Discover the 4 Best Rivers for Whitewater Rafting in New Mexico

Written by Sandy Porter
Updated: November 5, 2023
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While some folks might immediately think of Montana or Idaho for water activities, there are some amazing whitewater rivers in New Mexico. The southwestern state known for deserts and cacti has some incredible rafting opportunities you’ll want to take advantage of when you’re in the area.

Two main rivers, the Rio Grande and Rio Chama, may already be familiar to you. There are a couple of others, as well, that rank high among rafters in the region. Let’s see which river put-in points might be best for your next adventure.

Best Places to White Water Raft in New Mexico

Two primary rivers, the Rio Grande and the Rio Chama, draw rafters in each year. But two other rivers also offer some great opportunities, particularly for less experienced rafters. Each river has at least two put-in points, though most have more. Be sure to check for regulations regarding any rafting you might do on your own or book a rafting trip if you’re inexperienced.

The Rio Grande

Taos, New Mexico, USA at Rio Grande Gorge Bridge over the Rio Grande at dusk.

The Rio Grande provides rafters with some of the most stunning scenery and thrilling rafting in the country.

©Sean Pavone/

The most well-known river in the state, The Rio Grande offers some of the best put-in points for beginners and experienced rafters alike. This whitewater river in New Mexico has about seven main points that guides and locals use. The river begins in southern Colorado, flowing through New Mexico, and finally out the Gulf of Mexico. Put-in points for the Rio Grande may be found near Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and Toas, as well as others in smaller towns.

The Taos Box — Class IV Rapids

Not meant for beginners, the Toas Box draws in many experienced rafters looking for a thrilling river ride. The course starts out fairly calm, with intense rapids building over the final 14 miles. If you are a beginner, you definitely need a guide to take on this part of the Rio Grande. Most folks do this course in a day-long trek, between March and August. This course is considered a “hard” or challenging route.

Middle Box — Class II to III Rapids

For a more relaxed, yet still exciting route, put in at Middle Box of the Rio Grande. Here, you’ll experience Class I to Class III rapids, a much more suitable range for beginners. The season for these rapids course falls between March and November, and is considered moderate in skill level. You’ll still want a guide for this course if you don’t already know your way around whitewater.

Orilla Verde — Class II Rapids

Featuring a calm stretch of river, peaking at Class II rapids, Orilla Verde is one of the best courses for beginners looking for a casual rafting experience. This route is ideal for families with kids looking to try out their rafting muscles for the first time.

Racecourse — Class III Rapids

Punctuated by thrilling drops throughout, the Racecourse route of the Rio Grande will add some excitement to your rafting adventures. This particular section is populated with kayakers often, as well as rafters looking for that heart-pumping action.

Upper Gorge/Razorblades — Class IV Rapids

Peaking at Class IV rapids, the Razorblades of the Upper Gorge course should only be tackled by somewhat experienced rafters. This section of whitewater river in New Mexico winds its way through intriguing landscape where wildlife and historic sites remain of equal importance in the land.

San Juan River

San Juan River and Farmington, New Mexico

Near Farmington, New Mexico, the San Juan River winds its way through the rocky, arid terrain. On this river, you’ll find some of the most incredible scenery and rapids in the state.

©MonaMakela/ via Getty Images

Though it’s lesser known as a rafting river in New Mexico, the San Juan River offers plenty of great rafting put-in locations and long stretches of beautiful travel. The river flowers between the Navajo Dam and passes alongside Farmington and Shiprock, making its way to Utah where it converges with the Colorado River.

Down from the dam to Blanco, lots of wildlife flourishes, meaning folks rafting their way along this whitewater river in New Mexico may enjoy them as they float past.

Below Navajo Lake to Blanco — Class I to II Rapids

One of the main put-in points may be found below Navajo Lake, heading to the town of Blanco. Here, Class I and II rapids wend their way along a 16-mile stretch of the San Juan River.  Multiple access points for rafters exist along the route below the dam in the Navajo Lake State Park. This route is highly recommended for beginners and families with kids.

Upper San Juan (Sand Island to Mexican Hat) — Class II to III

Several put-in points rest within the Upper San Juan River area. The route is recommended for inflatable kayaks, as well as rafts, with rapids reaching as high as Class III. As you work your way through these rapids, you may spot petroglyphs and ruins along the way. Or, if you get out at the six-mile mark, you can hike a quarter mile from the river to see the Riverhouse, a 14 room ruin from the 13th Century.

Lower San Juan (Mexican Hat to Clay Hills) — Class II to III

Suited to intermediate rafters, the Lower San Juan from Mexican Hat to Clay Hills offers Class II and Class III rapids. Meandering its way through 1,000-foot canyon walls and a gooseneck section, the course thrills many a visitor with its stunning views and wild rapids. The end of the course, 5 miles from the Clay Hills take-out, is best avoided during afternoon because of the intense wind.

Animas River

Colorful Trees along the Animas River in Colorado

The Animas River offers peaceful, glorious views in many locations, and wild, exciting rapids in others.

©Kent Raney/ via Getty Images

North of Farmington, joining with the San Juan on the western edge of the city, the Animas River winds its way through New Mexico. This whitewater river offers some exceptional opportunities for folks looking for some beautiful scenery and exciting rapids along the way.

The name comes from the Spanish, meaning “river of lost souls.” Stretching from the San Juan Mountains in Colorado and feeding into the San Juan River, this 126-mile-long river has many put-in points for explorers to enjoy.

Some runnable sections include Class I all the way up to Class V rapids, so be sure to choose your course wisely.

Durango Town Run — Class II-III Rapids

The Durango Town Run flows from an easy Class II to moderate III into challenging spots like Smelter, Corner Pocket, Clock Tower Hole, Santa Rita Hole, and Ponderosa. The watercourse has provoked so much exploration and excitement that a permanent Slalom Course has been situated into Santa Ria Park through the Smelter Rapid. U.S. kayak team members have trained here, along with the Durango Whitewater Club. Many put-in points exit for folks of various skill levels, so be sure of your starting points. And, as always, if you’re inexperienced, start your rafting adventures with professionals.

Upper Animas — Class IV to V Rapids

For advanced rafters only, the Upper Animas offers Class IV and V rapids situated within gloriously beautiful landscape. The world-class rapids run for 24.2 miles, with multiple take-out and put-in points for folks along the way. The Upper Animas begins in the town of Silverton and wends its way through chilly waters all times of year. Do not attempt to make this run if you’re not highly experienced.

Rockwood Gorge — Class IV to V Rapids

Another advanced rapids course, Rockwood Gorge offers Class IV and V rapids fit for the peak professionals of the sport. This gorge contains the most dangerous and challenging rapids of the Upper Animas. But it runs through some of the most gorgeous terrain in the state.

Bakers Box — Class V Rapids and Higher

Even more challenging than Rockwood Gorge, Bakers Box or Pandora’s Box, is the most treacherous section of the whole Animas River. Running rapids of Class V or higher for much of the course, only top-tier rafters should ever attempt these waters. The vertical box canyon offers no portage or scouting options, so come prepared for one of the wildest rides ever.

Animas Valley — Class I to II Rapids

In Oxbow River Park, you’ll find the Animas Valley course, an easy Class I to II rapids course for beginners. Resting below the intense Bakers Box, this section of the river is perfect for families with kids or beginners who want to try out rafting but really aren’t sure what they’re getting into.

The Rio Chama

Rio Chama River during fall

The Rio Chama flows gently in many areas. The river also offers some of the most exciting whitewater river runs in New Mexico.

©SethJacobImages/iStock via Getty Images

Second to the Rio Grande, the Rio Chama holds the reputation as a main rafting river in New Mexico. For this beautiful river, though, you’ve got to enter a lottery for your trip. Or, as most folks do, rely on a tour outfitter for their trips. If you’re looking to ride the rapids in Rio Chama, book early to ensure you get a slot.

The river is a major contributor for the Rio Grande and flows through the Chama River Canyon Wilderness. The region is filled with gorgeous, multi-colored sandstone canyon walls up to 1,500 feet above the river.

El Vado Lake to Abiquiu Reservoir — Class I to III

A 33-mile stretch of the Rio Chama known as the El Vado Lake stretch welcomes riders with cool, refreshing water and up to Class III rapids. The gorgeous natural scenery here attracts folks almost as much as the rapids themselves. The less populated area makes for the perfect kayaking, canoeing, or rafting area. Though, there’s still plenty of demand for all three. You’ll face crowds if you don’t time it properly.

Lower Rio Chama — Class II to III Rapids

If you’re up for some moderate rapids, head to the Lower Rio Chama course. Here you’ll find rapids in Class II and III. Most folks take a full-day trip to enjoy the stunning scenery of the river while riding the waves. If you’ve ever seen the paintings by Georgia O’Keefe depicting multi-colored sandstone cliffs and cottonwood groves, you’ll recognize the scenery in this region immediately.

Chavez Canyon — Class I to III Rapids

In Chavez Canyon, Class I to III rapids greet rafters along the Rio Chama. The exhilarating rapids are only equaled by the stunning scenery of the gorgeous canyon and its wildlife residents. Be sure to book well in advance to ensure you get a spot in this incredible whitewater river in New Mexico.

What to Bring on a Whitewater Rafting Trip

Whitewater Rafting

Be prepared with proper attire and equipment before you head out to the whitewater rivers in New Mexico for your rafting adventures.

©joshschutz/iStock via Getty Images

Before you head out for some whitewater rivers in New Mexico, you’ll want to be sure to prepare properly. Bring along the following items for one of the best days of your life.

  • Appropriate footwear — Skip the flip-flops and wear sports sandals, water shoes, or washable sneakers.
  • Sunscreen — It might seem like you’ll be too busy to keep on a coat, but sunscreen will help make the day much more enjoyable and healthier.
  • Comfortable clothes — Opt for clothing you don’t mind getting wet and that also has some flexibility and movement space. You’ll be doing some hard work out there, so comfort and flexibility are vital.
  • A chance of clothing — After the day on the water, you’re going to need some fresh, dry clothes to put on.
  • Drinking water — Bring a large water bottle full of clear, fresh water to drink on the river.
  • Waterproof camera or phone case — If you plan to bring along your phone or take pictures, be sure to find a floating waterproof case to bring along.
  • Hat — A sunburnt scalp is never fun!
  • Sunglasses — The water is bright and so is the sky. You’ll need to protect your eyes against those sun rays.
  • Snacks — If you know you’ll be out there for a while, you may want to bring along some snacks to keep up your energy.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © joshschutz/iStock via Getty Images

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About the Author

Sandy Porter is a writer at A-Z Animals primarily covering house garden plants, mammals, reptiles, and birds. Sandy has been writing professionally since 2017, has a Bachelor’s degree and is currently seeking her Masters. She has had lifelong experience with home gardens, cats, dogs, horses, lizards, frogs, and turtles and has written about these plants and animals professionally since 2017. She spent many years volunteering with horses and looks forward to extending that volunteer work into equine therapy in the near future. Sandy lives in Chicago, where she enjoys spotting wildlife such as foxes, rabbits, owls, hawks, and skunks on her patio and micro-garden.

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