The Rio Grande, or Rio Bravo del Norte, as it is known in Mexico, flows about 1,960 miles 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. It is the fifth longest river in the US, and drains a significant portion of Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Mexico. Altogether, its 335,000 square miles of drainage basin account for about 11 percent of all continental US area. However, paddling in Colorado is generally limited to the Upper Rio Grande above the Town of South Fork, though it is possible to paddle several other sections of the river, as well.
This reach begins at Brown Memorial Park in South Fork and then flows about 73 miles through plains and remote, indeveloped areas of southern Colorado to the US Highway 160 bridge in Alamosa. While there are numerous possible access points along this reach most are not ideal and parking space is very limited at most of them. Between South Fork and Del Norte there is better access making the upper 21 miles better suits for most paddlers. Below Del Norte the river is frequently channalized with diversion dams that send water for agricultural and livestock operations away from the main channel. Some of these dams also require portages to get around slowing down paddlers and sometimes risking injury in the process of portaging. The lower 50 miles is very remote and access is less hospitable, though several points can be found with a little effort and a good roadmap. Scenery is not anywhere nearly as nice as the North and South Forks above the Town of south Fork, and in places it is basically scrub and barren land. The gradient is greatly less than on reaches above with an average of only about 9 feet per mile, so the water moves a lot slower and may stick around a little longer, but the diversion dams syphon off a lot of water that would otherwise flow in the main river channel, so paddling in late spring through fall months may be less than ideal due to insufficient water levels.
Other than in South Fork, Del Norte and Alamosa there are no services or places to re-supply along this reach of the Rio Grande. This reach could be run by marathon paddlers in one or two days, but most would require 5-8 days to go all the way from South Fork to Alamosa. There are plenty of natural campsites along the river, but paddlers need to be careful not to trespass on private land. And while daytime temperatures can be moderate it can get very cool at night on a run that begins at over 8,200 feet above sea level and ends at over 7,500 feet, so be sure to plan accordingly when packing clothing and supplies. Mileage estimates are based upon taking the main river channel, and taking diversion channels can add many miles to a trip, so it would be a good idea to take topo maps with your preferred route clearly marked to avoid the extra distance and time for which you have not planned and prepared.
Rio Grande and Alamosa Counties along SH 149 in the San Juan Mountains of Rio Grande National Forest. Del Norte, Torres, Monte Vista and Homelake are all located along the river between South Fork and Alamosa 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.
Durango 103 miles; Denver 235 miles; Grand Junction 248 miles; Albuquerque 248 miles; Phoenix 555 miles; Salt Lake City 495 miles; El Paso 511 miles; Dallas 754 miles; Austin 895 miles; San Antonio 975 miles; Houston 991 miles; Oklahoma City 651 miles; Little Rock 987 miles; Kansas City 796 miles. (All distances are approximate, and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)
Water quality is generally very good to good flowing usually clean and clear except right after major rainstorms when the river becomes murky. Flow rates depend upon dam releases at Rio grande and Big Meadows Reservoirs above south Fork and local rain or snowmelt run off. best flows are in late spring to early summer, though flows can be adequate anytime after a significant rain event. Call local outfitters in South Fork for current information.
Typically, April through June is the optimum season for this reach of the Rio Grande, but the river may flow at navigable levels anytime after a major rain event or when the winter snowpack melts. Generally speaking, late fall through early spring months are best avoided because of temperature and the remoteness of this area, especially below Del Norte where access is very limited and getting assistance would be difficult.
This reach is basically a flatwater run with a few minor ledges and riffles. There are several diversion dams that could pose problems at some higher flow levels, but generally this reach is free of significant hazards to boaters.
Brown Memorial Park (N 37° 40' 34.91" / W 106° 39' 11.71") in South Fork on river left at 0.0 miles; N. River Road (N 37° 40' 47.70" / W 106° 36' 06.85") in South Fork on river left at about 3.2 miles; CR 19 (N 37° 40' 39.25" / W 106° 35' 29.99") between US Highway 160 and Rio Grande Drive on river left at about 3.9 miles; Rayburn Road at Rio Grande Drive (N 37° 40' 54.12" / W 106° 34' 42.35") on river left at about 4.8 miles; CR 18 (N 37° 41' 31.25" / W 106° 30' 54.68") on river left at about 9.2 miles; CR 17 / Hanna Lane (N 37° 41' 20.15" / W 106° 27' 36.32") on river left at about 13.1 miles; SH 112 / Oak Street (N 37° 41' 07.01" / W 106° 21' 02.54") in Del Norte on river left at about 21.1 miles; W. CR 5N (N 37° 38' 50.49" / W 106° 14' 28.04") on river right at about 30.8 miles; CR 3W (N 37° 37' 26.49" / W 106° 12' 15.69") on river right at about 33.7 miles; US Highway 285 Bridge (N 37° 36' 33.38" / W 106° 08' 58.29") on either side at about 38.2 miles; N. CR 1E (N 37° 36' 06.54" / W 106° 07' 50.80") on river right at about 39.9 miles; Soldiers Home Road (N 37° 34' 58.27" / W 106° 05' 39.30") on river left at about 43.4 miles; S. CR 6E (N 37° 34' 13.18" / W 106° 02' 21.80") on river left at about 47.9 miles; Adams State University sports complex (N 37° 28' 46.28" / W 105° 52' 41.86") in Alamosa on river right at about 71.3 miles; N. River Road (N 37° 28' 31.14" / W 105° 52' 01.19") in Alamosa on river right at about 72.1 miles; Cole Park (N 37° 28' 19.80" / W 105° 51' 43.87") in Alamosa on river right at about 72.7 miles; US Highway 160 / Broadway Av. (N 37° 28' 10.58" / W 105° 51' 41.18") in Alamosa on river right at about 72.9 miles. There may be other access points available along this reach of the Rio Grande.
Other than conventional accommodations and a few commercial campgrounds in South Fork and Del Norte there are no camping facilities located along this reach of the Rio Grande. There are many natural campsites, but some are on private property, so be careful to avoid trespassing.
There are no known liveries or outfitters operating along the Rio Grande in Colorado other than in and around the Town of South Fork. Be prepared to set up and run your own shuttles if not contracting with a South Fork outfitter.
The reach of the Rio Grande between the Town of South Fork and Alamosa is not a frequently traveled part of the river, partly due to a lack of access below Del Norte and partly because more fun and better scenery can be found on other nearby streams including both the North and South Forks, which meet in the Town of South Fork. At nearly 73 miles this is a long trip if running the entire reach. A few access points between South Fork and Del Norte afford opportinities for shorter trips with the total distance between those two points at just over 21 miles. Below Del Norte the river is channelized with diversion dams to provide agricultural and livestock water, and taking one of the channels will add many miles to a trip. Flowing through the Colorado plains, this area is less attractive, but still interesting for those who enjoy long trips on flatwater streams. Just be sure to have extra provisions in the event it takes longer than anticipated.