The Rio Chama, a major tributary of the Rio Grande, flows through a multi-colored sandstone canyon whose walls grow to 1,500 feet. The river runs through areas that are designated as wilderness or as wilderness study areas. Towering cliffs, heavily wooded side canyons, and historical sites offer an outstanding wild river backdrop for the angler or float boater. Co-managed by BLM and the U.S. Forest Service, the Rio Chama offers the perfect family weekend, with something for everyone — paddling, trout fishing, hiking, exploring dinosaur tracks, and simply relaxing in the shade.
The Rio Chama is a Wild and Scenic River, and was designated by Congress in 1988. To protect the river environment and maintain an opportunity for a high quality experience, boating use has been limited since 1990. Because of the demand for trips in late spring and summer, there is a lottery system to assign launch dates. (See “Boating Information” below.)
Fishing is especially good on the upper mile of this river segment. Car camping is popular on the lower 8 miles, and float boaters enjoy two- or three-day trips on Class II rapids on the entire 31-mile segment (advance permits required), or half-day trips on the lower segment (no advance permits required).
Restrooms and drinking water are located at El Vado Ranch.
There are no facilities on the river itself. Solid human waste must be carried out in a washable re-usable container, no plastic bags allowed. River toilets that meet requirements are available at river equipment outlets. ECO Safe, River Bank Toilet or Jon-ny Partner brands may be purchased at: nrs.com or cascadeoutfitters.com. Liquid waste should go into the river.
Location & Access
El Vado Ranch is reached via NM 112 from US 84 near Tierra Amarilla. Forest Road 151 just north of Ghost Ranch on US 84 reaches the lower part of the river. Forest Road 151 is dirt and not easily accessible when wet.
The BLM manages a 31-mile stretch of the Rio Chama – from El Vado Ranch to the Big Eddy takeout. Another put-in/put-out spot is Chavez Canyon, which is about 22.25 miles from El Vado Ranch and 8.25 miles from the Big Eddy takeout. Click here for a detailed description of this Rio Chama segment.
- Launch Lottery / Summer Season -- All launches on the 31 mile wilderness segment of the Rio Chama from May 1 to Labor Day must have an advance permit. BLM’s Taos Field Office administers a lottery to distribute weekend launch dates from May 1 through Labor Day. Applications are due before January 31. The office accepts telephone reservations for weekday launches after April 1.
- Private or Self-Guided Trips / Chavez Canyon -- No advance reservation or fees are required for day trips launching from Chavez Canyon, just below the Monastery. All you need to do for this day-run is fill out a boater registration form with the BLM before you launch.
- Shuttle Service
Up the Creek Shuttle
$80 from El Vado Ranch to Big Eddy
$120 from El Vado Ranch to Chavez Canyon
To apply for a lottery-assigned launch date, you must be at least 18 years old, fill out the postcard completely and send it back with a check for $6 made out to "USDI-BLM." Please submit 1 application per individual. You will increase your chance for success if you put down more than 1 choice for a lottery-assigned launch. By March 1, we will notify all applicants by return postcard of their launch date, if their application was drawn, or that they were unsuccessful.
If a trip leader must cancel, he/she can transfer the permit to another member of the group, or can give the launch up so that BLM can reassign it to someone on our waiting list. If you were unsuccessful in the lottery, please call April 1 or later to put your name on a waiting list. You may specify up to 3 dates; if a cancellation occurs, we will notify you by telephone.
All boaters, regardless of season, must fill out a boater registration form at the launch site, pay BLM a $5 fee per person, and any fees required by the owners of the launch site (El Vado, aka Cooper’s Ranch, 505.588.7354).
River Flow Information
River Flow Levels -- River flow levels are unpredictable, so boaters should monitor the USGS website, or contact BLM, for current information.
- USGS Water Resource Division - New Mexico District nm.water.usgs.gov.
- BLM 888.882.6188 (Recorded Message).
Planning Your Trip
Most outfitted trips on the Rio Chama last two days, beginning at Cooper's Ranch just below El Vado Dam and ending 31 miles downstream at Big Eddy takeout. Day trips are also available which last about 5 hours. The river passes through designated wilderness on the upper stretches; the lower section is lightly developed and very scenic. Commercial river outfitters are permitted by the BLM to provide trips to the public. All companies meet strict guidelines for equipment safety and guide experience. You may also take your own (or rented) boat down these rivers. Please review BLM's recommended river safety tips.