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Rio Grande, Colorado
Report by Marc W. McCord

Big Meadows Reservoir to South Fork
~ 14.9 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 in the San Juan Mountains of the Rocky Mountains Range in southeastern Colorado, through New Mexico and down the Texas-Mexico border through Big Bend to Brownsville and the Gulf of Mexico almost 1,885 miles below its headwaters making it the fourth or fifth longest river in America, depending upon how it is measured. The river forms as two forks, the North Fork flowing southeasterly from Rio Grande Reservoir in Hinsdale County along SH 149 and the shorter and narrower South Fork flowing from Big Meadows Reservoir in Mineral County along US Highway 160 to their confluence at South Fork, Colorado. At the top the river is generally narrow and steep with big drops and major boulder gardens. In low water conditions it would be impractical to try runs on either fork, but in May and June, when snowmelt fills the reservoirs and they begin releasing water, the two forks become exciting whitewater streams, the upper end of the South Fork having Class V waterfall drops and rapids, while the North Fork is a more "mundane" Class III stream - both spouting epic natural scenery along the entirety of their courses. The main stem forms at the confluence of the North and South Forks in the small Town of South Fork about 53 miles below the North Fork access at River Hill Campground right below the outflow from Rio Grande Reservoir, and about 15 miles below the Big Meadows Reservoir.

The South Fork of the Rio Grande begins at the outflow of Big Meadows Reservoir and depends upon dam releases or snowmelt water from the lake or rain run-off for navigable flows. With a normal or heavier winter snowpack navigable flows may be found in May and June, but usually not at other times. Numerous creeks feed this river, so flows can be greatly impacted all along its course. This river is quite remote and scenic. Runs start at an elevation of about 9,175 feet msl, so paddlers and campers can expect chilly weather most of the time, and water temperatures will always be cold. The upper end of the river begins as a Class IV run, and then quickly becomes a Class V run, between the FR 410 access and Columbine Rast Area on a steep gradient averaging about 160 fpm before mellowing out a little into a somewhat easier run, but no part of this river, especially in the upper 3-4 miles, should be taken lightly. It is NOT a place for recreational boaters. Strong paddling skills and quick decision making are mandatory. The area is drop-dead gorgeous, so be sure to take your camera to this Rio Grande National Forest stream.


Mineral County of southcentral Colorado ending at the North Fork confluence in the Town of South Fork, far removed from any major population centers. The North Fork of the Rio Grande is a few miles away to the north in Hinsdale and Mineral Counties. The Lake Fork and Cebolla Creek tributaries to the Gunnison River have their headwaters just a few miles north of this run. The Piedra, San Juan, Los Pinos, Florida and Animas Rivers all have their headwaters a few miles to the south.

Distance from major cities

Durango 118 miles; Denver 250 miles; Grand Junction 263 miles; Albuquerque 263 miles; Phoenix 570 miles; Salt Lake City 510 miles; Dallas 770 miles; Austin 910 miles; San Antonio 990 miles; Houston 1,005 miles; Oklahoma City 665 miles; Little Rock 1,000 miles; Kansas City 810 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 excellent, flowing clean, clear and cold from Big Meadows Reservoir and mountain snowmelt runoff from tributary creeks. Navigable flows are usually not found other than in late-spring and early summer, depending upon dam releases at the lake or run-off after rains.

Best time to go

Typically, May and June are the best time to run the South Fork of the Rio Grande. There are no USGS gauges for this run.

Hazards to navigation

Steep, technically difficult waterfalls and rapids are prevalent along the upper reach of this run from Big Meadows Reservoir Access to the Columbine Access. Deadfall debris may also be present posing a risk to life and safety, so scouting rapids from US Highway 160 is strongly advised. Advanced or higher level whitewater skills and swiftwater rescue training would be beneficial on the upper end of this run this run because of its technical difficulty (up to Class V rapids), steep gradient (160 fpm above Columbine and 37 fpm below Columbine), fast channel and remoteness. Below Columbine, paddlers should have at least strong intermediate whitewater skills and swiftwater rescue training. Paddlers should always be adequately prepared for cold water conditions on the South Fork of the Rio Grande. Wearing helmets and other protective gear is advised to reduce risk of injury or death.

River Access Points

Big Meadows Reservoir Access (N 37° 32' 24.20" / W 106° 48' 00.34") off US Highway 160 on river left at 0.0 miles; FR 430 @ FR 410 (N 37° 32' 33.03" / W 106° 47' 47.63") on river right at about 0.3 miles (mandatory portage if starting above here); FR 410 low water bridge (N 37° 33' 06.01" / W 106° 46' 47.92") on river left at about 1.5 miles; Pass Creek confluence at US Highway 160 (N 37° 33' 11.16" / W 106° 46' 39.27") on river left at about 1.7 miles; US Highway 160 culvert at FR 410 (N 37° 33' 15.05" / W 106° 46' 36.24") requires a portage across US Highway 160 at about 1.75 miles; US Highway 160 roadside (N 37° 33' 26.02" / W 106° 46' 19.67") at Lake Fork Creek on river left at about 2.1 miles; Columbine Rest Area (N 37° 34' 20.44" / W 106° 45' 22.40") off US Highway 160 on river left at about 3.5 miles; Unidentified bridge (N 37° 34' 27.95" / W 106° 45' 12.65") on river left at about 3.7 miles; US Highway 160 roadside access (N 37° 35' 10.68" / W 106° 44' 07.14") on river left at about 5.2 miles; FR 380 at US Highway 160 (N 37° 35' 45.48" / W 106° 43' 39.68") on river right at about 6.1 miles; US Highway 160 roadside access (N 37° 36' 35.54" / W 106° 42' 34.28") on river left at about 7.8 miles; US Highway 160 roadside (N 37° 39' 09.88" / W 106° 39' 15.63") on river left at about 13.1 miles; US Highway 160 (N 37° 40' 11.78" / W 106° 38' 06.55") just above the North Fork confluence on river right at about 14.9 miles (this access is in the Town of South Fork.) There may be other access points for the North Fork, and some of the ones listed here may not be practical.

Campgrounds and accommodations

There are no known campgrounds along the South Fork of the Rio Grande. This river is best suited for day trips when base camping elsewhere or staying in accommodation in the Town of South Fork.

Liveries, outfitters and shuttle services

There are no known outfitters offering rentals, shuttles and other services along the South Fork of the Rio Grande, though one or more may be found in the Town of South Fork. Be prepared to bring your own equipment and run your own shuttles if not contracting the services of a local outfitter.

Reviewer's Comments

To be sure, this reach of the Rio Grande is a steep creek run with serious whitewater rapids and waterfall drops at the top before mellowing a little after the first 4 or so miles. The river drops about 560 feet at an average of about 160 fpm in the first 3.5 miles, so expect a fast ride! Below Columbine the river drops about 421 feet in 11.4 miles at a rate of about 37 fpm. The channel is narrow and twisting with significant hazard potential making it unsuitable for those with less than at least strong intermediate whitewater skills, and advanced or higher level skills would be recommended if running the upper 4 miles. It is a roadside run along US Highway 160 with numerous potential access points, though parking space is VERY limited. The reach between FR 410 and Columbine Rest Area is particularly challenging with a very steep gradient and some Class IV to V drops that are technically difficult. The river channel also has the potential to be clogged by deadfallen trees in addition to boulders, so scouting rapids and drops is strongly advised. The run is awash in gorgeous scenery, but you will have little time to take it in if you are paying attention to the river and its hazards. A helmet-mounted GoPro camera would be the ideal way to take photos on this run, though most of the rapids can be scouted from US Highway 160, where photos can also be taken. The cold water demands attention to the potential for hypothermia, even in summer, so plan accordingly. Above Columbine this river is not suitable for rafts, though they can be used below that point, and a couple of South Fork outfitters lead guided trips on the lower 10 miles in rafts.

Technical Data
Class Rating IV to V above Columbine
I to III below Columbine
Length 14.9
Minimum Flow cfs
Optimum Flow cfs
Maximum Flow
First Put-in Big Meadows Reservoir Spillway
Lat. / Long. N 37° 32' 24.20" / W 106° 48' 00.34"
Last Take-out US 160 in South Fork
Lat. / Long. N 37° 40' 11.78" / W 106° 38' 06.55"
Elevation 9,175 - 8,193 feet msl
Gradient 65.9 fpm av. / ~ 180 fpm max.
Boats Canoes, Kayaks, Rafts
Season May - June
Permits No

Poudre Paddlers Canoe and Kayak Club

Click HERE to visit the web site of Rocky Mountain Canoe Club

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 where you want to paddle.

[ Rio Grande Homepage ] [ North Fork ] [ South Park to Alamosa ] [ Alamosa to SH 142 ]
[ Conejos River ]

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© September 23, 2002. All rights reserved.
Last updated December 21, 2014

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