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The Rio Grande (“rio” means river in Spanish) is 1,896 miles long, stretching from the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico. Just below its headwaters on the Continental Divide, the river is dammed at Rio Grande Reservoir, and then flows eastward past the town of Creede, Colorado. It is joined by the South Fork, at South Fork, Colorado and continues into the San Luis Valley, a vast ancient high-elevation lake bed that is now heavily farmed.
In the summer months, much of the river is diverted at Del Norte, Colorado, to support the agricultural activity in the valley. The river turns south where it passes Alamosa, Colorado, the largest town in the valley, and heads for the state line. The Rio Grande becomes confined in a gorge of volcanic rock 10 miles north of the New Mexico border. That gorge continues for 74 miles downstream through northern New Mexico, and in March of 2013, the New Mexico portion of the river, gorge and surrounding public lands were declared to be the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, 242,500 acres in size. The Monument includes the previously designated Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River and the Red River Wild and Scenic River.
The river passes volcanic cones and large, unpopulated sagebrush prairies as it flows south, and can be accessed only by foot in this initial stretch. The first bridge in New Mexico is encountered at Arroyo Hondo, where a small tributary joins the river. This tributary, the Rio Hondo, is found just north of the town of Taos, New Mexico. It drains the state’s highest peak – Wheeler Peak – and the Taos Ski Valley. This is the only access road to enter this otherwise roadless gorge, and is located 16 miles upstream of the next bridge – Taos Junction Bridge. This road access allows rafters to float this 16 miles of wild water, known as the Taos Box. 4 miles into this trip one floats 700’ below the Rio Grande Gorge High Bridge, on Hwy. 64. The river enters the 6-mile long Orilla Verde (“Green Banks”) Recreation Area below Taos Junction Bridge, which provides mostly placid floating.
The National Monument ends where the river leaves Orilla Verde and passes the village of Pilar, on Hwy 68. The 6-mile long Racecourse stretch of whitewater starts at Pilar and ends at the Taos/Rio Arriba County line. This is followed by the 7-mile long Bosque (“cottonwood grove”) stretch, to the point where the river enters the broad Espanola Valley. The Bosque offers placid floating. The river passes to the west of Santa Fe in White Rock Canyon, which ends in Cochiti Reservoir. From this point on, the river is very de-watered and of little interest to recreationists. What is left of the river leaves New Mexico just north of El Paso, Texas. The river ends at the Gulf of Mexico, serving as the international border from El Paso to the mouth, although large portions of the river are completely waterless, and there was a period of time during which the river did not enter the Gulf.