Rio Chama (New Mexico)

Rio Chama (New Mexico)

The Rio Chama is a major tributary river of the Rio Grande, located in the states of Colorado and New Mexico.

Location and Characteristics

The Rio Chama forms in south-central Colorado, just above the New Mexico border in the San Juan Mountains and Carson National Forest in Archuleta County. It then flows about 120 miles (190 km) to its confluence with the Rio Grande at the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, just north of Espanola in Rio Arriba County. There are three reservoirs along the Chama; furthest north is Heron Lake which is dammed on Willow Creek just before it enters the Chama, followed by El Vado Lake and Abiquiu Lake, both dammed on the Chama itself. Accommodations available in Abiquiu-

Whitewater Boating

The upper river is characterized by huge boulders that create difficult holes, sizeable drops and hidden dead-fallen trees that test experienced whitewater boaters. The first 6-7.5 miles of this reach above El Vado Lake in New Mexico is a Class IV to VI whitewater run of great intensity that is only suitable for expert whitewater kayakers. The rest of this run can be made by canoeists and kayakers with at least strong intermediate level whitewater skills on Class I to III water that drops through deep canyons on its way to the lake. Below El Vado Lake the river is a Class II to III run for almost anybody with intermediate or higher level whitewater skills. After passing through Abiquiu Lake, the river passes through private land; ask permission before fishing or boating. This historic river has been used by humans for nearly 10,000 years, dating from the time when camels and wooly mammoths roamed the southwestern United States. In 1988, the convert|24.6|mi|km|sing=on section known as Chama Canyon was designated as a National Wild and Scenic River by the U.S. Congress.

Below El Vado Lake the Rio Chama flows about 70 miles (110 km) through the Santa Fe National Forest of Rio Arriba County to the Rio Grande. The popular section for most paddlers is the convert|31.1|mi|km from El Vado Ranch down through Chama Canyon and Chavez Canyon to the Big Eddy access above Abiquiu Reservoir near US 84.


The headwaters of the Rio Chama originate on the east flank of the San Juan Mountains in southern Colorado. The river and its tributaries offer excellent fly fishing for trout. Ten miles of the Rio Chama, above the mouth of Wolf Creek (4 miles below the New Mexico border) is private land requiring land owner's permission to fish the Rio Chama and Wolf Creek. The Rio Chama at this point holds wild browns with cutthroats in Wolf Creek and rainbows in both streams. The Rio Chamita flows into the Rio Chama, convert|9|mi|km below the Wolf Creek confluence with the Rio Chama. Access to the Rio Chamita is from a dirt road one and a half miles north of the town of Chama.

North of Chama on NM 17 there is good trout fly fishing. There are special regulations on this stretch of the Rio Chama. Fifteen miles south of Chama on US 64/84 is the confluence of the Rio Brazos with the Rio Chama. Most of this run of the Rio Chama is on private land, except for a convert|4|mi|km|sing=on-long stretch south of Chama.

Below its confluence with the Rio Brazos, the Rio Chama offers several miles of excellent fly fishing to the tailwaters of Heron Lake and El Vado Reservoir. The Rio Chama, is very wide at this point, with large runs, pools, and large boulders that create excellent fishing opportunities for rainbow and wild brown trout.

Chama Canyon

The walls in Chama Canyon rise some convert|1500|ft|m above the river. The canyon rim and sloping uplands are frequently punctuated by steep sandstone and shale outcroppings. Inside the canyon is a plethora of geological wonders including high, steep canyon walls and escarpments consisting of rock slides, ledges, pinnacles and ridges. The bedrock of Chama Canyon is shale, basalt, tuft, sandstone, granite, quartzite and other types of rocks, some of which formed about 110 million years ago.

The Chama Valley is home to dense stands of ponderosa pine, douglas-fir, pinyon, juniper, mountain-mahogany, gambel oak and serviceberry. The riparian area also includes cottonwoods, box elder, willows, hackberry and numerous shrubs that are indigenous to north-central New Mexico. It is teeming with a variety of wildlife including cougars, black bears, elk, mule deer, badgers, bobcats, coyotes, beavers, raccoons, ducks, dippers, spotted sandpipers, Canadian geese, turkey, golden eagles, bald eagles, falcons, hawks, owls, turkey vultures, brown and rainbow trout, flathead chub, flathead minnows, white suckers, carp, channel catfish, black crappie, longnose dace, and other species of mammals, birds and fish. Various species of rattlesnakes are found in the adjacent mountain valleys and canyons, so visitors are advised to be very careful where they put their hands and feet.

ee also

*List of rivers in Colorado
*List of New Mexico rivers
*List of National Wild and Scenic Rivers
*Rio Grande
*Rio Arriba County, New Mexico
*Chama, New Mexico

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