|The Rio Grande, or Rio Bravo del Norte, as it is known in Mexico, flows from its headwaters in the San Juan Mountains of the Rocky Mountains Range in southeastern Colorado, through New Mexico and down the Texas-Mexico border through Big Bend to Brownsville and the Gulf of Mexico almost 1,885 miles below its headwaters making it the fourth or fifth longest river in America, depending upon how it is measured. The river forms as two forks, the North Fork flowing southeasterly from Rio Grande Reservoir in Hinsdale County along SH 149 and the shorter and narrower South Fork flowing from Big Meadows Reservoir in Mineral County along US Highway 160 to their confluence at South Fork, Colorado. At the top the river is generally narrow and steep with big drops and major boulder gardens. In low water conditions it would be impractical to try runs on either fork, but in May and June, when snowmelt fills the reservoirs and they begin releasing water, the two forks become exciting whitewater streams, the upper end of the South Fork having Class V waterfall drops and rapids, while the North Fork is a more "mundane" Class III stream - both spouting epic natural scenery along the entirety of their courses. The main stem forms at the confluence of the forks in the small Town of South Fork about 53 miles below the North Fork access at River Hill Campground right below the outflow from Rio Grande Reservoir.
The North Fork, flowing southeast from Rio Grande Reservoir in Hinsdale County, is the more popular of the two forks because of its suitability for paddlers will less whitewater experience, and because it has much better public access. It closely follows SH 149 from the northwest all the way to the Town of South Fork, while the South Fork closely follows US Highway 160 from the southwest to the Town of South Fork. Local outfitters offer rafting and fishing trips on both forks when water flow conditions are suitable. Be forewarned - the waters of the Upper Rio Grande are cold coming from snowmelt in mountain lakes, so plan accordingly if taking a trip on this river. While the river runs along major highways there are only a few small towns located along and near the river, and the area is generally very remote and densely forested.
Within Colorado, the Rio Grande is joined by the Alamosa River, Conejos River and Trinchera Creek, as well as numerous secondary and tertiary tributaries, all of which may be navigable during short seasons when monsoonal rainfall or significant spring snowmelt raises them momentarily. The sticky issue in Colorado is one of public access, and that is particularly true of the tributary streams which may be bounded by private property allowing little or no access at all. The matter of public access is one of on-going concern and negotiation even tough federal navigation law, as upheld by the US Supreme Court and numerous federal district courts, asserts a public right to navigate rivers, creeks and streams of the United States. Be sure you know your rights and take every opportunity to obtain permission before accessing any river from private property.
Click HERE for the history and anthropology of the Rio Grande
Click the links below for information regarding the section of the Rio Grande where you want to paddle.
[ South Fork ] [ North Fork ] [ South Park to Alamosa ] [ Alamosa to SH 142 ]
[ Conejos River ]