Historic Route 66 runs through Albuquerque, New Mexico. At the Central Avenue Bridge, Route 66 crosses the Rio Grande, where local boaters get their kicks plying the muddy waters and bird-watching just west of Old Town. In Albuquerque, the Rio Grande is ideal for a canoe trip beneath the old cottonwoods, and to the northeast the river provides more than 80 miles of Wild and Scenic whitewater.
Six miles upstream from Route 66, I slide my canoe into the chocolate-colored water. As I reach midstream, a bald eagle watches me from the cottonwoods on the riverbank. Albuquerque is one of those rare metropolitan areas where bald-eagle sightings are common along the river during the winter and early spring. Downstream, I listen to the shrill calls of a dozen sandhill cranes flying above while a belted kingfisher flutters across my bow. The city is about an hour north of Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, where thousands of geese, ducks, snowy egrets, sandhill cranes, and eagles spend the winter. Even endangered whooping cranes can be sighted at the refuge. On the river in Albuquerque, expect to see a multitude of birds that make the lush Rio Grande Central Flyway their home.
The city is located at the 5,000-foot elevation between the Sandia Mountains, rising on its eastern edge, and the Rio Grande, running west of Old Town. It is one of the oldest inhabited cities in America. Evidence of settlement in the area dates back 12,000 years. On a volcanic escarpment on the city’s West Mesa, thousands of ancient petroglyphs dating from 1000 to 1600 are etched in rocks at Petroglyph National Monument. The city was established by a group of Spanish families in 1706 and named Villa de San Felipe de Alburquerque in honor of Viceroy Francisco Fernandez de la Cueva, the Duke of Alburquerque (the first r fell out of use over time). Today, Indian merchants still sell their handmade jewelry along narrow streets lined with 300-year-old adobe homes a few blocks from the high-rises of downtown.
Two miles upstream from the take-out at Central Avenue, I leave my canoe for a walk through the tamarisks, willows, and cottonwoods to the Rio Grande Nature Center. There, I find maps of bird-migration routes and learn that more than 260 species of birds spend at least part of their time along the Rio Grande in Albuquerque. The center is a state park encompassing 270 acres along the river, with trail systems, viewing areas, exhibits, and a library.
Getting There: Several bridges cross the Rio Grande in Albuquerque, and parking lots and paths provide access to the water, the most popular at Alameda, Paseo del Norte, and Central Avenue. To reach Pilar, travel north on Interstate 25 to Santa Fe, where Highway 599 connects to Highway 285 and then Highway 68 leading north into the Rio Grande Gorge.
Logistics: There are no permits required for private trips on the Rio Grande in New Mexico. The Wild and Scenic sections have free self-registration boxes, and boaters are asked to sign in before using the river.
While You’re There: Albuquerque is full of history. First-time visitors should make their way to Old Town, where the city began. On the plaza, check out San Felipe de Neri, an 18th-century church, and wander through the narrow streets past old adobe homes. A few blocks from Old Town, stop by the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science and learn why so many dinosaurs roamed New Mexico during prehistoric times. Log on to www.nmnaturalhistory.org or call (505) 841-2800. Be sure to visit the Rio Grande Nature Center and explore the visitors’ center and trails along the river. Log on to www.frgnc.org or call (505) 344-7240. Homer Simpson’s hunger strike must have failed, despite the story that unfolded in his cartoon town of Springfield. In 2003, Albuquerque landed a AAA minor-league franchise, the Isotopes. Log on to www.albuquerquebaseball.com for ticket information.
Camping/Lodging: Camping is available upstream from Pilar along NM 570 in Orilla Verde Recreation Area. The park offers five riverside campgrounds with tables, fire grill, and shelters. Camping is $7 per night for one vehicle, and $3 per night for additional vehicles. There is a maximum of two vehicles per site. For more information call (505) 758-8851, or log on at www.nm.blm.gov and click on Orilla Verde Recreation Area. Route 66 has many reasonable motels. For a room near the river, call the El Vado Motel at (505) 243-4594, or the Monterrey Non-Smokers Motel at (877) 666-8379.
Outfitters/Resources: For a complete list of commercial outfitters in New Mexico or flow information, contact the Bureau of Land Management office in Taos at (888) 882-6188, or log on to www.nm.blm.gov/tafo/rafting/commercial.html. For an even more complete list of outfitters, please see our Adventure Paddling Directory.
In the 1500s, Spanish conquistadors came to the region looking for the seven Cities of Gold and named the river El Rio Bravo del Norte, or Wild River of the North. Northeast of Albuquerque, the Rio Grande offers more than 80 miles of whitewater from the Lobatos Bridge, north of the border in Colorado, to the village of Velarde, near Espanola. Most of this stretch was designated as one of the original sections of the Wild and Scenic Rivers System, established by Congress in 1968.
Two hours from Albuquerque, boaters sit in front of the Pilar Yacht Club gnawing on green chile breakfast burritos while arranging shuttles for the day. The village of Pilar is the river-running center of New Mexico. Located 20 minutes south of Taos, Pilar is just upstream from the put-in for the popular Racecourse, a five-mile Class III run that is 15 minutes downstream from the take-out of the notorious Lower Taos Box. The Pilar Yacht Club is the place where many locals have their coffee and decide which of the various sections of river to run for the day.
Lower Box: The Class IV Lower Taos Box is the most celebrated whitewater canyon run in the state, descending 15 miles through a 600-foot-deep black basalt chasm from the John Dunn Bridge to the Taos Junction Bridge. Two miles downstream from the put-in, boaters can soak in Manby Hot Springs before the first rapids appear. The Rio Bravo section, one of the highlights of the Lower Box, starts at about mile 12, where boaters encounter two miles of continuous whitewater from Pin-ball to Screaming Right-Hand Turn.
Upper Box: Downstream from the Lee Trail to Little Arsenic Trail is a 12.5-mile run known as the Upper Box, considered some of the most dangerous whitewater in North America. This stretch is run by only a handful of expert kayakers, who must negotiate several continuous Class V-VI drops.
Ute Mountain run: From the Lobatos Bridge, north of the Colorado border, to the Lee Trail, the river descends 24.5 miles into a primitive black lava canyon, which is a popular nesting habitat for golden eagles and falcons. The rapids are mostly Class II, and the take-out requires a strenuous hike to the rim. This run is closed each year from April 1 to May 31 to protect the raptors during mating season.
La Junta: La Junta run is accessible only by a steep trail from the rim at Wild Rivers National Recreation Area. Downstream from Little Arsenic Trail, the river lets up a bit for nine miles of Class II-IV whitewater to the John Dunn Bridge.
Orilla Verde: This run is 6.5 miles of Class I-II that winds through Orilla Verde National Recreation Area. Several good campgrounds with shelters are scattered alongside the river upstream from the village of Pilar.
Racecourse: On most summer days there’s a crowd at the Quartzite put-in. The five-mile Class III Racecourse is the most popular whitewater run in the state, attracting up to 40,000 boaters each season. The run parallels Highway 68, providing good scouting spots for the Class III rapids. The Racecourse is named for the annual Mother’s Day race held along this stretch of river.
County Line Run: At the Taos County line, the crowds on the Racecourse take out, and the river leaves Highway 68 for much of the next 8.5 miles, to the village of Velarde. Like Orilla Verde, this run is rated Class I-II and is good for canoes and novices.
White Rock Canyon: A little closer to Albuquerque, another local run on the Rio Grande descends through White Rock Canyon and Bandelier National Monument northwest of Santa Fe. Near the town of Pojoaque, boaters with permission can put in at Otowi Bridge, or just downstream at the end of Buckman Road near Diablo Canyon, to run more than 20 miles of Class III and flatwater into Cochiti Lake. The run flows through Bandelier National Monument, where ancient cliff dwellings and rock art can be seen at Frijoles.
Mario Malvino is a Santa Fe-based freelance writer and photographer who adores the Taos Box.