ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When it comes to wild water rides, the Rio Grande near Taos is the place to be.
Class III and IV rapids can be challenging, fun and exciting without being outrageously dangerous, says John Bailey, recreation lead for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which oversees use of the Rio Grande and the Rio Chama.
“The premier run is The Taos Box,” Bailey says of the famous stretch through the Rio Grande Gorge, in which steep canyon walls frame and cramp the river through 15 miles of undulating swells.
Just how much of that churning whitewater will be available to river runners this year, however, is somewhat in question, he says, because of low snow levels during the winter.
Low snow levels across the state have severely hampered flows, curtailing the run, Bailey says.
It was so bad that in the south, there’s virtually no river worth hitting, says John Kramer, U.S. Forest Service recreation wilderness and trails staff person of the wilderness ranger district.
“There’s absolutely nothing,” he says. “It’s the worst I’ve seen in 20 years.”
Nevertheless, people still try to run it, which causes problems.
“It ends up taking them twice as long as they thought and then that causes medical issues,” Kramer says. “We had three medical rescues last year because people underestimated how long it would take.”
It’s the same on the Pecos River, says the Forest Service’s Deanna Younger.
The only sites that are really navigable are just above and below Avalon Dam near Carlsbad, she says.
But the runs are fairly short, Younger says.
That leaves the classic runs on the Rio Chama and Rio Grande as the best bets, although Michael Hayes of Quiet Waters Paddling says that usage studies have shown that the overwhelming majority of kayak users – about 90 percent – eschew whitewater for tamer adventures.
His company offers both guided and self-guided tours of the Rio Grande from Algodones to the Alameda Bridge just north of Albuquerque.
“The interest nationally in serene, Class I water, like the middle Rio Grande, is almost 9-1 as opposed to whitewater,” Hayes says. “It just appeals to a much broader range of people. It’s certainly better for beginners and those who are uncomfortable with the idea of whitewater.”
The 17-mile stretch takes about five hours to complete, he says, providing a calming, tranquil experience.
“It’s a really, really scenic stretch of water,” Hayes says. “It has almost no riverfront development whatsoever. The riverfront is the Pueblos and the Corrales bosque. What’s unique about it, I don’t think there’s a Class I river anywhere in the continental U.S. that’s close to a city but feels like wilderness. Most communities the size of Albuquerque or even smaller, if there’s a river running through it, it’s completely developed.”
Nature lovers in particular will appreciate the run, he says.
“I had a young couple, they were both biologists and they said they identified over 30 variety of birds in a five-hour trip. They didn’t see them all but they were able to identify their calls. I thought that was pretty cool.”
Of course, for the adrenaline junky, a leisurely jaunt down the Rio Grande is no match for the pell-mell sprint down the upper river.
The Taos Box attracts rafters and kayakers from across the country, Bailey says. But it’s a 17-mile surge of seething, frothing white water with rapids boasting names like Dead Car, Pinball and Sunset.
Just above that section, however, is a far tamer, 24-mile stretch that begins at the state line.
The Ute Mountain Run features gentle rapids rife with wildlife, but there’s a steep carryout. It’s also important to note, Bailey says, that the section is closed until June 1 because of the mating season for golden eagles and prairie falcons.
Water use of the Rio Chama has become so popular – and to protect the nesting birds – that the BLM has been forced to use a permit system, Bailey says.
And the weekend slots defined as Fridays and Saturdays are already filled, he says. To check availability, call the BLM at 575-758-8851.
But the Rio Chama offers plenty to make it a worthy destination, Bailey says, particularly because the rapids from Tierra Amarilla eastward are not nearly so fearsome.
A 15-mile stretch with plenty of navigable rapids curls through a lush canyon, ending at El Vado Lake, followed by a 33-mile stretch to Abiquiu Reservoir that is enjoyable for its mellow rapids.
“Beginning boaters will really enjoy these sections because they can learn what it’s like,” Bailey says.