In a climate as dry as New Mexico's, it seems slightly sinful to spend a day immersed in cool, flowing water. But as you raft the Rio Grande through the 800-foot-deep canyon known as the Taos Box, you'll be too busy issuing Hail Marys (and yelling "Holy Crap!") to think about guilt. The 17-mile-long Lower Box, with its Class IV rapids, is home to some of the wildest whitewater along the 1,885-mile river.
The scarcity of water makes trip timing critical. So last May, when I noticed the online river-gauge graph leap from a barely floatable 600 cubic feet per second to more than 1,000, I mustered a six-person crew and headed to the put-in, six miles north of Taos at the John Dunn Bridge. Our first 12 miles were gentle, but the Rio Grande spoke up as we approached Powerline Falls, where the cacophony of water reached a thunder. We parked to have a look at the 14-foot dropwe'd have to drift into a slot guarded by boulders, with no chance of paddles touching water until we hit the pool at the bottom. Then we got back in, cinched up our PFDs, and let the pushy current have its way.
Everyone howled at the tipping point, where the tongue of water carried us over the edge and ricocheted us off rocks on our way down. Nervous laughter led to high-fives as we realized we'd made it through the first of many formidable drops. Then the rapids came in succession: Pinball, Rock Garden, Boat Reamer, Screaming Left, Screaming Right, and, before the take-out at Taos Junction Bridge, the appropriately named Sunset. As the sun drew an inky shadow across the canyon, we stepped back on land, reeling from the adrenaline buzz. We kept the thrill alive by driving across the bridge to the BLM campground and cracking beers.
BONUS: Kick-start a river day with a hearty cup of joe and a breakfast burrito at the Bean (505-758-7711), with locations on both ends of Taos.
DETAILS: Kokopelli Rafting Adventures (800-879-9035, www.kokopelliraft.com) leads Lower Box trips from $95 per person. Camping in the Orilla Verde Recreation Area (505-758-8851, www.nm.blm.gov) costs $7 per vehicle.