The state's premier whitewater run is 17 miles through the Rio Grande Gorge, a black basalt chasm that offers few easy exits from beginning to end. Stunning cliffs and plentiful bird life are often missed because the fast-moving water that tumbles over a number of steep drops demands boaters' near-constant attention. This section, known as-the Taos Box, boasts rapids with names such as Dead Car, Pinball and Sunset. Eleven commercial outfitters offer day trips.
Above the Taos Box, from just north of the state line to Lee Trail, the Ute Mountain Run takes boaters through a broad lava-rock plain. Rapids are gentle and birdlife is abundant. Deer, elk and the occasional antelope are also sighted in this section. The downside to this scenic 24-mile stretch is the takeout, which requires boaters to carry out their craft up a steep, unimproved trail. Therefore, canoes and kayaks are recommended for the overnight trip. This section is closed from April 1 through May 31 in deference to the mating season of golden eagles and prairie falcons.
A short, boulder-choked section that is not recommended for boating follows a challenging but navigable five-mile stretch from Lee Trail to the Chiflo Campground. Below this section, boaters can carry their craft down a well-maintained mile-long trail to the confluence of the Red River and the Rio Grande. For eight miles, ending at John Dunn Bridge and the starting point for the Taos Box run, the river kicks up some small whitewater but mostly features the silence of wilderness, sightings of merganser ducks or an occasional deer. Below the Taos Box, a 10-mile stretch begins in the Orilla Verde Recreation Area, gaining momentum after the village of Pilar. Below the village, a series of moderately challenging rapids run alongside N.M. 68, providing entertainment to motorists and an easy escape for boaters. This five-mile section is known as the Racecourse. Several outfitters offer guided trips through this section, either as a day or half-day outing.
From the end of the Racecourse at the Taos county line, the river remains tranquil until Otowi Bridge. This slow-moving 25-mile stretch passes alongside apple orchards. At Otowi Bridge, the Rio Grande begins a 24-mile journey to Cochiti Lake, where it backs up behind Cochiti Dam. This whitewater stretch takes boaters through beautiful White Rock Canyon and its many side hikes, waterfalls and Indian ruins. A trail leads from the river to Bandelier National Monument. Some commercial companies offer guided overnight trips.
Below Cochiti Dam, the Rio Grande cuts a wide swath through this region, which is dominated by the city of Albuquerque. Often so shallow it could be walked, the river still offers a number of enjoyable canoe day trips. From just north of Bernalillo to the southern reaches of Albuquerque, boaters can choose from a number of flat-water stretches, which in the winter are frequented by Canada geese, ducks and an occasional great blue heron.
The Rio Grande sustains farmland through this region, but a 20-mile stretch from Elephant Butte Dam to Caballo Lake is an enjoyable run for canoeists and beginning kayakers.
The Rio Chama uses its unparalleled beauty to attract boaters. This major tributary of the Rio Grande enters the state atop Cumbres Pass north of Chama. The first six miles plummet through a narrow gorge and are recommended for expert kayakers only. By the time it reaches the town of Chama, the river mellows, but a profusion of fences across it prevent boating enjoyment until just west of Tierra Amarilla. The ensuing 15 miles take boaters through a deep canyon thick with Ponderosa pines and numerous rapids, the most challenging known as Big Mama Chama. The run ends at EI Vado Lake.
The 33 miles that flow between EI Vado and Abiquiu reservoirs make up the stretch of the Fro Chama that has become most popular and is in fact regulated by the Taos office of the BLM. Due to its popularity, a unique arrangement between the owners of Rio Chama water rights and the BLM provides for scheduled releases from EI Vado Dam during seven summer weekends to provide enough water for rafters. Permits are required to ply its waters and can be obtained by contacting the Taos BLM office at (505) 758-8851.
This section was the first New Mexico river to receive the federal designation as a Wild and Scenic River. Ponderosa pines and firs line the banks at the launch site and the river gradually leaves them behind as it opens up to pastel-hued cliffs at the takeout. Hiking opportunities and rapids are plentiful but not intimidating, making this a wonderful canoe trip or family outing. Several outfitters offer guided trips, some overnight, through this stretch.
Below Abiquiu Dam, the Rio Chama flows alongside farms and ranches; often slowed by diversion dams. Cottonwoods line this 25-mile stretch of slow-moving water until it joins up with the Rio Grande.
In addition to these two main waterways, this region is peppered with a number of narrow creeks that brim with fast-moving snowmelt in the spring, offering experienced kayakers and canoeists an abundance of whitewater opportunities. For example, the Brazos River offers a nine-mile trip from the base of the sheer, granite Brazos Cliffs to the Chama River, taking boaters on a swift journey through pine-clad slopes. Whitewater marks a 15-mile stretch of the Rio Embudo that winds through a remote, heavily wooded gorge before it joins the Rio Grande. The Jemez River is obstructed by various manmade hazards such as fences and dams, which grow fewer as it approaches the Rio Grande at Zia Pueblo.