The Racecourse is far and away New Mexico's most popular whitewater run. Just downstream from the tiny artists village of Pilar the Rio Grande flows more westward after colliding with the Pilar Cliffs on river left. The Cliffs are made of resilient quartzite-schists: ancient stone that in places is 1.7 billion years old, predating the origins of life on Earth. In contrast, on river right, are the relatively more recent basalt lava flows found in the upstream canyons. Just upstream from the Quartzite put-in is the Rio Grande Gorge Visitor's Center providing bathrooms, water, and a giftshop including many books on geology, plants, animals, and folklore. Quartzite River Access provides porta potties and a changing area, roughly marked spaces for parking, and a picnic table. Boaters launch from one of two rocky beaches. County Line River Access has BLM maintained bathrooms, two paved boat ramps, and picnic tables. Permits are not required to boat on the Racecourse.
This section of the Rio Grande is not as isolated as the Lower Taos Box or the Orilla Verde since State Road 68 follows the river closely for the entire run; but the highway runs high-up on the banks in most places, and a boater tends not to notice it while shooting rapids or recovering below them. The road provides opportunities to scout nearly all the rapids on the run. Take care pulling over and getting out of your vehicle because many drivers speed down the highway in this canyon and accidents are unfortunately not that uncommon. In several places trails run steeply down the left bank from highway pullouts to the river, notably at After Five, Sleeping Beauty, and Souse Hole. Sleeping Beauty has an excellent surf wave easily reached by parking in the highway pullout alongside the road just beside the rapid. Kayakers are often seen hauling gear up and down the trail to login surf time in the large curler in the main drop of the rapid. The land along the Racecourse is a mixture of public and private lands; all the private land is on the right shore stretching from just above the Narrows to Big Rocks. Please be courteous!
The rapids boaters encounter can appear to change dramatically as the boating season runs from spring to fall. Moderate flows (1000 – 1500 cfs) present a class III/III+ intermediate to advanced whitewater run with wide channels, few keeper holes, and some great standing waves and drops. High water begins at 3000 cfs, and the Racecourse is considered to be a class IV run. The high water Racecourse is pretty continuous with big random holes and waves. At these water levels the rapids of Saddle Rock through Final Drop tend to form a continuous stretch of whitewater called Mile Long Rapid, rated class IV; at high water Albert Falls is a mandatory scout due to a large river-wide hole. Souse Hole also becomes class IV as it forms a massive hydraulic that's legendary among local boaters. In years past crowds gathered along the roadside at Souse to watch the behemoth high water hydraulic devour rafts and spit-out flipped boats and swimming paddlers. At high flows stay left at Glen Woody bridge; as the river level rises passage under Glen Woody Bridge becomes more difficult and eventually impossible forcing boaters to portage around the bridge on the left bank. Low water is often first encountered in late July when the river can drop below 250 cfs, and sometimes just under 150 cfs. At these levels the river channelizes and relatively narrow-bodied rafts can still get down river (though a boater may have to jump out of their boat and give it some good tugs in the Slot at Big Rocks). Zigzagging channels and last-second pivots around rocks make for an entertaining and challenging technical run. Commercial river rafting companies say they have yet to find a water level that's too low to run their rafts on the Racecourse. For rafts surfing opportunities can be found at these low levels, particularly at Sleeping Beauty and Souse Hole.
Every Mother's Day weekend the Mother's Day races are held on the Racecourse. Started in the 1950s by kayakers, the Mother's Day Race the second oldest whitewater event in the country. Today kayak, SUP, and raft races are held over Mother's Day weekend along with other events, including a dutch oven cook off.
Wildlife is still abundant on the Racecourse and recent sightings include big horn sheep (just above Saddle Rock Rapid), coyote, blue heron, black-crested night heron, bullfrogs, and an occasional gartter snake swimming across the river. Beavers can be seen in the early evenings in the pools throughout the run, and muskrat have been seen in the last mile of quiet water. River otters live along the banks of the river and a keen eye might catch them playing along the banks; an otter has been seen swimming upstream through Albert Falls. Being the southwest, always keep an eye-out for rattle snakes! In winter and early spring bald eagles have been spotted just downstream from Quartzite River Access. Western Tanagers (small, brightly colored migratory birds) often visit the river in late spring and early summer.
Apache plume grows along the banks as well as Russian olive, both blooming in late spring. That same time of year is when the bright yellow flowers of prickly pear cactus and the fluorescent pink cholla flowers send out their colors in surprising contrast to the basalt boulders and desert soils. Wild grape becomes more common along the Racecourse below Cheese Grater and ripe fruit can be found here usually in late summer or early fall (purportedly these grape vines are descendants from grape seeds dropped by Spanish missionaries traveling through the canyon).
Fishing is popular along the river, particularly in the evenings after work hours. During the fall the river water becomes less silt-laden and more transparent, inviting fly fishermen to the river's banks and into it's channels. Over the years a number of sporting fish have been introduced to the river, including rainbow trout, small mouth bass, German brown trout, and pike. Be respectful when you encounter fishermen along or in the river – fishermen and boaters are often allies in protecting the free flow of rivers and river access.
Excellent description of Orilla Verde and Pilar sections representing the two segments of this reach at SouthwestPaddler.com.
Logistics: The standard take-out is at County Line River Access (the Taos County and Rio Arriba County border) at Hwy 68 mile 24.0. An intermediate access, that divides the Orilla Verde and Racecourse segments, is available at Quartzite at NM 68 mile 28.2 for a short run. For the full run continue upstream to Pilar and at NM 68 mile 28.8 turn on to NM 570 that continues up river left. You will enter the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument and find several BLM Campgrounds that include Rio Bravo, Arroyo Hondo, Lone Juniper, and Petaca. At mile 6.0 on NM 570 you will reach the Taos Junction Bridge. River access on the downstream river left side of the bridge and camping on river right.
Other runs in the area:
Ute Mountain (Class II),Razors (Class III/IV),Upper Box (Class V/V+),Lower Box (Class III/IV),Pilar (Class III/IV),Otowi Bridge (Class III),Red River (Class IV),Rio Pueblo (Class V+), andRio Embudo (Class V+).
Excepting some busy summer days, two large beaches usually allow for ample room to launch. A moderately sized parking lot is available, as well as porta-potties, a picnic table, and two changing areas. Quartzite is not far from the Rio Grande Gorge Visitors Center just up the road towards Taos.
Rocks appearing in the middle of a riffle just down stream of Quartzite River Access. Easily missed on the right. At high enough water the rocks form a nice to hole to get an good initiation splash before continuing downstream.
Named for the large saddle-shaped rock at the bottom of the rapid. The popular line at the top of Saddle Rock is down the channel on river left, where boaters usually work their way to river right very close to shore, then weave their boats through rocks at the bottom. There is another favorite line not far from the left shore, available when water levels permit. At low flows the entrance on the left can be pushy and the river tends to push boaters into the left shore or one of the center rocks where a high side may be necessary. At high flows this marks the beginning of Mile Long Rapid, a class IV rapids that includes, into a continuous stretch of whitewater, the rapids of Saddle Rock, Albert Falls, Herringbone, Eye of the Needle, Narrows, Boulder Field, Dead Foot Falls, and Final Drop. Saddle Rock is easily scouted from the road on river left.
Purportedly named for Albert Einstein in the 1950s by kayakers who worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. At moderate flows the rapid is entered left of center, just left of a large pour over. The curling wave at the bottom of the first drop is a lateral wave, and boaters usually square up to the wave by pointing the front of their boat slightly towards the left shore. Boat Eater hole is located right of center and can give an unwary craft a wild ride for a good while. At higher flows (around 2500 cfs) Albert Falls is considered class IV and the lateral below the first drop becomes massive; at this level Albert's is a mandatory scout. There is a tricky sneak run along the right shore (and to the right of Boat Eater). At low water (below 300 cfs) the middle run is usually not an option, and boaters typically work along the right shore then over a drop that takes them across the river toward the left shore. From there boaters usually remain mostly left of center over the smaller drops; after the last of these pull boaters usually hard to the right of center to miss the midstream boulders. At extremely low flows the top of the right side of the rapid is blocked partially by shallow rocks; at these levels boaters often enter the rapid on river left just downstream of these rocks, cutting across currents and eddies (between these upstream rocks and the downstream impassable upper falls) to get to the main entrance near the right shore. The rapid is easily scouted from a turnout on the road on river left.
Shallow boulders guard the entrance to Herringbone. After weaving among the shallow rocks boaters usually enter the rapid near the shore and into a chute. Be alert for a boulder/pour over near the bottom of this chute; boaters usually pass to the right of the boulder/pour over, though many elect to run the narrower and more turbulent channel between the boulder and the left shore. At low water, below the boulder/pour over, navigate more towards the center of the river to avoid the shallow rocks. At all water levels miss the large Whale Rock at the bottom of the rapid; boaters usually pass the Whale Rock on the left.
The tricky part of this rapid is usually at the bottom. At moderate to high flows boaters usually run the rapid down the middle and veer left near the left shore to exit. At low flows the left channel exit is too shallow and boaters usually thread their way through the Eye of the Needle: three large spaced-apart boulders. Boaters usually opt to cross the river from left to right to pass between the first two boulders located in the center of the river, then turn abruptly downstream to pass between the most downstream of these first two boulders and a third along the right shore. Across from the Eye of the Needle boulders, along the left shore, there is an eddy that provides a great opportunity to setup for the move.
Sometimes “Narrows” is used to refer to the next four class III rapids; here the Narrows refers to the first rapids of this sequence. At moderate to high flows the Narrows provide some of the best standing waves on the run. At these levels the run is pretty much down the middle. Watch out for Glory Hole on the left at the bottom of these rapids and Mother Rock (at high water Mother Hole) just right of center at the entrance to the Boulder Field (see below). At low water the Narrows are a formidable challenge. Boaters usually squeeze between a large boulder near the right shore and some smaller rocks further off shore, then swing around and dash for a channel near the left shore, then recenter the boat to miss some shallow rocks, then miss the rock outcroppings in the middle of the river by passing on their left, then miss the boulders immediately downstream by pulling to the right. The Narrows can be scouted from the road.
A wide section of river where a fence-like jumble of rocks cuts across the river. The entrance to the Boulder Field begins with Mother Rock, the largest boulder in the rapid and it's usually passed on the left. Higher flows turn Mother Rock into Mother Hole.
At moderate to high flows boaters usually run left of center over the waves while dodging pour overs.
At low flows boaters typically navigate down to the fence-like rock jumble then move to the center of the river to pass through two large guard rocks called the Horns (or the Fangs). There are two commonly used channels to get to the fence-like rock jumble: weaving through the boulders following a line just left of center, or in very low water conditions along the left shore. At the jumble boaters paddle across the river just upstream of the jumble and slip through the Horns/Fangs with a turn to the left. Beware of Hemorrhoid rock below the Horns/Fangs – it splits the channel below Horns/Fangs in two, the left channel being the rockier of the two. At extreme low flows a small partially submerged rock appears just above the Horns/Fangs: rafters have to pick-up enough momentum to slide up and over the rock and into the Horns/Fangs. Boulder Field can be scouted from the road.
The rapid is usually entered center or just right of center and the current takes boaters directly into the Fang/Nemesis Rock. The easier channel is on the left of the rock. Below Fang/Nemesis the river drops over the remains of an old diversion dam providing great standing waves below. The passage on the left of Fang/Nemesis leads to a wide channel passing over the rocks of the dam, but the channel to the right leads to a pool above the rock piles of the dam and usually a narrower channel then must be taken over the remains of the rock pile. Near the end of the wave train below the dam is Dead Foot, a large boulder on river left. At high flows Dead Foot forms an impressive hole. The top of Dead Foot Falls is easily scouted from the road, but portions of the remainder of the rapids can be obscured by brush.
The last rapid in the sequence of class III rapids sometimes collectively called the Narrows. At high water (above 2500 cfs) this is the bottom of Mile Long Rapid, the stretch of continuous class IV whitewater starting at Saddle Rock rapids. Final Drop is usually ran down the middle at all flows, with a slight right of center exit at low water. At the bottom of the run out be alert for the huge boulder jutting out from the right shore into the center of the river. Final drop is easily scouted from the road.
Named for the rocky shallows that make-up this rapid, and the potential swim that almost certainly is less like slipping down a water slide and more akin to sliding down a cheese grater. The rapid is usually ran down the middle. At low flows, about halfway down the rapid some weaving to the right and then back to the center, is usually needed. As with any rapid, in Cheese Grater take precautions to avoid foot entrapment if you find yourself swimming. Cheese Grater is easily scouted from a pullout along the road.
Old, dilapidated bridge purportedly build by a commune that lived at the site of the Glen Woody mine town on river right. Beware of possible fishing lines with hooks still attached that might have been accidentally snagged and dangling from the bridge. At high water the river rises very close to the bottom of the bridge and the bridge must be portaged on left bank.
A long rapid that starts below the pool at Glen Woody Bridge. The river makes three turns before flowing into a jumble of truck-sized boulders. Upstream of the jumble the rapid is usually ran up the middle, and at low water, between the second and third turns, just right of center.
The line boaters take through the jumble at Big Rocks is inordinately flow dependent. The major landmark for determining a line is Pilot Rock, the first large center boulder the river passes in the jumble. At high flows boaters can pass just left of Pilot then pull to the right to miss the second large center boulder (Thunderdome), passing between Thunderdome and the right shore (a channel called the Ledge).
An alternative high water line starts between the second and third river turns above the jumble, where boaters move along the right shore (specifically between Pilot/other boulders and the right shore) then pass over the Ledge.
At moderate flows the route along the right shore might be too shallow or constricted and the channel left of Pilot is the best option. Again, pass on the left of Pilot then pull right to pass between Thunderdome and the right shore and over the Ledge.
The Toilet Bowl – a very push class IV channel on the left side of Thunderdome – is a major concern. A wave train in the channel on the left side of Pilot can push boaters towards the left side of Thunderdome and into the Toilet Bowl Drop. In the left channel, striking and bouncing off Pilot with a boat often bounces boaters into that same predicament.
At low water the Ledge becomes impassable but another channel is exposed between Thunderdome and the Ledge: this low water channel is called the Slot. The Slot starts at Thunderdome and cuts across the river on the downstream side of the Ledge, then a hard left turn takes boaters downstream and out of the rapid. Because boaters are cutting across the current in front of Thunderdome, the river often pushes boats against Thunderdome causing them to flip on the rock; a preventative downstream lowside usually keeps boats right-side-up entering the Slot.
Running the Slot usually takes some setup. At moderate to high flows being too far left while passing Pilot is a sure recipe for going into the Toilet Bowl. But at low flows, when the Slot is exposed, a large eddy appears along the left shore immediately downstream of Pilot, and catching this low water eddy prevents boaters from going into the Toilet Bowl; it also gives them a great place to setup for the Slot. But low water exposes a new obstacle in the left channel: Velcro Rock, just upstream from the low water eddy. At low water boats that strike Pilot often get pushed up onto this slightly submerge boulder where dislodging a raft takes some tugging.
The boulder jumble at Big Rocks is easily scouted from the road.
Massive boulder that fell from the canyon rim in 1991, punched a large hole in the highway, shattered a riverside boulder making Baby Huey bounce and land on the otherside of the river.
A great playspot for kayakers with a nice pool at the bottom. A steep, sagebrush-packed trail winds from the road down to the pool.
A drop into a big reversal wave. At low water the drop is usually ran down the channel along the right shore; at moderate to high flows preference for how much splash a boater wants determines how the drop is ran; boats without sufficient momentum to punch through the reversal might be in for a surf and a flip! Be mindful of the large boulders at the bottom of the rapid coming off the right shore. This is a favorite surf playspot for kayakers. A trail runs from a pullout alongside the road down the river bank to the rapid. At lower levels Sleeping Beauty becomes a fun surf for rafts. The rapid is easily scouted from the road.
One of the more famous rapids on the run. At low to moderate flows Souse is ran usually down the left channel. Rafts can surf the hole at the bottom of the last drop at low flows. At high flows the rapid creates a near river-wide massive hole renowned for flipping boats. Boaters looking to avoid the huge wave can sneak the rapid along the left shore. At all flows be mindful of currents coming off the left shore that may push your boat too far into the center of the river. A trail comes down from the road to the pool at the bottom of Souse. The rapid is easily scouted from the road.
This rapid is created by the island in the middle of the river just downstream from the pool below Souse Hole. At moderate to low levels the right channel is usually the only channel deep enough to navigate. Near the bottom of the island the river swings left; stay alert for the wrap rock near the right shore at the bottom of the run out.
One moderate and another large boat ramp are available, along with picnic tables, and BLM-maintained outhouses providing ample space for changing. A shallow riffle (usually ran along the left shore) indicates the river's approach to County Line; a second riffle begins just above the second boat ramp.
There is a takeout on river left after Souse Hole. The river makes a sweep left hand turn after Souse Hile. At the end of this turn is where the takeout is. Taking out at this point eliminates about a mile with little gradient.
A fun run with some good play at just about any level...above 2000 cfs is a solid level...above 3000 Alberts is a mandatory scout due to a large river-wide hole. At high water, everything is pretty continuous with big random holes and waves, except for Big rocks, which washes out on the right channel. Souse can be easily avoided at any level as long as you hug the left bank. The most popular playspot is between Big Rocks and Souse, called Sleeping beauty. It plays better river right of the stack...
AT low and high wachet out for the left of big rock it is undercut
Watch out for sals [Souse (Hole)] at high water
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Glen Woody Bridge
Surf or Die
Entrance to Dead Foot Falls
Eye of the Needle
Entrance of Saddle Rock rapid
Big Rocks rapid, with Pilot Rock on the right.
Baby Huey boulder
Big Rocks rapid, Racecourse, Rio Grande
County Line Access
Rio Grande rapids
Rio Grand rapids
Quartzite River Access
Taos Junction River Access
Rio Grande del Norte National Monument Sign
River near Pilar
Rio Grande in Fall
Souse Hole 450cfs
Big Rock 450cfs
Alberts Falls 450cfs
big rock at high water
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(Pilar, NM) Mother's Day Rio Grande Whitewater Races, the second oldest, organized river race in the country, will once again host kayakers and rafters, canoeists, spectators, campers, and Dutch Oven Cook-off competitors, from May 11 to 13. The races will be held on the 4.5-mile, Class III section of the rio Grande known as the "Racecourse", which begins just south of Taos, in Pilar, and runs along NM State Road 68. The three-day event is being hosted by the New Mexico River Outfitters Association, The Adobe Whitewater Club, American Whitewater, and the American Canoe Association.
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