The Rio Grande, or Rio Bravo del Norte, as it is known in Mexico, flows about 1,885 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 Conejos River flows out of Platoro Reservoir in Conejos County of southcentral Colorado, just north of the New Mexico State Line, near the Rio Brazos and Rio Chama, then passes through Rio Grande National Forest in a southeasterly direction until it bends northeast a few miles west of Las Mesitas and Conejos. It flows through Antonito, then heads north before making a wide U-turn toward its confluence with the Rio Grande between the Trinchera River to the north and the Culebra River to the south. The surrounding area is very remote wilderness with few people and even fewer signs of civilization. The entire river is about 92.5 miles long, but this description begins below the headwaters and runs about 52.7 miles. The Conejos is a very seasonal stream, but when it rises above 300 cfs it begins to offer exhiliarating rides for whitewater boaters in canoes and kayaks, including some rapids that are rated Class II+ to IV, especially in the first 6.5 miles below the lake. Besides rapids and sizeable drops, there may occasionally be barbed wire fences with which to contend, so eternal vigilance is the watchword for trips on the upper reach of this river. All the hair is on the first 6.5 miles of this river, after which it opens into a wide valley with a flatter gradient and mostly Class I to II rapids that is popular with campers, boaters in canoes, kayaks and rafts, and fishermen.
At least a half dozen great USFS campsites are available along the river from Platoro to just below SH 17 (the road to Chama, New Mexico and the Rio Chama.) Conejos Peak, near the headwaters, stands 13,172 feet above sea level, and La Manga Pass, just below and south of SH 17, is 10,230 feet msl, so the air will always be thin and usually cool to cold, making this a coldwater paddle trip any time there is a navigable flow. Lack of reliable flow, remoteness, difficulty and other factors will never allow this to become a major paddling destination, but for those few brave souls who venture here the Conejos River offers a wonderful ride full of excitement and natural beauty that hard to beat. And, even if the river is not navigable, there are still some awesome places to camp in the forest and enjoy the gorgeous topography with its abundance of wildlife.
The upper end of the navigable stream, which begins many miles below its headwaters (though it might be possible to paddle higher up if you can find an access road) is steep and fast with a gradient of about 75 feet per mile and is rated as a Class III to IV+ (depending upon water level) river above the foot bridge off FR 250 about 6.5 miles below the put-in at Saddle Creek. Below the foot bridge the river flattens substantially, but still maintains an average gradient of almost 32 fpm all the way to the SH 17 Bridge several miles above the Rio Grande confluence.
Rio Grande National Forest of Conejos County, Colorado, just north of the New Mexico State Line. Durango is about 90 miles to the west, though the driving distance is MUCH longer.
Durango 160 miles; Denver 304 miles; Grand Junction 330 miles; Santa Fe 165 miles; Albuquerque 226 miles; Phoenix 614 miles; Salt Lake City 615 miles; El Paso 492 miles; Dallas 914 miles; Austin 929 miles; San Antonio 956 miles; Houston 1,079 miles; Oklahoma City 929 miles; Little Rock 1,239 miles; Kansas City 910 Miles. (All distances are approximate, and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)
Water quality is generally very good to excellent due to the extreme remoteness of its location and the lack of commercial development anywhere near the river or its drainage basin. Flow is dependent upon snowmelt and recent local rainfall surrounding the river. Water temperature will usually be very cold, and air temperature will be very cool to cold during most of the time the river flows at navigable levels. This is a wetsuit or drysuit stream. There are a few small residential communities located along the river starting about 10 miles below the Saddle Creek bridge and continuing though Antonito, as well as some horse ranches that could cause some minor pollution that would be most prominent right after a major run-off event due to heavy snowmelt or rainfall.
The Conejos River usually has a very short season in April and May, though it may run at navigable levels as late as August because of dam releases at Platoro Reservoir, or at other times after significant rainfall within its drainage basin. If the Upper Rio Chama and Rio Brazos are flowing, then the Conejos will probably be runnable. Above normal snowpack over the winter or significant spring rainfall will provide a longer season.
Hazards to navigation on the Conejos River include steep, rocky drops, boulder gardens in tight turns, dead-fall strainers and log jams, barbed wire fences strung across the river or submerged just under the surface, cold water temperature and the vast remoteness of an area where few other people will be found. Getting outside assistance in an emergency is not going to happen quickly, so boaters need to be capable of administering First Aid, as well as affecting swiftwater rescue procedures. Hypothermia is one of the most severe threats to safety on this river where the high elevation, dense forests and chilly winds combine with cold water temperatures to endanger wet paddlers. Most of the significant hazards, aside from cold water temperature, will be located on the first 6.5 miles between the Saddle Creek access below Platoro dam and the confluence of the South Fork of the Conejos River, where the gorge ends.
Saddle Creek Bridge (N 37° 18' 03.44" / W 106° 28' 49.14") off FR 105 in Rio Grande National Forest on river left at 0.0 miles; Foot bridge (N 37° 13' 37.81" / W 106° 28' 04.97") just west of FR 250 on river right at about 6.5 miles; Roadside (N 37° 11' 21.75" / W 106° 26' 57.68") at N. Riverview Road on river right at about 10.0 miles; Record Bridge Road (N 37° 11' 14.20" / W 106° 26' 55.78") at N. Riverside Road on river left at about 10.2 miles; Old Bridge Road (N 37° 11' 08.21" / W 106° 26' 54.23") between S. Riverview Road and FR 250 on river right at about 10.3 miles; SH 17 Bridge (N 37° 07' 41.67" / W 106° 21' 25.48") just southwest of FR 250 on river left at about 18.7 miles; SH 17 roadside (N 37° 07' 22.74" / W 106° 19' 44.96") on river left at about 20.8 miles; Conejos Valley Road (N 37° 06' 35.63" / W 106° 19' 20.98") on river left at about 21.9 miles; E. Coach Road (N 37° 04' 32.99" / W 106° 17' 27.06") off SH 17 on river left at about 26.3 miles; Clarke Mountain Road (N 37° 04' 03.49" / W 106° 14' 55.52") just south of SH 17 on river left at about 29.2 miles; Tixier Ramirez Drive (N 37° 03' 59.13" / W 106° 14' 26.39") just south of SH 17 on river left at about 29.8 miles; SH 17 (N 37° 03' 41.23" / W 106° 05' 48.58") at Mogote on river left at about 40.0 miles; SH 13 bridge (N 37° 05' 37.92" / W 106° 01' 28.02") at Conejos on river left at about 45.9 miles; US Highway 285 Bridge (N 37° 06' 05.19" / W 106° 00' 25.59") just north of Antonito on river left at about 47.25 miles; SH 15 Bridge (N 37° 06' 25.31" / W 105° 58' 59.30") on river right at about 49.5 miles; SH 16 bridge (N 37° 06' 53.16" / W 105° 57' 51.76") on river left at about 51.3 miles; SH 17 Bridge (N 37° 07' 25.27" / W 105° 56' 47.62") northeast of Antonito on river left at about 52.7 miles.
NOTES ON RIVER ACCESS POINTS: There are access points between the lower SH 17 Bridge and the Rio Grande confluence, but the channel is narrow and it divides several times. It has a low flow most of the time and some areas may have insufficient water to paddle most of the time, especially starting in June or early July and continuing until the spring snowmelt season. Going all the way to the Rio Grande confluence requires paddling downriver on the Rio Grande several miles to the SH 141 Bridge. Paddling below the SH 17 Bridge northeast of Antonito is not recommended unless there is adequate flow and you are ready for a MUCH longer, very remote trip. There may also be additional access points above and along this reach at any of the USFS campgrounds listed below.
USFS campgrounds are available above, along, and a few miles away on either side of the Conejos River. Mix Lake (USFS) campground is located on the north side of Platoro Reservoir above the dam; Lake Fork Campground (USFS) is on river left at about 6.0 miles below the dam; Conejos Campground (USFS) is located on river right at about 15.0 miles; Spectacle Lake Campground (USFS) is located on river right at about 18.0 miles; Elk Creek Campground (USFS) is located on river right at about 22.0 miles; Aspen Glade Campground (USFS) is located on river right at about 26.0 miles; Trujillo Meadows Campground (USFS) is located near La Manga Pass on SH 17, just a few miles southwest of the Conejos River crossing; Alamosa Campground (USFS) is located on the Alamosa River just a few miles northeast of Platoro Reservoir; Numerous other USFS campgrounds are available nearby in the Rio Grande National Forest of Colorado and the Kit Carson National Forest of New Mexico.
There are no known liveries or outfitters located along the Conejos River in Colorado. Bring everything you need, and run your own shuttles.
For stunning natural scenery, the Conejos River is hard to beat! This place offers some of the most rugged and undisturbed wilderness to be found while on river trips. It is teeming with dense forests, wildlife, birds, a beautiful gorge canyon on the upper 6 miles of the river, great rapids at the top and numerous smaller, less challenging rapids below the Pinnacles, few people, almost no signs of development anywhere around (though there are several small residential communities along the river at various points between Record Bridge Road and Antonito), gorgeous water and moderate temperatures in the summer, though late-fall through early-spring will have very cold temperatures day and night. Water temperature is always cold, so plan on wearing a wetsuit or drysuit, or at least water-repelling garments, to ward off hypothermia. A camera is a must-have for this trip, as is a major First Aid kit and everything you need to paddle, camp and run your own shuttles. Many boaters may prefer the top 6.5 miles, with its Class II to IV drops, but less experienced paddlers, including families, can enjoy a very beautiful river and surrounding forests on Class I to II water for many miles between the low-water bridge take-out below the Pinnacles and any of the access points west of the Rio Grande confluence. If you get lucky, then you might find the river flowing in summer, sometimes lasting into August on the upper part of this reach, though the best flows for whitewater boating are usually found from April through May, or early June. If this area were not so remote, then it would be near the top of every paddler's list of favorite places to paddle.