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Rio Grande, New Mexico
Report by Marc W. McCord

~ 4.8 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.

Racecourse is a reach of about 4.8 miles on an average gradient of 27 fpm flowing from Quartzite Site public access near Pilar to the Taos County Line just above the Rio Embudo confluence. This short reach features Class III to IV whitewater with several named rapids and a lot of exciting play for intermediate or higher level whitewater paddlers in canoes with flotation, kayaks and rafts. The cold water and larger rapids make wearing a wetsuit or drysuit with a base layer necessary to prevent hypothermia, especially when air temperatures are very cool to cold. Like the reach above, Racecourse is very popular, especially on weekends during April through June. This reach is home to an annual Mother's Day race that gives the area its name. The very close proximity of SH 68 allows easy access to numerous places where roadside play is possible. Some rapids have large holes that become quite significant as flows increase. The Glenn-Woody Bridge is a significant hazard in high water conditions where a river left portage is necessary. Prior reservations are not required, but the BLM asks that all boaters self-register at the access point where they begin their runs. The land along river right near Glenn-Woody Bridge is privately owned, and paddlers should avoid trespassing there.


Between Pilar and Dixon along SH 68 in far southwestern Taos County. The Rio Pueblo confluence is just above this reach at the intersection of SH 567 and SH 570, and the Rio Embudo confluence is just below the bottom at the intersection of SH 68 and SH 75.

Distance from major cities

Santa Fe 55 miles; Albuquerque 116 miles; Phoenix 574 miles; Durango 267 miles; Denver 758 miles; Salt Lake City 664 miles; El Paso 250 miles; Dallas 758 miles; Austin 793 miles; San Antonio 804 miles; Houston 979 miles; Oklahoma City 594 miles; Little Rock 935 miles; Kansas City 775 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 is usually clean, clear and very cold flowing from snowmelt in the mountains to the north. Adequate flows exist above about 600 cfs and low-water bridges become hazards at about 4,000 cfs.

Best time to go

Spring to early summer is usually the best time to visit this section of the Rio Grande. Adequate flows depend upon water coming down from the Taos area after winter snows melt in the mountains of northern New Mexico. April through June is the popular season. Expect large crowds on weekends, especially on Mother's Day weekend.

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 with a site host or at self-serve stations at each access make the process fast and easy.

Hazards to navigation

At about 6.7 miles below Taos Junction Bridge is the first of a series of Class III+ to IV rapids. The Narrows, at about 0.7 miles, is a boulder garden with usually easy lines; Glenn-Woody Bridge, a low-water bridge at about 1.0 miles, is a serious hazard at high water (above 4,000 cfs) levels - portage on river left (river right is private property, and a portage there involves trespassing); Big Rock Rapid, at about 1.3 miles, is another boulder garden with play holes that can be dangerous if run improperly; Sleeping Beauty Rapid, at about 2.5 miles, is a garden variety rapid of boulders with play holes; Souse Hole Rapid, at about 3.4 miles, is another boulder garden rapid with a serious hole. Most of these rapids have holes that can become tough to negotiate when flows increase over about 2,000 cfs. There are no other rapids of significance on this run. The cold water temperature should be considered a hazard, and wetsuits or drysuits with base layers are recommended to prevent hypothermia, expecially if you swim or whenever the air temperature is very cool to cold.

River Access Points

Quartzite Site on river left at 0.0 miles; Alberta Falls; Souse Hole on river left at about 3.4 miles; County Line Site public access at about 4.8 miles. Roadside access is available at Karmic Wave and After Five Rapids. Park ONLY in designated spaces and at least 30 feet away from SH 68 to avoid being cited by state troopers. This popular area attracts commercial rafting company operators in large busses pulling trailers, so allow plenty of room for them to turn around.

Campgrounds and accommodations

There are no riverside campgrounds along the Racecourse reach of the Rio Grande. There are, however, several BLM campsites located on river left in the Orilla Verde Recreation Area immediately above this reach including Cable Site (kayaks only), Lone Juniper Site, Arroyo Hondo Campground and Orilla Verde Campground. SH 570 closely parallels the river all along this area and access points are within a short distance of the highway. SH 68, which parallels the river along the Racecourse area, interesects SH 570 at Pilar just north of this reach.

Liveries, outfitters and shuttle services

There are no known liveries or outfitters located along this section of the Rio Grande. Plan on setting up and running your own shuttles. DO NOT park within 30 feet of SH 68! State troopers love to write parking citations along this area. Be sure to leave room for large busses pulling trailers to turn around, and use ONLY designated parking spaces.

Reviewer's Comments

If you are looking for a popular whitewater run of short duration on Class III to IV rapids, then Racecourse is the place to be. Easy access, several good play holes, short shuttle distances and beautiful scenery all combine to offer a great place to get wet, and you probably will! The water is cold, so be properly attired. Weekends attract crowds and parking can be difficult, but make sure you use only designated parking areas, and be considerate of large busses pulling trailers that may need to turn around. As flows increase be sure to watch out for low-water bridges - they become significant hazards at flows exceeding about 4,000 cfs. The April through June period is the most popular time to paddle Racecourse, and Mother's Day features a canoe race that gives this reach its name. It is also the weekend with the biggest crowds. Mid-week paddling offers more solitude and easier parking. Advance reservations are not required, but be sure to self-register at the put-in for each run you make. The short run and equally short shuttle distance make it possible to do two or three runs in a day, if so desired. BLM campgrounds are available along the river in the Orilla Verde Recreation Area just above Pilar a few miles to the north. Be sure to pack your camera, but carry it in a waterproof container when not in use.

Technical Data
Class Rating III to IV
Length 4.8 miles
Minimum Flow 300 cfs
Optimum Flow cfs
Maximum Flow 6,000 cfs
First Put-in Alberta Falls
Lat. / Long.
Last Take-out Taos County Line access
Lat. / Long.
Elevation msl
Gradient 27 fpm
USGS Gauge Web: Taos Junction Bridge
Boats Canoes, Kayaks, Rafts
Season Year-round, weather permitting
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.

Rio Grande

[ Rio Grande Homepage ] [ Ute Mountain Run ] [ Razorblades ] [ Upper Taos Box ] [ La Junta ]
[ Lower Taos Box ] [ Orila Verde ] [ Bosque ] [ Elephant Butte Res. to Las Cruces ]

Tributary Rivers

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

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