Wild Wild West

Upper Animas and Rio Grande Rivers

Jul 1, 2005
Outside Magazine

With over 100 rapids—continuous Class III with intermittent Class IV and V—packed into 26 miles, and a 9,000-foot put-in in Silverton, Colorado, the Upper Animas River is one of the quintessential rafting trips in the Lower 48. "People come from all around the world just to see the scenery," says Mild to Wild Rafting owner Alex Mickel, "and then you add the whitewater, and that just blows people away." In photos, the Animas River Canyon looks postcard-perfect, with ponderosa pines and Douglas fir dotting the bases of the 13,000-foot snow-capped mountains decorated with waterfalls and river cascades in complete isolation. With an average drop of 85 feet per mile, and some sections hitting 150 feet per mile, the Upper Animas is considered one of the most difficult commercially run trips in the United States. Be sure to get out this year, because "it's the best water in ten years," says Mickel. "July is going to be a particularly great time because we have warm weather and the water levels will still be great."

Mild to Wild Rafting (1-800-567-6745, www.mild2wildrafting.com)
Mild to Wild Rafting has been in business for 15 years, and is operated on a day-to-day basis by owners Alex and Molly Mickel. The one-, two-, or three-day trips on the Upper Animas meet at company headquarters in Durango for an orientation the evening before, and then shuttle to the put-in at Silverton together. Day one includes the hardest rapid, the Class V "No Name," and at the end of the day, day-trippers return to Durango and overnighters stay at Mild and Wild's established camp. Two- and three-day trips cover the same ground, but guests on the three-day trip spend the second day at camp, hiking, fishing, and relaxing. "When people get to the camp," says Mickels, "everyone on the two-day wishes they'd done the three-day." The one-day trip is $205, the two-day trip is $410, and the three-day trip is $550. All prices include the half-hour return trip on the narrow gauge train back to the vehicles.

The Rio Grande runs 1,885 miles, through differing terrain in Colorado and Texas; as the river is about to cross into New Mexico—the link between the two states—it cuts the Rio Grande Gorge for 68 miles, earning itself a Congressional "Wild and Scenic" designation in the process. At the upper end is the Upper Taos Box, with Class V too dangerous to be run commercially, but below that, starting at the John Dunn Bridge is the section known simply as the Taos Box. Sixteen miles long, the Box is a combination of leisurely drifting and steep, powerful Class IV rapids, which pick up as the section goes on, especially in the last four miles beginning with Powerline Falls. The Taos Box is not for the timid. "There's an increased chance of both flipping or someone flying out of the boat, when the water is high like it is this year," says New Wave owner Steve Miller. "It's comparable to any other classic one-day trips available in the United States." The past several years have seen abbreviated seasons on the Box, and outfitters expect to run it this year through the end of July. More appropriate for families is the Rio Grande Gorge section immediate below the Box, which is run all year long regardless of water level.

New Wave (1-800-984-1444, www.newwaverafting.com)
In business since 1980, New Wave has offices in both Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico. "We run the tightest ship on the Rio Grande and you can quote me on that," says owner Steve Miller. "We pay attention to detail, and have high standards for how trips are performed and for how employees perform on the river." New Wave offers several trips in the Rio Grande Gorge from their most popular, the half-day Racecourse, to the Rio Grande Duo, beginning with the full-day Rio Grande Gorge on day one and the more challenging Taos Box on day two. The half-day Racecourse, five miles of rafting on Class III rapids at low water and Class IV at higher levels, is offered both in the morning and afternoon, and is appropriate for children as young as six at lower flows, but restricted to age 12 when the water comes up. Prices start at $43 for adults and $40 for children or groups over six, with tiered discounts for larger groups. The full-day trips, with lunch, gear and transportation provided, to the Lower Gorge or Taos Box start at $84. New Wave generally has discounts for groups and lower prices for trips during the week.

Santa Fe Mountain Adventures (505-988-4000, www.santafemountainadventures.com)
For an alternative adventure on the Rio Grande, Santa Fe Mountain Adventures (which was developed in partnership with Outside) offers a multi-activity program that combines the cultural activities of Santa Fe with the area's recreation activities, including morning rafting on the Racecourse on Tuesdays and Saturdays. However, there are opportunities to customize the activities, according to Adventure Director Janine Sieja, and a rafting trip down the Taos Box is definitely an option. Prices start at $100 per person per day, and include activities, transportation, gratuities, and best of all, a year's subscription to Outside magazine.