reservoir.
Northern Hinsdale and Mineral Counties along SH 149 in the San Juan Mountains of Rio Grande National Forest. There are no towns along this reach of the river though Spar City, on river right, and Crede, on river left, are each just a short distance away. The Lake Fork and Cebolla Creek tributaries to the Gunnison River have their headwaters just a few miles north of this run. The Piedra, San Juan, Los Pinos, Florida and Animas Rivers all have their headwaters a few miles to the south.
Durango 150 miles; Denver 330 miles; Grand Junction 320 miles; Santa Fe 232 miles; Albuquerque 293 miles; Phoenix 751 miles; Salt Lake City 605 miles; El Paso 559 miles; Dallas 961 miles; Austin 996 miles; San Antonio 1,023 miles; Houston 1,146 miles; Oklahoma City 955 miles; Little Rock 1,271 miles; Kansas City 936 miles. (All distances are approximate, and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)
Water quality is excellent, flowing clean, clear and cold from Rio Grande Reservoir and mountain snowmelt runoff. Navigable flows are usually too low to paddle other than in late-spring and early summer, depending upon dam releases at the lake.
Typically, May and June are the best time to run the Upper Rio Grande. Flow readings at Thirty Mile Bridge just above this reach can be obtained by calling the Colorado Division of Natural Resources' Watertalk (303-831-7135), then entering " 3*14* ".
There are no major hazards on this reach, which flows as a Class III stream above 500 cfs. Rapids are boulder gardens with normally easy lines, though the river does get more technical at higher flows. Intermediate level whitewater skills and swiftwater rescue training would be beneficial for canoeists and kayakers on this run because of its remoteness. Paddlers should be adequately prepared for cold water conditions.
Put in at River Hill Campground, from RD 520 off SH 149 below Rio Grande Reservoir and above Crede, at 0.0 miles; TR 816 Trailhead access off SH 149 at about 6.3 miles; Marshall Park, just off SH 149 southwest of Crede, at about 20.0 miles. There are no other access points for this reach of the Rio Grande.
River Hill Campground (USFS), on RD 520 from SH 149 below Rio Grande Reservoir, offers primitive campsites and river access; Marshall Park (USFS), off SH 149 southwest of Crede, offers primitive campsites and river access. Other USFS campgrounds nearby, but not along the river, include Lost Trail (above Rio Grande Reservoir) and Thirty Mile (on the west bank of Rio Grande Reservoir) above this reach, South Clear Creek off SH 149 below Continental Reservoir on the North Fork, Palisade, located along SH 149 near the river southeast of Crede between Wagon Wheel Gap and Masonic Park and a half dozen other campgrounds along US Highway 160 between Pagosa Springs and SH 149 southeast of Masonic Park.
There is at least one known outfitter operating along this reach of the Rio Grande in Colorado. Be prepared to set up and run your own shuttles if not contracting with them.
This is a run for intermediate or higher level whitewater paddlers who enjoy truly scenic, though not particularly challenging, paddling far from the beaten path. It can also be enjoyed by novice river runners in guided paddle or oar rafts. The only drawback is its sometimes limited season of about two months in May and June, depending upon dam releases at Rio Grande Reservoir. SH 149 is never very far away, though it does hide behind mountains much of the way along this run. This entire reach is within the Rio Grande National Forest of southwest Colorado. It is a fortunate paddler who finds his or her way to this stream when it is flowing. A short run of 6.3 miles, or longer runs of about 13.7 or 20 miles are available, depending upon where you put in and take out. With adequate flow paddlers have the option of continuing downriver below Marshall Park to any of several other access points, making this a multi-day trip. Be sure to pack your camera, because the scenery is nothing short of spectacular in a very pristine area with gorgeous water to match the surrounding land.