In a normal year, the majority of New Mexico’s land surface receives from 5 to 15 inches of precipitation. The rest of the state gets less than that. These two basic facts are why people who need a lot of water in their lives have difficulty surviving in our state, even if they want to. Such folks would do well, in my opinion, to sit down with one of our state’s many whitewater enthusiasts and talk about their water insecurities; maybe an actual rafting trip would help as well. These desert-phobes might be surprised at how easy it can be in this parched ecosystem to keep water in their lives, and in their ears, nose, eyes, clothes, and pretty much anything they might otherwise want to keep dry.
It’s strange but true: New Mexico is a magnet for river rats. The second longest river in North America, the Rio Grande, is by far our most boated river. At the Colorado border, the Rio enters a gorge (a geologic rift zone) that reaches depths of up to 1,000 feet and charts an often steep course for approximately 80 miles. Though a good portion of this stretch is take-your-life-in-your-hands kind of boating, mellower opportunities are there for river runners of lower fear thresholds. No matter where you choose to experience the Rio, you are in for a visual treat (a significant portion of the Rio received federal Wild and Scenic River status in 1968) for the whole ride.
The Rio Chama was designated a Wild and Scenic River in 1968 as well, for reasons that will be abundantly clear to anyone floating its mostly gentle currents from El Vado Lake to Abiquiu. The Chama is not for adrenaline junkies like the Rio Grande is, but for those with more subdued addictions to things like solitude and wilderness.
When you watched The Exorcist and Linda Blair spun her head around and spoke in Satan’s voice, did you cry for your mommy? If your answer is no, then you should probably run the Taos Box, a 17 mile, sometimes terrifying section of the Rio Grande gorge between John Dunn bridge near the town of Arroyo Hondo to Taos Junction bridge. Even if your answer is yes, you should consider this float, if only because it’s something you won’t likely forget. Besides, even though the Box is world-renowned for its Class IV and V rapids, most of the nastiest stuff is near the end, by which time you will have gotten over your fear. Right?
Seriously, the first ten miles or so of the basalt-cliffed Box run is mainly training water, the worst rapids being in the Class II and III range. You will pass hot springs (usually lukewarm springs) and some petroglyph sites, and you will float under the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge approximately 650 feet above your head (the third highest bridge in the U.S.). This is the time you should devote to listening to your guide and executing his or her commands immediately and without question.
Don’t take lightly the importance of obeying your guide. Failing to do so could result in a lost life or serious injury, the likelihood of which increases sharply at about mile 11 of your float. This is the Powerline Rapid, where your Class III honeymoon is officially over. A strong Class IV gusher, Powerline is the beginning of the Rio Bravo section of the Box, about 2 miles of almost constant whitewater through rapids named Pinball, Boat Reamer, and Punk Rock.
The upper Box, or Wild Rivers, section above John Dunn is for elite boaters only (extremely hazardous, requiring superior whitewater skills and specialized equipment) and won’t be written about here. It’s simply one of the most challenging patches of water on this continent.
Beginning where the Taos Box ends, the Orilla Verde float is for those who want to take in the actual beauty of the gorge, something the more technical sections of the Rio won’t allow without significant risk to life. Bordered by stands of willows, tamarisk and cottonwood, the Orilla Verde State Park is where the river takes a break from the chaotic pace upstream. The water’s slow, so much so that this 7-mile float will last most of a day if you make a few stops. You can swim in the pools, and there are plenty of spots to pull over and catch a trout, smallmouth bass, or northern pike (actually, there’s great fishing in the Rio from Orilla Verde all the way to the Colorado border). If you’re a recreational and not a professional boater, beware of two spots on the Orilla Verde section: immediately below a water gauging station, there is an island with a fast water chute running to the right of it. Take this chute or line your boat through. Also, the end of the float can get hairy if the water’s low; you’ll have to pick your way through as best you can.
The Orilla Verde float ends at the Quartzite site, near the village of Pilar. This is also where the Racecourse float (or swim, or shower, depending on water levels) begins. The Racecourse is the perfect excursion for those who like their thrills but don’t need them to be a million miles away or to last all day. A mere 5 miles long, the Racecourse is nevertheless a constant dose of Class III excitement, where you will encounter technical spots called Albert’s Falls and the notorious Big Rock. It is safe to say that the Racecourse comprises pretty much all of New Mexico’s rafting industry, which is to say that it’s crowded with boats almost every summer day. I doubt if you’ll hear many complaints though, especially from someone who has had a blast floating and yet will be able to make it home for an early dinner.
Much calmer than the Taos Box and without the bustle of the Racecourse, the Chama Wild and Scenic section between El Vado and Abiquiu is something every New Mexican should experience at least once. The trip begins at Cooper’s Ranch below El Vado dam, runs through piñon and ponderosa-cloaked mesas. Here and there, awestruck boaters are presented with the mesas’ sandstone flanks, orange, yellow, and purple. Seeing rarer forms of wildlife is more possible here than more trammeled spots; animals like cougars that prefer seclusion gravitate to the Chama canyon for its milder climate and light human presence.
You’ll have to get a permit to float this section or go with a commercial outfit with its own permit. You’ll also have to bring your own toilet system and take your waste out with you when your trip is through. And a word of caution is due about wildlife. This is wilderness, and it doesn’t get as cold during boating season as wild places at altitude often get. This alone makes the Chama canyon a very hospitable place to animals who don’t tolerate human company very well and animals like bears and cougars that eat them. Honestly, it’s not the mammals that I worry about (just keep your wits about you). It’s the rattlesnakes. Beware of shade during the hot hours and sunny spots in the mornings and evenings.
Since the Chama float is 31 miles long, it’s best to take it in three days, camping at least two nights on the river. Fewer than three days would be a rush, and rushing is not what this float is about. You’ll want to cut your float short on the first day, as the upper section is where the best fishing is, where brown and rainbow trout averaging 14 inches long take flies and spinners with abandon. You’ll want a day for swimming or lazing about camp reading a book. Perhaps you’ll want to hike. More than anything, you’ll want to delay for as long as you can the end of this incredible trip.
Seeing New Mexico by river boat is something an increasing number of people are doing these days. We may not have a lot of water, but much of the water that there is finds its way to two rivers that the leaders of our nation believed were deserving of special recognition and protection. Get out there in a raft, and you’ll see they weren’t wrong.