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Rio Grande, New Mexico
Report by Marc W. McCord

Lower Taos Box
~ 15 miles

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SOAR Inflatable Canoes - Somewhere On A River

General Description

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 Lower Taos Box is an excellent Class IV whitewater run of about 15 miles on a 31 fpm gradient that offers plenty of excitement, great scenery and easy access. The reach begins at the John Dunn Bridge just west of Arroyo Hondo and continues down to Taos Junction Bridge at the intersection of SH 567 and SH 570 at the Rio Pueblo confluence. The Town of Taos is just a few miles to the northeast and the Town of Pilar is just downriver to the southwest. The run is through an isolated gorge with very limited access between the top and bottom. It is a very popular reach that often sees heavy commercial guided raft traffic. This pool-and-drop section becomes very technical at flows below 800 cfs, and is not recommended at flows below 600 cfs. Riverside camping is very limited, and at lower flows there are a couple of riverside hot springs that can be enjoyed, but do not expect any privacy due to the popularity of this section. Adequate day-use parking areas can be found at both the top and bottom of the run. River right, from John Dunn Bridge to Taos Junction Bridge is BLM-controlled land, but river left belongs to the Taos Pueblo Tribe from the Hwy. 64 high bridge to the Rio Pueblo confluence, where the take-out is on tribal land, though BLM has a contract for access there. This reach is ideally suited for a waterproof camera and offers excellent photographic opportunities when not running the rapids.


This section starts at the John Dunn Bridge in southwestern Taos County and ends at the Taos Junction Bridge, also in southwestern Taos County. Nearby towns include Taos Pueblo, Taos, Rancho de Taos and Pilar.

Distance from major cities

Santa Fe 25 miles; Albuquerque 86 miles; Phoenix 544 miles; Durango 298 miles; Denver 523 miles; Salt Lake City 690 miles; El Paso 352 miles; Dallas 754 miles; Austin 789 miles; San Antonio 816 miles; Houston 939 miles; Oklahoma City 634 miles; Little Rock 967 miles; Kansas City 863 Miles. (All distances are approximate, and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)

Water Quality and Flow Rates

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 Lower Taos Box is rated Class III+, with some Class IV possibilities at navigable flows. The water temperature will be cold, so wear wetsuits or drysuits with a base layer to protect against hypothermia.

Best time to go

The prime season for this run is from late April through early-June, or possibly later if winter snowpack up north is heavier than usual. Spring rains may increase the flow slightly, but don't count on it.

Permit requirements

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 through a Ranger or at self-serve stations at each access make the process fast and easy.

Hazards to navigation

There are no major hazards on the Lower Taos Box for competent boaters with strong intermediate or higher level whitewater skills. However, several of the rapids on this section could pose problems if not negotiated properly. The significant rapids are: Ski Jump Rapid (Class (III+ to IV) at about 3.5 miles is a boulder garden which can give a boat some air; Dead Car Rapid (Class III+), at about 9.0 miles, is a problem at low water due to boulders that require tight technical turns; Powerline Rapid (Class IV), at about 10.0 miles, is one that requires scouting. The drop is scary, but a run to the left of center is usually the best line at most flow conditions; Pinball Rapid (Class III+), at about 11.0 miles, is best run from right to left, avoiding a series of holes created by the boulder garden that characterizes this rapid; Screaming Left Hand Turn Rapid (Class (III+), at about 11.7 miles, comes where the canyon bends to the left, and features a giant boulder that is usually best run to the left; Screaming Right Hand Turn Rapid (Class III+) is the last significant rapid on this run, coming at about 12.5 miles, where the canyon bends back to the right, just above the Taos Junction Bridge take-out. The Lower Taos Box becomes very technical at flows below about 800 cfs, and is not recommended when flows drop below 600 cfs.

River Access Points

John Dunn Bridge access, on river right at 0.0 miles; Taos Junction Bridge take-out, on river left, at about 14.0 miles. There are no other access points for the Upper Toas Box.

Campgrounds and accommodations

There is only one campsite located along the Lower Taos Box, which flows through a deep gorge, and it MUST be reserved in advance. There are three campgrounds located just below this section, between Taos Junction Bridge and the Town of Pilar, in addition to those found along the Upper Taos Box. There may be other public or private campgrounds located near the Upper or Lower Taos Box areas. Numerous resorts and motels are available within a short distance.

Liveries, outfitters and shuttle services

There are no known liveries or outfitters operating along this section of the Rio Grande. Prepare to run your own shuttles, and allow about two hours at the beginning and end of your trip to setup and run them.

Reviewer's Comments

For whitewater paddlers looking for less of a thrill than is offered by the hairboat Upper Taos Box, the Lower Box presents plenty of excitement on about 15 miles of Class III+ to IV water. The gorge through which the river in the Lower Box flows is awesome and gorgeous with very limited access along the way. Depending upon water levels, there may or may not be any camping spots between the top and bottom of the run. At lower water levels there are a couple of riverside hot springs where paddlers can enjoy a warm dip that stands in striking contrast to the very cold snowmelt water of the river. If there is one drawback to the Lower Box reach it is the immense popularity that attracts a significant amount of commercial raft traffic, especially those with less skill who are looking for the safety of a guided trip where they can enjoy the exhilirating excitement of whitewater river running. This reach can be navigated in canoes (with flotation), kayaks, inflatable kayaks or rafts by those with at least strong intermediate to advanced level whitewater skills. The ability to self-rescue in cold water would be a valuable asset. Appropriate attire for the cold water and possibly cold air conditions is essential for prevention of hypothermia. Easy access at the top and bottom offer another contrast to other reaches of the Rio Grande in New Mexico. Weekends will naturally be far busier than mid-week runs.

Technical Data
Class Rating III+ to IV
Length 15 miles
Minimum Flow 600 cfs
Optimum Flow 1,000-2,500 cfs
Maximum Flow 4,000 cfs
First Put-in John Dunn Bridge
Lat. / Long. 36.5349998 / -105.7083969
Last Take-out Taos Junction Bridge
Lat. / Long. 36.237072 / -105.8424606
Elevation msl
Gradient fpm
USGS Gauge Web: Cerro
Boats Canoes, Kayaks, Rafts
Season Anytime except summer, depending upon weather and flow
Permits Yes (see details at left)

BLM Taos FIeld Office

Adobe Whitewater Club of New Mexico - For the Love of Rivers

Canoeman River Guide Service - Guided river trips in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah

Lone Star Paddler - the paddlesports web site of Marc W. McCord

Click the links below for information regarding the section of the Rio Grande and its tributaries where you want to paddle.

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[ Red River ] [ Rio Brazos ] [ Upper Rio Chama ] [ Chama Canyon ] [ Rio Embudo ] [ Rio Pueblo ]

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