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White water raft trips offer thrills, scenery for adventurers on New Mexico’s rivers

New Mexico may be a landlocked state, but there are plenty of recreational opportunities on the waters of the Rio Grande and the Rio Chama.

Several local outdoor recreation companies specialize in rafting and kayaking trips.

Generally, the best water is early in the season, which some years can start as soon as early March, while the water is usually highest in May and June, says Matt Gontram, an owner-operator of New Mexico River Adventures in Rinconada. While the river is faster when the water is at its highest, the lower levels in July, August and September offer “warmer water that’s great for swimming and floating.”

In fact, there will almost certainly be low water volumes for the entire rafting season, says Deirdre Kann, a meteorologist with the Albuquerque office of the National Weather Service. The poor snowpack, 40 percent of normal for much of the state, translates to stream flows 25 percent to 50 percent of normal.


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Not a problem, says Gontram. “The water never gets so low that we can’t get out there and enjoy the river.” In years of extreme low water, only one section along the Taos Box may become impassable on rafts.

While most people associate the best rapids with swift, high water, the reality is “some rapids are more difficult and challenging when water is higher, some when it’s lower,” dependent on terrain features and elevation drop, Gontram says.

And it’s not just about the adrenalin rush, either, says John Seiner, owner of Kokopelli Rafting Adventures in Santa Fe. “The river is an opportunity to experience the beauty of the outdoors, the intimacy of spending time with family and friends, and taking a trip back in time to see some of the cultural and natural historical sites along the river.”


Part of the beauty of these river trips is the ease of finding one that’s suitable for nearly every age and ability, says Cicso Guevara, owner of Los Rios River Runners in Taos.

“We have wonderful calm and scenic floats that refresh your spirit, mind and body; then there’s the fun whitewater that is exhilarating and OK for kids but not overwhelming; and then there’s the adrenalinepumping, white-knuckle, world class whitewater of the Taos Box section below the Rio Grande Gorge, which is not suitable for small children or the faint of heart, and can only be run in the spring flood, March through late June, sometimes into July.”

Most of the river rafting companies in New Mexico organize trips along the Rio Grande and the Rio Chama, rivers that have distinct qualities and ambiance, Guevara says.

Much of the Rio Grande is characterized by its “big whitewater” that flows through basalt box canyons with sheer walls that are most dramatic where the river passes under the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge along the Rio Grande Rift, says Guevara.


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The Rio Chama is a multicolored sandstone canyon that is lush with thick cottonwood and ponderosa pine groves. “There’s enough whitewater to keep it interesting, but it’s mostly mellow and winds through the Chama Canyon Wilderness Area and through the middle of the Christ of the Desert Monastery.”


In addition to inflatable rafts, hard kayaks and inflatable kayaks, or “Funyaks,” a new twist on riding the river is the standup paddleboard, best used on calmer stretches of water. Not all river trip companies have them, so be sure to ask.

River trips are generally available as half-day, fullday and multi-day trips with overnight camping. Prices are competitive and range from about $50 per person for a half-day trip to $100 for a full day, to several hundred dollars or more for a multi-day experience.

Price is also influenced by the number of people, the day of the week and the time of the year booked, the number of guides and the difficulty of the stretch of river.

Cost is not the only consideration. Other relevant inquiries should be about the training of the guides; the company’s safety record; the type of equipment they use; personal flotation and safety devices they provide; and the sections of the river to be navigated. Water fun

Here are some companies to contact for a northern New Mexico river experience:

New Mexico River Adventures, Rinconada, 800-983-7756,

Kokopelli Rafting Adventures, Santa Fe, 800-879-9035 or 505-983-3734,

Santa Fe Rafting Co., Santa Fe, 888-988-4914 or 505-988-4914,

New Wave Rafting Co., Embudo, 800-984-1444,

Big River Raft Trips, Pilar, 800-748-3746,

Far Flung Adventures, El Prado, 800-359-2627 or 575-758-2628,

Los Rios River Runners, Taos, 800-544-1181,

Cottam’s Rio Grande Rafting, Taos, 800-322-TAOS (8267),