whitewater rafting the rio grande
Boaters tackle the raging Rio Grande in New Mexico

Wild Wild West

whitewater rafting the rio grande

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Thanks to one of the worst droughts in a century, the Southwest’s most thrilling boating of late has been a motorized trip to Cathedral in the Desert, the reemerging sandstone amphitheater in Utah’s man-made Lake Powell.

Well, times change, and so does the weather. Suddenly, the big news isn’t the drought—it’s the flood. New Mexico and parts of Southern California are coming off their wettest winters on record, and the snowpack in Arizona, Utah, and southern Colorado is well above average. As a result, the Southwest is enjoying its wildest whitewater in decades. In April, outfitters led the first worthy commercial raft trips on Colorado’s Dolores River since 1998. A snowpack 170 percent of normal is currently supercharging California’s Kern River, and the hugely popular Arkansas River, in central Colorado, will have Class III to V rapids into August.

So is the drought over? Perhaps, but river runners aren’t taking their chances. “Now is the time to get out,” says Mark Hammer, owner of Buena Vista, Colorado–based The Adventure Company. “You never know what next year’s going to bring.”

Kern and Arkansas Rivers

At the southern edge of the Sierra, the Kern runs through Sequoia National Forest, east of Bakersfield, California. The three main sections of the Kern—the Upper, Lower, and renowned Forks of the Kern—offer a variety of runs for both beginners and experts, from Class II to Class V. The Lower Kern, located below the Isabella Dam, is an excellent beginner run. This year’s record snowpack will make the entire 17-mile middle section of the Upper Kern runnable, meaning trips can be tailored toward the skills of rafters and the weather. The Forks of the Kern, normally a Class V classic, should run well into mid-August this year. The Forks is 18 miles long, dropping 60 feet per mile amongst huge granite canyon walls and plunging waterfalls, and encompassing great rapids, including the double waterfall Carson Falls and the technically challenging Westwall.

Whitewater Voyages (1-800-400-7238, www.whitewatervoyages.com)
El Sobrante, California-based Whitewater Voyages has taken almost 500,000 people rafting since 1975. Kern River trips begin in Kernville, three and a half hours north of Los Angeles (one and a half hours from Bakersfield). One- or two-day trips, from Class III to IV, are available on the Lower Kern. Trips range from the $129 Class III Jungle Run to the two-day Southern Sierra Escape, starting at $289. On the Upper Kern, four shorter half-day and day trips are offered through mid-September; half-day trips start at $89; full-day trips start at $139. Two “Wilderness Juggernaut” trips, either two or three days, are offered on the Class V Forks, from $599 to $729.

The Arkansas River begins as snowmelt on Colorado’s highest peaks, and runs almost 1,500 miles across the southern United States until joining the Mississippi in its namesake state, Arkansas. As with most things, though, the place to start is at the beginning—Colorado—where heavy snowfall will keep this river running late, perhaps until the end of August. “The Arkansas has about the best you’re going to find in Colorado,” says Mark Hammer, owner of Buena Vista-based The Adventure Company. “It’s the true Colorado experience. One of the things that makes the Arkansas great as a commercial river is the variety of good, accessible runs from the Class II Milk Run to Class V Pine Creek, but it’s not so accessible that it has a highway following the river.” Located in alpine desert, the scenery is Pike’s Peak granite mixed in with desert plants and pines and fir trees.

The Adventure Company (1-800-497-RAFT, www.theadventurecompany.com)
In business since 1987, The Adventure Company is located in Buena Vista, Colorado, two hours southwest of Denver. They run a variety of half- and full-day trips appropriate for small children (Class II to III “Milk Run” for $39) and experienced adults (Class V “Pine Creek” for $99). Multi-day and full-moon trips are The Adventure Company’s specialty. Multi-day trips travel through Class III Browns Canyon, which, in a year like this, is a good thing, since it can be run in the height of a flood or the pit of a drought; two-day trips start at $269 and you should call for dates. Full-moon trips meet at 7 p.m. for the Ultimate Fajita Buffet, and then once the sun sets, the group heads down the river to Browns Canyon for a unique float; this year’s trips are July 18 and 19, and August 17 and 18, $98 per person, dinner and gear included.

TRIBUTARIES OF THE COLORADO: Green River, Cataract Canyon, and San Juan River

The Green River begins in Wyoming, meets up with the Yampa at Echo Park in Dinosaur National Monument, and then continues rolling towards the Colorado where their meeting explodes into Cataract Canyon in Canyonlands National Park. Little known, the Green is a big river, with a larger watershed than the famed Colorado. When John Wesley Powell pioneered the Colorado River in 1869, he traveled 538 miles from Green River, Wyoming, to the junction with the Colorado River, hitting Green River, Lodore, and Desolation canyons in the process. “The Green River through Lodore Canyon is like Cataract Canyon or the Grand Canyon in that its geology is similar, but the difference is that it’s farther north and higher in elevation, so that you get these desert rocks mixed with ponderosa pine, and more varied wildlife. It’s the ultimate combination between high desert river and alpine river,” says John Wood, co-owner of Holiday Expeditions.

Holiday Expeditions (1-800-624-6323, www.bikeraft.com)
Since 1966, Holiday has run trips on Utah’s rivers. Their first trip on the Green is a four-day, 44-mile trip that begins at the Gates of Lodore, two 800-foot vermillion cliffs that appear as buttresses on either side of the river. “The trip as it’s presented, with its side canyons and river history, comes the closest to what people expect a river trip to be,” says Wood. The Gates of Lodore trip, an intermediate route ranging from Class III to IV, is appropriate for families. Trips run through mid-September from Vernal, Utah (180 miles from Salt Lake City), and prices start at $795. The second trip explores Desolation Canyon, a section 80 miles downstream with 60 rapids along an 84-mile stretch of river. Five-day trips are offered during the high-water runoff, but as the water levels drop and lose speed, the trip stretches to six days. Although the rapids are a bit smaller, guests usually cite practical factors, such as trip length, as the reason to choose between Lodore and Desolation Canyon. The Desolation Canyon trip meets in Green River, Utah (180 miles southeast of Salt Lake City), and begins with a flight upriver to the put-in, passing over most of the river sections to be run. The five-day trip begins at $893 ($693 for kids); the six-day trip is $960 ($760 for children).

Nestled deep in Canyonlands National Park, Cataract Canyon is the explosive meeting of the Green and Colorado rivers, and, at high water, is often touted as some of the biggest and most challenging whitewater in the United States. “Cataract Canyon is only second to Grand Canyon in terms of its splendor,” says Steve Markle of OARS. “With its steep red rock walls, it has great side canyon hikes and tons of Indian petroglyphs.” In May 2005, the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center predicted a 50 percent chance that the water will exceed 50,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) this year. The last time Cataract Canyon was over 50,000 cfs was when it hit 70,000 in June 1997.

Sheri Griffith Expeditions (1-800-332-2439, www.griffithexp.com)
In business since 1971, “our mission is to help enhance people’s lives through outdoor adventure,” says Arlo Tejada, of Sheri Griffith Expeditions. The difference between the four- or five-day mid- to late-summer trips is the type of boat that is used, as both trips cover the same 96 miles of Class III to V rapids. “The difference between the oarboat and the motorized J-rig is the excitement; the motorized is the safer ride, whereas the oarboat is more likely to turn over, and is a better place to see the action,” says Tejada. The five-day trip also offers the opportunity to hike amongst Anasazi ruins and the popular Doll House deep in the park. Four-day trips are $790, and run until October; five-day trips are $950. Most guests travel to Moab and take the complimentary shuttle to the put-in at Potash, an hour west. A $104 scenic flight over Canyonlands National Park is offered from the take-out at Hite Marina back to Moab. Sheri Griffith Expeditions also offers a variety of trips on the Green and San Juan rivers, including Yoga and Massage journeys and a women’s-only writer’s retreat.

The San Juan runs 360 miles through Colorado and New Mexico before it empties into the Colorado River in southeast Utah. As a fairly mellow, Class II river, rafters are attracted more to the San Juan for its archaeological treasures, Anasazi ruins, geology, and history. “However,” says OARS’ Markle, “we do have the ability to bring oar rafts, dorries, and kayaks, which allows for a choose-your-own-adventure trip.” Despite the large snowpack and high waters this year, the San Juan consistently remains a Class II, great for families, albeit a faster-moving rafting trip involving less work.

OARS (1-800-346-6277, www.oars.com)
In operation since 1969, OARS runs more trips on more rivers than any other outfitter in the world. “And with that expertise, we are able to set the standard in the industry,” says Markle. OARS offers trips in not only far-flung destinations such as Fiji and the Galapagos, but also on other rivers mentioned here, such as Cataract Canyon and the Gates of Lodore on the Green River. Beginning in Bluff, Utah, 300 miles from Salt Lake City, the OARS trips on the San Juan are broken down into three-, four-, or six-day options. “Three or four days is a great introduction to expedition and exploration travel,” says Markle. The six-day trip is the most comprehensive, starting at $940; the three-day trip is $640 and encompasses the beginning of the six-day trip, and the four-day trip, $776, concentrates on the second half. OARS trips log an average of five hours a day on the river, allowing for leisurely meals and more time in camp, reading, relaxing, or exploring.

Upper Animas and Rio Grande Rivers

With over 100 rapids—continuous Class III with intermittent Class IV and V—packed into 26 miles, and a 9,000-foot put-in in Silverton, Colorado, the Upper Animas River is one of the quintessential rafting trips in the Lower 48. “People come from all around the world just to see the scenery,” says Mild to Wild Rafting owner Alex Mickel, “and then you add the whitewater, and that just blows people away.” In photos, the Animas River Canyon looks postcard-perfect, with ponderosa pines and Douglas fir dotting the bases of the 13,000-foot snow-capped mountains decorated with waterfalls and river cascades in complete isolation. With an average drop of 85 feet per mile, and some sections hitting 150 feet per mile, the Upper Animas is considered one of the most difficult commercially run trips in the United States. Be sure to get out this year, because “it’s the best water in ten years,” says Mickel. “July is going to be a particularly great time because we have warm weather and the water levels will still be great.”

Mild to Wild Rafting (1-800-567-6745, www.mild2wildrafting.com)
Mild to Wild Rafting has been in business for 15 years, and is operated on a day-to-day basis by owners Alex and Molly Mickel. The one-, two-, or three-day trips on the Upper Animas meet at company headquarters in Durango for an orientation the evening before, and then shuttle to the put-in at Silverton together. Day one includes the hardest rapid, the Class V “No Name,” and at the end of the day, day-trippers return to Durango and overnighters stay at Mild and Wild’s established camp. Two- and three-day trips cover the same ground, but guests on the three-day trip spend the second day at camp, hiking, fishing, and relaxing. “When people get to the camp,” says Mickels, “everyone on the two-day wishes they’d done the three-day.” The one-day trip is $205, the two-day trip is $410, and the three-day trip is $550. All prices include the half-hour return trip on the narrow gauge train back to the vehicles.

The Rio Grande runs 1,885 miles, through differing terrain in Colorado and Texas; as the river is about to cross into New Mexico—the link between the two states—it cuts the Rio Grande Gorge for 68 miles, earning itself a Congressional “Wild and Scenic” designation in the process. At the upper end is the Upper Taos Box, with Class V too dangerous to be run commercially, but below that, starting at the John Dunn Bridge is the section known simply as the Taos Box. Sixteen miles long, the Box is a combination of leisurely drifting and steep, powerful Class IV rapids, which pick up as the section goes on, especially in the last four miles beginning with Powerline Falls. The Taos Box is not for the timid. “There’s an increased chance of both flipping or someone flying out of the boat, when the water is high like it is this year,” says New Wave owner Steve Miller. “It’s comparable to any other classic one-day trips available in the United States.” The past several years have seen abbreviated seasons on the Box, and outfitters expect to run it this year through the end of July. More appropriate for families is the Rio Grande Gorge section immediate below the Box, which is run all year long regardless of water level.

New Wave (1-800-984-1444, www.newwaverafting.com)
In business since 1980, New Wave has offices in both Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico. “We run the tightest ship on the Rio Grande and you can quote me on that,” says owner Steve Miller. “We pay attention to detail, and have high standards for how trips are performed and for how employees perform on the river.” New Wave offers several trips in the Rio Grande Gorge from their most popular, the half-day Racecourse, to the Rio Grande Duo, beginning with the full-day Rio Grande Gorge on day one and the more challenging Taos Box on day two. The half-day Racecourse, five miles of rafting on Class III rapids at low water and Class IV at higher levels, is offered both in the morning and afternoon, and is appropriate for children as young as six at lower flows, but restricted to age 12 when the water comes up. Prices start at $43 for adults and $40 for children or groups over six, with tiered discounts for larger groups. The full-day trips, with lunch, gear and transportation provided, to the Lower Gorge or Taos Box start at $84. New Wave generally has discounts for groups and lower prices for trips during the week.

Santa Fe Mountain Adventures (505-988-4000, www.santafemountainadventures.com)
For an alternative adventure on the Rio Grande, Santa Fe Mountain Adventures (which was developed in partnership with Outside) offers a multi-activity program that combines the cultural activities of Santa Fe with the area’s recreation activities, including morning rafting on the Racecourse on Tuesdays and Saturdays. However, there are opportunities to customize the activities, according to Adventure Director Janine Sieja, and a rafting trip down the Taos Box is definitely an option. Prices start at $100 per person per day, and include activities, transportation, gratuities, and best of all, a year’s subscription to Outside magazine.