Rafting season on the Rio Grande in northern New Mexico is ripping along with spring rains and mountain runoff providing some unexpected whitewater thrills just as river guides had been preparing for lazy floats all summer.
“The Race Course and Taos Box have been an unanticipated blast this year,” says Steve Miller, President of the New Mexico River Outfitters Association and operator of New Wave Rafting of Embudo. “We didn’t think we’d see high water again for a while.”
The big flows began over Memorial Day weekend and how long they will last is anybody’s guess, Miller said.
“We’re just going to enjoy it while we can,” he added.
With New Mexico now heading into its fourth year of drought, many rafting companies have suffered from a big drop in business due to the lack of consistent high water flows that allow them to run the exciting 17-mile Taos Box.
Rafts can’t negotiate the rocky streambed without the benefit of high flows and, in the past four years, they just haven’t been there.
“That’s their bread-and-butter run,” says Mark Sundin, River Manager for the BLM in Taos.
Ridership numbers recorded by the BLM weren’t readily available this week, but Sundin said the lack of high water has cut ridership in the Taos Box down to little or none, while, on the Race Course, it’s been down by almost half.
Rafting companies have hung tough though and responded in part by providing family-friendly trips on leisurely stretches of water like those found in the Orilla Verde Recreation area at Pilar.
And while the Race Course rapids found along NM 68 in the canyon south of Pilar might not be screaming these days, they still provide plenty of thrills for the uninitiated river runner.
“A lot of tourists wouldn’t know the difference between our high and low water so, for them, rafting’s just a lot of fun,” Sundin said.
Miller agrees and noted that, during the late summer months, he and other operators remain busy floating mostly out-of-town families and groups down the lower river and the six-mile Race Course section, which always provides some whitewater thrills.
And this year, with the flows expected to remain low and slow, newcomers to the river will have a great opportunity to take their first float, or learn to kayak or paddle board, Miller says.
Anglers might be interested in renting an easy, forgiving, “funyak” to float down the river through the Orilla Verde Recreation Area, and fish the far banks where trout, bass and pike might be hiding.
Check out the Chama
But the Rio Grande isn’t the only float around.
The Rio Chama also continues to provide good rafting through some 30 miles of spectacular backcountry between the reservoirs of El Vado and Abiquiu.
“It’s a jewel of a river and they’re managing it well enough that we can still go boating on the weekends,” says Steve Harris of Far Flung Adventures. “It’s a great opportunity to enjoy the backcountry despite the drought.”
The city of Albuquerque stores its huge allotment of San Juan-Chama Project water at Heron Reservoir above El Vado and has agreed to a release schedule that maintains a minimum 400 CFS flow on the river on weekends from May through August, says Sundin.
“That’s been very helpful and we applaud them for their cooperation,” Sundin says.
In the past, the city would leave all of its water in storage until releasing it later in the fall, but now they’re helping keep things afloat for rafters on the Rio Chama during the summer.
Most rafting companies like Harris’s offer day and overnight rafting trips on the Rio Chama that are family-friendly and can be lots of fun for anglers, too.
The Rio Chama cuts through high-walled canyons where wildlife viewing opportunities abound, while anglers can chase fat brown trout that have rarely been hooked before.
Private boaters can also run on both rivers, although a permit is required on the Rio Chama and some sections of the Rio Grande. Consult the BLM’s website at blm.gov/nm or call the agency at 575-758-8851 for more info.
And then get out there on the water.