The Rio Chama forms in far southcentral Colorado, just above the New Mexico border in the San Juan Mountains of Carson National Forest in Archuleta County, then flows about 120 miles to its confluence with the Rio Grande just north of Espanola in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico. The upper river is characterized by huge boulders that create difficult holes, sizeable drops and hidden dead-fallen trees that test experienced whitewater boaters. Above El Vado Lake in New Mexico the river is a Class IV to IV+ whitewater run of great intensity. Below El Vado Lake the river is a Class II to III run for almost anybody with intermediate or higher level whitewater skills. This historic river has been used by humans for nearly 10,000 years, dating from the time when camels and wooly mammoths roamed the southwestern United States. In 1988, the 24.6 mile section known as Chama Canyon was designated as a "Wild and Scenic River" by the U.S. Congress.
Below El Vado Lake the Rio Chama flows about 70 miles through the Santa Fe National Forest of Rio Arriba County to the Rio Grande. The popular section for most paddlers is the 31.1 miles from El Vado Ranch down through Chama Canyon and Chavez Canyon to the Big Eddy access above Abiquiu Reservoir near SH 84. The Upper 23 miles, from El Vado Ranch to the Chavez Canyon access, requires a hard-to-get permit from the BLM Taos office (505-758-8851), though Chavez Canyon can be paddled by boaters in canoes, kayaks and rafts without a permit. See "Permit Requirements" below for details and information.
The walls in Chama Canyon rise some 1,500 feet above the river. The canyon rim and sloping uplands are frequently punctuated by steep sandstone and shale outcroppings. Inside the canyon is a plethora of geological wonders including high, steep canyon walls and escarpments consisting of rock slides, ledges, pinnacles and ridges. The bedrock of Chama Canyon is shale, basalt, tuft, sandstone, granite, quartzite and other types of rocks, some of which formed about 110 million years ago.
The Chama Valley is home to dense stands of Ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, Pinyon, Juniper, Mountain Mahogany, currant, oakbrush and serviceberry. The raparian area also includes cottonwoods, box alder, willows, hackberry and numerous shrubs that are indigenous to the northcentral New Mexico area. It is teeming with a variety of wildlife including cougars, black bears, elk, mule deer, badgers, bobcats, coyotes, beavers, raccoons, ducks, dippers, spotted sandpipers, Canadian geese, turkey, golden eagles, bald eagles, falcons, hawks, owls, turkey buzzards, brown and rainbow trout, flathead chub, flathead minnows, white suckers, carp, channel catfish, black crappie, longnose dace, and several other species of animals, birds and fish. Various species of rattlesnakes and copperheads are found in the adjacent mountain valleys and canyons, so be very careful where you put your hands and feet. Bring a camera, because this place is a wonderland of photographer delights.
Rio Arriba and Los Alamos Counties of northcentral New Mexico, just south of the Colorado border. US Highway 64/84 runs nearby to the east all the way from El Vado Lake to the Rio Grande.
Santa Fe 110 miles; Albuquerque 171 miles; Phoenix 629 miles; Durango 155 miles; Denver 285 miles; Salt Lake City 610 miles; El Paso 437 miles; Dallas 839 miles; Austin 874 miles; San Antonio 900 miles; Houston 1,060 miles; Oklahoma City 713 miles; Little Rock 1,052 miles; Kansas City 948 Miles. (All distances are approximate, and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)
The Rio Chama flows clean, clear and cold from El Vado Lake all the way to the Rio Grande. The river flows from mid-April through mid-September, the early flow coming from snowmelt and the later flow coming from dam released water at El Vado Lake.
Rio Chama has two "seasons" - the early season is from May 1 through mid-June, and the release season is from mid-July through August. Permits from the BLM Taos office are required for runs through Chama Canyon (see "Permit Requirements" below), but paddlers can run the 9 miles from Chavez Canyon access to Big Eddy access without permits any time there is adequate flow for canoes, kayaks and rafts. A self-permitting system allows boating Chama Canyon outside the release seasons. See information below for details.
All private boaters are required to obtain permits through BLM (505-758-8851) for paddle trips on Rio Chama between El Vado Ranch and Chavez Canyon access year-round, and fees are required. Contact the BLM Taos Office for details and permit applications, then hold your breath. Permits are getting harder to acquire because of demand on this river of growing popularity. The number of weekly launches is strictly limited to 16 launches per week during the early season, and 16 launches per weekend during the release season for the river above Chavez Canyon (May 1 through Labor Day.) Group size is limited to 16 persons. Commercial outfitters receive 30% of all launch permits. There are no restrictions on launches outside the two release seasons, though navigable flows will be very hard to find most of the time. Boaters must self-register at the El Vado Ranch put-in. Mandatory requirements for boats, gear and personal hygiene (sanitation) are required at all times. See Chama Canyon Permits for additional details and information.
Rio Chama, below El Vado Lake, has no significant hazards in the form of major rapids or waterfall drops. However, there are numerous Class II to III rapids that can pose problems for boaters and boats if not run properly. This is a popular section of river that requires boaters to watch out for each other, as well as for obstacles in the river. The water is cold, so dress for conditions to be encountered, especially if you anticipate getting wet. Wetsuits or drysuits are advised, even in mid-summer. The current is usually swift during the spring runoff season, when the flow can reach or exceed 3,000 cfs. Hypothermia may be the biggest single threat to boater safety.
Rapids of consequence are as follows: Eagle Bend Rapid (II) at about 1.7 miles; Sleeper Rapid (II) at about 8.2 miles; Aragon Rapid (II) at about 10.1 miles; Downpour Rapid (II) at about 11.8 miles; Dark Canyon Rapid (III) at about 13.6 miles - a long, boulder garden rapid entering on river right and bending to the right (land on river right is privately-owned); Mine Canyon Rapid (II) at about 14.7 miles; Undercut Rapid (II) at about 23.0 miles - river narrows entering the rapid, where the left wall is undercut and should be avoided; Meandering Rapid (II) is nearly a mile long, starting at about 23.6 miles, splitting into two boulder-filled channels starting at about 24.1 miles and rejoining at about 24.3 miles; Skull Bridge Rapid (II+), starting at about 27.0 miles, is a long, boulder garden rapid that diverges into two channels near the end, then rejoins at about 27.4 miles (strong riffles can exist for some distance below this rapid); Screaming Left Rapid (III) at about 30.1 miles features water piling up on boulders along the rock wall on river right; Overhang Rapid (II) at about 30.6 miles; Adobe Ruins Rapid (II) at about 31.1 miles.
El Vado Ranch put-in (with a BLM permit) at 0.0 miles; Chavez Canyon access on river right at about 22.3 miles; Big Eddy access above Abiquiu Dam at about 30.9 miles. There are no other access points for the Rio Chama above Abiquiu Reservoir.
A large campsite (11+ people) is located on river right at about 7.7 miles; Small campsites (10 or less people) are located on river right at about 9.5 miles and on river left at about 9.7 miles; A large campsite is located on river right at about 10.0 miles (above Aragon Rapid); A small campsite is located on river right at about 10.2 miles (just below Aragon Rapid); A large campsite is located on river right at about 11.7 miles; A small campsite is located on river left opposite Tiger Wall at about 11.9 miles; Large campsites are located on river left at about 12.6 and 12.7 miles; Small campsites are located on river right at 14.7 miles (adjacent to Mine Canyon Rapid) and 15.0 miles; A large campsite is located on river left at about 15.1 miles; Small campsites are located on river left at about 15.2 and 15.4 miles; A large campsite is located on river right at about 15.6 miles; A small campsite is located on river left at about 16.0 miles; Large campsites are located on river left at about 16.4 miles and on river right at about 16.6 miles; Small campsites are located on river right at about 16.7 miles, on river left at about 17.1 miles and on river right at about 17.2 miles; A large campsite is located on river right at about 17.3 miles; Small campsites are located on river left at about 17.6 and 17.8 miles; Camping is not allowed between 18.2 and 22.2 miles; A large campsite is located on river right at 23.1 miles; Chama Canyon Campground is located on river left at about 23.3 miles (vehicle access); Small campsites are located on river left at about 23.5 miles (at top of Meandering Rapid), on river right at about 24.4 miles (below Meandering Rapid), on river right at about 25.0 miles and on river right at about 25.9 miles. There are no other campsites on Rio Chama above Abiquiu Reservoir.
Abiquiu Dam offers campsites with and without electricity, drinking water, restrooms, showers, day use areas with picnic tables and a sanitary dump station. El Vado Lake State Park, just above the dam at about 59.0 miles, offers seasonal campsites with and without electricity, drinking water, restrooms, showers, day use areas with picnic tables and a sanitary dump station. There are no other public or private campgrounds along this section of the Rio Chama. However, several nearby campgrounds suitable for base camp operations are located at Trujillo Meadows, Aspen Glade, Elk Creek, Spectacle Lake, Lake Fork, Mix Lake, Alamosa and La Jara Reservoir State Fishing Area campgrounds in Rio Grande National Park, all within a few miles of the Rio Chama headwaters in Colorado on the Conejos, Alamosa and La Jara Rivers. Heron Lake State Park, just north of El Vado Lake in New Mexico, offers seasonal campsites with and without electricity, drinking water, restrooms, showers, day use areas with picnic tables, a sanitary dump station, 2 launch ramps, sailing, fishing, a seasonal marina operated from April through October by New Mexico Sailing Club with slips and limited facilities, and scenic areas with views of trees, mountains and the Brazos Cliffs.
There are no known liveries or outfitters operating along this section of the Rio Chama, though numerous commercial outfitters bring paddlers to this area. Plan on running your own shuttles if you cannot contract with a permitted outfitter.
The Chama Canyon and Chavez Canyon runs are 31+ miles of absolute beauty and a lot of fun for anybody with intermediate or higher level whitewater skills. The Chama Canyon section requires a BLM permit, and strict regulations about boat outfitting, safety equipment and preservation of the pristine natural environment are enforced by the BLM rangers. This popular run will be shared by many other paddlers, so do not expect a trip of solitude. Bring a camera, because you are going to need it here! Permit applications must be filed with the BLM Taos office between December 15 and January 15, and lottery drawings happen around February 1. There is a call-in list of available slots created by others who cancel permits before their dates, so you might be able to run Chama Canyon even if you did not win a permit slot. It is best to start calling the BLM office in March to check on availability of cancellation dates.