The Rio Grande, or Rio Bravo del Norte, as it is known in Mexico, flows from its headwaters near Alamosa, Colorado, through New Mexico and down the Texas-Mexico border through Big Bend to Brownsville and the Gulf of Mexico. However, paddling in New Mexico is generally limited to the Taos Box area near Taos, though it is possible to paddle several other sections of the river, as well.
Near the community of Taos the Rio Grande flows through a section known by paddlers as the Taos Box, a reach of superb whitewater that is commonly referred to as the Upper and Lower Taos Box because of differing characteristics of the two runs. The two Taos Box reaches are separated by a run of about 9.5 miles that the Taos, New Mexico BLM office refers to as the La Junta reach. With a gradient of about 69 fpm. the Upper Taos Box is an expert only run for kayakers and rafters having the skills to safely negotiate Class V to VI whitewater, and to self-rescue, if necessary. This is the most demanding of the New Mexico Rio Grande reaches. This section demands careful scouting, as the best lines change radically with fluctuations in water level where long, difficult rapids are situation within a deep gorge where outside assistance is usually not practical or possible. Within the Wild Rivers Recreation Area shuttles are relatively easy due to the proximity of access roads near the put-in and take-out points, though the portages to and from the river are steep and difficult. Be very sure of your paddling skills, self-rescue skills and equipment if planning on a run in the Upper Taos Box.
Taos County, near US Highway 64 and SH 522, in northcentral New Mexico very near the Colorado border. The nearest cities are Las Vegas and Santa Fe, though numerous ski resort towns in the Taos - Red River area are closer.
Santa Fe 70 miles; Albuquerque 130 miles; Phoenix 586 miles; Durango 282 miles; Denver 773 miles; Salt Lake City 679 miles; El Paso 266 miles; Dallas 773 miles; Austin 808 miles; San Antonio 819 miles; Houston 994 miles; Oklahoma City 609 miles; Little Rock 950 miles; Kansas City 790 Miles. (All distances are approximate, and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)
Water quality in this section of the Rio Grande is usually very good to excellent. Flow is dependent upon winter snowpack and the amount of water being drained for agricultural irrigation. The Upper Taos Box is rated Class V to VI. Water temperature will be cold, and air temperature during the normal boating season will be very cool to cold, so wear wetsuits or drysuits with a base layer to protect against hypothermia.
The prime season is usually April through June, though flows may be adequate later in the year after a heavy winter snowpack.
All private boaters are required to make reservations through BLM (575-758-8851) for paddle trips on this reach of the Rio Grande. River Office contact is Mark Sundin at 575-751-4720. There is no fee, and registration at self-serve stations at each access make the process fast and easy.
This section is for expert kayakers and rafters ONLY! Rapids are in a pool-and-drop format, and can usually be scouted before running. The major rapids are: NCO Falls (Class V- to V) at about 2.0 miles; Hell Hole Rapid (Class V to VI) at about 2.25 miles is a rapid without a good scout that can suck a boater into a keeper sieve, especially at high flows. Scout from the area of the large trees on river left, then choose your line very carefully, especially if in a raft; Long Rapid (Class V- to V) at about 2.5 miles is a boulder garden with plenty of potential for pinning and wrapping; Boulder Fan Rapid (Class V- to V) at about 3.5 miles is another boulder garden with tight technical turns and strong cross currents requiring a good plan of attack - scout on river left; Big Arsenic Rapid (Class V to VI) at about 4.8 miles requires a scout on river left, and will include a lot of boulder dodging; Little Arsenic Rapid (Class V- to V) at about 5.5 miles is very technical and requires a lot of boulder dodging - scout on river left; Walkout Rapid (Class IV- to IV) at about 5.7 miles is a slightly easier hazard located at the hiking trail for those wanting to end their runs here. It can be scouted on river left.
Chiflo Trail, on river left at 0.0 miles; Little Arsenic Trail take-out, on river left, at about 6.5 miles. There are no other access points for the Upper Taos Box. Both access points require a long, steep portage from the road to the river.
Sheep Crossing Campground on river left off SH 378 about 1 mile above the first access point; Chiflo Campground on river left off SH 378 (first access point) at 0.0 miles; Big Arsenic Springs Campground on river left, adjacent to the Visitor Center off SH 378 at about 4.8 miles; Little arsenic Springs Campground on river left off SH 378 at about 5.5 miles; La Junta campground on river left at the end of SH 378 at about 6.5 miles; Cebolla Mesa Campground, just below the Red River confluence, on river left at about 7.3 miles. There may be other public or private campgrounds located near the Upper Taos Box area. Numerous resorts and motels are available within a short distance.
There are no known liveries or outfitters located along the Rio Grande in the near vicinity of the Upper Taos Box, though several commercial outfitters run trips in this area. Be prepared to set up and run your own shuttles if you cannot contract for shuttles with one of the outfitters.
The Upper Taos Box is THE premiere whitewater run in New Mexico, and is one best left to expert level whitewater rafters and kayakers. Its Class V to VI designation demands strong paddling and self-rescue skills on fast-moving and very turbulent waters. Though short at just 6.5 miles, it is the "hair of the beast" in terms of thrills, spills and chills. Difficult access getting to and from the river make you work as hard getting on and off as in actually getting downriver. The run is through a deep gorge where getting outside assistance is nearly impossible, so self-reliance is essential. Flow is erratic and undependable, so always check before planning a run to make sure there is adequate, but not too much, water. Reservations are required by BLM, but there are self-registration stations at the access points. This reach flows through the Wild Rivers Recreation Area and is controlled by the Taos office of BLM. The run bears strong resemblances to runs on the Lower Canyons in Texas and the Rio Chama, just a few miles to the west in New Mexico, except that its rapids are much more technically difficult and unforgiving. Optimum conditions are usually found in mid-spring to early summer, depending upon winter snowpack conditions. Because of the very difficult take-out at Little Arsenic Trail many paddlers opt for an additional 9 miles of paddling nearly flatwater with ocasional Class II to III rapids down through the La Junta section (see next reach description for details) to the take-out at John Dunn Bridge. Brian Adkins, the American Whitewater streamkeeper for Colorado refers to the Little Arsenic Trail take-out as "...the most brutal take-out I have ever encountered." Take that advice for what it is worth.