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Rio Chama, New Mexico
Report by Marc W. McCord

Upper Rio Chama
~ 55 miles

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SOAR Inflatable Canoes - Somewhere On A River

General Description

The Rio Chama forms in far southcentral Colorado, just above the New Mexico border in the San Juan Mountains of Carson National Forest in Archuleta County, then flows about 120 miles to its confluence with the Rio Grande just north of Espanola in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico. It enters the state at Cumbres Pass on its way to the Rio Grande. The upper river is characterized by huge boulders that create difficult holes, sizeable drops and hidden dead-fallen trees that test experienced whitewater boaters. The first 6-7.5 miles of this reach above El Vado Lake in New Mexico is a Class IV to VI whitewater run of great intensity that is only suitable for expert whitewater kayakers. The rest of this run can be made by canoeists and kayakers with at least strong intermediate level whitewater skills on Class I to III water that drops through deep canyons on its way to the lake. Below El Vado Lake the river is a Class II to III run for almost anybody with intermediate or higher level whitewater skills. This historic river has been used by humans for nearly 10,000 years, dating from the time when camels and wooly mammoths roamed the southwestern United States. In 1988, the 24.6 mile section known as Chama Canyon was designated as a "Wild and Scenic River" by the U.S. Congress.

Upper Rio Chama runs begin in Archuleta County, Colorado at a campground/corral on Archuleta Creek at the river. Between Chama and Tierra Amarilla, below the hairboat run, the river has numerous fences that pose hazards to boaters, but they can be run by carefully avoiding getting caught in them. The 15 or so miles above El Vado Lake is a Ponderosa Pine-lined deep canyon with some great rapids, the crux rapid being Big Mama Chama. The only real drawback is the lack of access between SH 17 and El Vado Lake. The uppermost part of this run is dangerous because of large holes and hidden wood behind very large boulders, some of which are as big as small houses. Scouting this section is definitely necessary, though often difficult because of blind views created by the boulders.

The upper 7.5 miles drops some 580 feet in elevation, from 8,460 feet msl to 7,880 feet msl on a gradient of 77 fpm. From Chama to Los Ojos is about 15 miles of Class I to II water that is beautiful, but not too technically challenging for competent boaters. The last 15 miles from Los Ojos to El Vado Lake is Class I to III whitewater running through a deep canyon. The waters flow fast and strong, often with little room to scout or portage the hazards. The area is rife with natural grandeur. Riverbanks are lined with beautiful, old-growth trees of Carson National Forest. Signs of civilization are non-existent, and boaters should be prepared to self-rescue in the event of an emergency.


Archuleta County in far southcentral Colorado and Rio Arriba County in far northcentral New Mexico, near Colorado SH 17, and US Highways 84 and 64 in the Carson National Forest.

Distance from major cities

Santa Fe 125 miles; Albuquerque 186 miles; Phoenix 644 miles; Durango 140 miles; Denver 270 miles; Salt Lake City 595 miles; El Paso 452 miles; Dallas 854 miles; Austin 889 miles; San Antonio 916 miles; Houston 1,075 miles; Oklahoma City 728 miles; Little Rock 1,067 miles; Kansas City 963 Miles. (All distances are approximate, and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)

Water Quality and Flow Rates

The Upper Rio Chama flows clean, clear and cold, though it may contain a significant amount of dead-fallen timber. The flow is usually strong and fast, with rapids ranging from Class IV to VI near the top of the run, and Class I to III starting about 43 miles above El Vado Lake.

Best time to go

The prime season for the Upper Rio Chama is usually in late spring and early summer, in the months of May and June, though June flows depend upon a significant winter snowpack in the San Juan Mountains of Carson National Forest. The Upper Chama may start flowing as early as mid-March, depending upon winter snowpack and seasonally warm spring temperatures in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico.

Hazards to navigation

This run starts with about 4 miles of garden variety Class II to III rapids that pose no real danger. As the canyon walls close in about half way through this run large boulders start to appear in the riverbed signaling the hairboat section of the river with its Class IV to VI rapids and drops. Rapids are not named, but these all require good scouting and running precise lines to avoid danger. Near the end of this run is a series of truly dangerous rapids characterized by house-sized boulders that hide sticky holes, significant drops and dead-fallen trees, any of which can cause peril for boaters and boats. Problems start where the reddish-colored, partially eroded riverbank appears. The lead-in to this rapid is almost indiscernable. Scout carefully, and avoid any dead wood which may be present, especially along the right bank. A large boulder on the left bank just below the erosion area marks the beginning of another major hazard with a couple of pour-overs, either of which can capsize a boat and beat up a paddler. As you enter this rapid make a sharp move to river right, then nail the right channel, avoiding a keeper hole created by an undercut boulder and a log strainer in the left channel. After these two major rapids the rest of the run is more relaxed and much easier to negotiate. This entire run needs to be done with great care and vigilance to avoid accidents.

Below the hairboat section lies about 43 miles of really great Class I to III whitewater that is perfect for intermediate or higher level whitewater canoeists and kayakers. Hazards include several barbed wire fences strung across the river between Chama and Tierra Amarilla that can be negotiated by careful boaters, but which can cause serious injury (or worse) for anybody getting caught in one of them, especially at high flows. Most of the serious rapids are boulder garden types, some with no good places to scout and blind lines that have to be negotiated on the fly.

River Access Points

First public campground off FR 121, about 5 miles from SH 17, where Archuleta Creek meets the river at 0.0 miles; SH 17 bridge north of Chama, New Mexico at 7.5 miles; US Highway 64/84 near Ensenada at about 25.0 miles; SH 95 bridge near Tierra Amarilla at about 40.0 miles; El Vado Ranch on El Vado Lake at about 55.0 miles. There are no other public access points on the Upper Rio Chama.

Campgrounds and accommodations

Lobo Ranch Campground at the public easement off FR 121 where Archuleta Creek meets the river at 0.0 miles; El Vado Lake State Park, just above the dam at about 59.0 miles, offers seasonal campsites with and without electricity, drinking water, restrooms, showers, day use areas with picnic tables and a sanitary dump station. There are no other public or private campgrounds along this section of the Rio Chama. However, several nearby campgrounds suitable for base camp operations are located at Trujillo Meadows, Aspen Glade, Elk Creek, Spectacle Lake, Lake Fork, Mix Lake, Alamosa and La Jara Reservoir State Fishing Area campgrounds in Rio Grande National Park, all within a few miles of the Rio Chama headwaters in Colorado on the Conejos, Alamosa and La Jara Rivers. Heron Lake State Park, just north of El Vado Lake in New Mexico, offers seasonal campsites with and without electricity, drinking water, restrooms, showers, day use areas with picnic tables, a sanitary dump station, 2 launch ramps, sailing, fishing, a seasonal marina operated from April through October by New Mexico Sailing Club with slips and limited facilities, and scenic areas with views of trees, mountains and the Brazos Cliffs.

Liveries, outfitters and shuttle services

There are no known liveries or outfitters operating along the Upper Rio Chama. Plan on setting up and running your own shuttles.

Reviewer's Comments

The Upper Rio Chama is a near-hairboat run that can be made by canoes with flotation or kayaks, but not rafts. The narrow, twisting riverbed is rich in very large boulders hiding holes, drops and dead-fallen timber that can pose serious risks to life and safety, as well as boats and gear. This May through June run rates a Class II to III on the first 4 miles, then Class IV to IV+ on the next 3.5 miles before settling down to a good Class III run on down to El Vado Lake in New Mexico. Unfortunately, the distance to El Vado and the lack of public access limit most boaters to the top 7.5 miles of this run. The area is drop-dead gorgeous, with large canyons, forested banks, boulders the size of small houses and a pristine river that begs to be paddled. Much of this section has gently sloping banks from which great photos can be taken by those who dare to bring a camera (can you say "Pelican case"?) This run is a little off the beaten path, but deserves consideration for an excellent whitewater adventure on a very pretty river.

Technical Data
Class Rating I to VI
Length 55 miles
Minimum Flow 200 cfs
Optimum Flow 2,000 cfs
Maximum Flow 4,000 cfs
First Put-in Lobo Lodge
Lat. / Long.
Last Take-out El Vado Lake
Lat. / Long. 36.6497574 / -106.743309
Elevation 8,460-6,780 feet msl
Gradient 77 fpm
USGS Gauge Web: La Puenta
Boats Canoes, Kayaks
Expert Kayakers only above Chama
Season Mid-March through June
Permits No

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