The Rio Grande, or Rio Bravo del Norte, as it is known in Mexico, flows 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. However, paddling in New Mexico is generally limited to the Taos Box area near Taos, though it is possible to paddle several other sections of the river, as well. The river enters northcentral New Mexico in a remote, mountainous area between US Highway 285 to the west and SH 522 to the east. It flows about 450 miles to the Chihuahuan desert of southcentral New Mexico where it forms the national border between Texas and Mexico. Along the way it flows through the Rio Grande Gorge National Recreation Area and the Towns or Cities of Taos, Espanola, Albuquerque, Socorro, Truth or Consequences and Las Cruces. Joining the Rio Grande along the way are the Red River, Rio Pueblo, Rio Brazos, Rio Chama and Rio Embudo, all located in northcentral New Mexico, and all offering excellent whitewater runs when they flow. Due to diversions, impoundments and other impediments to flow the Rio Grande below Velarde Dam down to Elephant Butte Reservior is usually too low to paddle and offers extremely limited access due to private property ownership and a general lack of roads. Except for brief periods right after significant rainfall the reach below Elephant Butte Reservoir to Las Cruces is generally not navigable. Click HERE for the history and anthropology of the Rio Grande.
Beginning across the state line at Lobatos Bridge in southcentral Colorado is a splendid, and often challenging, 24 mile whitewater run with Class II rapids, ending at Lee Trail. The run is on a shallow 5 fpm gradient, the first 11 miles of which are in Colorado, flowing through a broad lava-rock plain known locally as the Ute Mountain Run. An intermediate access point is at the stateline, on BLM land of the west side of the river (all land on the east side is private property and accessing there should be avoided except with advance permission), allowing a shorter run of 13 miles. Another access point is at Sunshine Valley Trail off Sunshine Valley Road, just a short distance above Lee Trail, where this reach ends. Lee Trail is a steep and unimproved access ascending 200 feet in elevation in just one quarter mile making it a very difficult access for canoes and kayaks, and insane for rafts. The Sunshine Trail access is very similar to Lee Trail. Please take note of the fact that the run above Lee Trail in New Mexico is closed to the public from April 1 through May 31, during the mating season for prairie falcons and golden eagles, though probably not to each other. You are only allowed to launch one time per day on the upper 24 miles. Boaters should call the BLM office for reservations, and register at the self-service permit station at each access point where you want to begin a trip.
This gorgeous 24-mile reach is not a frequent destination for most paddlers, but those who come here are treated to some of Mother Nature's finest work. Birds of many species are everywhere, so wear a hat, if you know what I mean! Boaters will probably see antelope, elk, deer, squirrels, racoons and numerous other animals. The quality of this whitewater run and its scenic beauty make the difficult take-outs bearable for canoeists and kayakers. Camping along this reach requires a steep climb of the canyon walls to reach the rim above, so it is best to make this a day trip run. Fishing is excellent, but requires a New Mexico fishing license (a Colorado license is required above the state line.) Be sure to pack your camera and use it frequently on this awesome trip.
Southern Costilla County, Colorado and northcentral Taos County, New Mexico. There are no major cities or towns nearby. By road, US Highway 160 in Colorado is about 50 miles above the put-in, and New Mexico SH 522 generally parallels the run a few miles to the east. Questa, New Mexico is just east of the take-out.
Santa Fe 120 miles; Albuquerque 181 miles; Phoenix 639 miles; Durango 192 miles; Denver 240 miles; Salt Lake City 647 miles; El Paso 448 miles; Dallas 849 miles; Austin 884 miles; San Antonio 911 miles; Houston 1,070 miles; Oklahoma City 723 miles; Little Rock 1,062 miles; Kansas City 958 Miles. (All distances are approximate, and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)
Water quality in this section of the Rio Grande is usually very good to excellent. Flow is dependent upon winter snowpack and the amount of water being drained for agricultural irrigation.
The prime season is usually early to mid spring, before the farm planting season, though flows may be adequate later in the year after a heavy winter snowpack. The reach between the New Mexico State Line and Lee Trail is closed to the public from April 1 through May 31, during the mating season of prairie falcons and golden eagles. Unfortunately, this is part of the best time when the river flows at a navigable level, but the birds were there first!
All private boaters are required to make reservations through BLM (575-758-8851) for paddle trips on this reach of the Rio Grande. River Office contact is Mark Sundin at 575-751-4720. There is no fee, and registration at self-serve stations at each access make the process fast and easy. Only one launch per day is allowed, whether it is one paddler or one group of paddlers. The BLM Taos Office maintains a list of reservation days, so call or write to secure your launch before arriving for the Ute Mountain run. No permits will be issued between April 1 and May 31, due to the mating season of native birds of prey.
Other than the remoteness of this section, there are no major hazards of consequence in the upper 24 miles of this run. Below about 300 cfs the river will too low for enjoyable boating. Runs should be avoided by all except advanced to expert boaters when the river flows above about 1,500 cfs. Scout any blind drops, and anything else that does not reveal a clear line through the hazard. Some portages may be required. Boaters should have at least strong intermediate level whitewater skills in canoes or kayaks this reach. Rafts should avoid this section because of very difficult to impossible access, as well as the narrow, tight, technical turns necessary to negotiate the river.
Lobatos Bridge at the Rio Grande, about 14 miles east of US Highway 285 at Antonito, Colorado, at 0.0 miles; Stateline (west bank) public access trail at about 11.0 miles; Sunshine Valley Trail at about 21.0 miles; Lee Trail, south of Sunshine Valley Road, at about 24.0 miles. There are no other access points for this reach of the Rio Grande. Please note that Sunshine Valley Road may be impassable during or for several days after any significant rainfall or other precipitation.
There are no campgrounds located along the Ute Mountain run and few, if any, natural campsites can be found along the river. Camping between access points usually required climbing a steep canyon wall to the rim. Avoid camping on private property without advance permission, and always leave the area cleaner than you found it. Camping is available at Sheep Crossing Campground and Chiflo Campground, both below this run, where excellent facilities are available. Numerous other excellent campgrounds are available between Chiflo Campground and the Red River confluence, as well as between Taos Junction Bridge and the Town of Pilar, just a few miles below Chiflo. Bear in mind that the Taos Box runs are very popular, so competition for campgrounds in this area may be fierce during the prime season.
There are no liveries or outfitters located anywhere near this section of the Rio Grande. However, numerous outfitters run trips to the Taos Box section immediately below, and it may be possible to contract with one of them for shuttles, though you would need to provide your own boats and gear. Plan to setup and run your own shuttles if you cannot contract with a licensed outfitter.
While not a widely popular run, the Ute Mountain reach of the Rio Grande offers an excellent trip of about 24 miles on Class II water with interesting and sometimes moderately challenging rapids. Scenery is spectacular, and an abundance of birdlife and wildlife will be seen along the way. The put-in is at Lobatos Bridge, east of Lobatos and Antonito in Colorado, just a few miles across the state line, and is the ONLY easy access on this run. Difficult accesses at the Colorado-New Mexico stateline, Sunshine Valley Trail and Lee Trail limit this run, for practical reasons, to canoes with floatation and kayaks paddled by boaters with at least strong intermediate level whitewater skills, and canoeists face a formidible challenge getting to or from the river at access points other than Lobatos Bridge. Unfortunately, paddling is prohibited between the New Mexico State Line and Lee Trail from April 1 through May 31, when falcons and eagles are mating - during the prime season for navigable flows on the Ute Mountain run. The Class II reach can be paddled anytime there is sufficient flow of at least 300 cfs, below which the river is WAY too bony for enjoyable boating. Except for those with advanced to expert level paddling skills, this reach should generally be avoided when flows exceed about 1,500 cfs. Only one launch per day is allowed. BLM reservations are required, and there is a self-permitting station at each access point for convenience. However, it is strongly recommended that you make reservations in advance to avoid getting there to find that another group has already launched, and that you will not be allowed to put-in on that day.