While the Four Corners region is a high desert, water is an essential part of the landscape. The area’s 8,000 miles of rivers, plus numerous lakes, provide opportunities for recreation and relaxation. Let’s explore some of the beautiful and unique places where you can enjoy water in the desert.
Rapids Rating System
It’s important to know how rapids on rivers are rated for difficulty and danger so you know what you’re getting into, perhaps literally if you fall in.
Whitewater rapids are rated on a scale of Class I to VI. Class I, the safest and least difficult, is moving water with few riffles and small waves with few or no obstructions. The rapids become more difficult to maneuver as the numbers climb higher. Class III has high, irregular waves that can require precise maneuvering. The highest ranking, Class VI, has extremely dangerous waters that are nearly impossible to navigate. A single river can have rapids of different ratings.
The Colorado River carved out the Grand Canyon over a period of six million years and attracts water sports fans who want to float the gentle portions and brave the rapids of the more challenging sections. This river is 1,450 miles long, from the Rocky Mountains in Colorado across the Colorado Plateau to the Gulf of California in Mexico.
You can’t kayak or raft the entire river as there are multiple places where you would have to get out and portage around impassable areas. It’s best to select an area to experience that matches your skill level. Popular destinations include rafting through the Grand Canyon with a wide range of rapids or challenging Cataract Canyon near Moab in Colorado’s Canyon Country with Class III and IV rapids.
Work with an outfitter to make sure you have a safe adventure rafting the Colorado River, whichever part you decide to experience. Follow in the paddle strokes of John Wesley Powell and experience trips from five to 18 days.
The 730-mile Green River has its headwaters in Wyoming, flows into Utah, winds its way into Colorado, and then returns to Utah before it joins the Colorado River. Like the Colorado, the Green River flows through beautiful desert country, providing dramatic views of places like Canyonlands National Park and Dinosaur National Monument.
Sections of the river are only Class I, making them perfect for lazy floats, while others like Desolation Canyon offer more than 60 Class II to III rapids. Tour companies offer options from one-day to multi-day trips along the river with many routes available from which to choose: thrilling or relaxing? It’s up to you!
A popular stretch is Labyrinth Canyon on the Lower Green River, which is great for canoes, kayaks, and rafts, and is even used by some motorized boats. If you float the 68 miles from Green River to Mineral Bottom Boat Ramp, it can take three to four days in an area with no services. For a 45-mile journey, launch from Ruby Ranch, a private boat launch facility, and head to Mineral Bottom. Note that Mineral Bottom Road is a dirt road with the last part having steep switchbacks, so high-clearance vehicles are recommended. Some outfitters will pick up adventurers here and return them to their vehicles. Permits from the BLM are required.
Numerous Western movies feature pioneers having to cross the treacherous Rio Grande, which runs for more than 1,800 miles from its headwaters in Colorado, traveling through New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico before finally emptying into the Gulf of Mexico.
This is a river of many personalities, offering whitewater adventures to the north and becoming a slow, seasonal river below dams like Elephant Butte in New Mexico. Areas of the river that are popular for rafting and kayaking include the Rio Grande Gorge near Taos, Taos Box Canyon, Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, and the Racecourse. Find the part of the river that speaks to you and make your plans for adventure.
The Rio Chama is about 120 miles long, with headwaters in south-central Colorado and joining the Rio Grande near Española, New Mexico. The Bureau of Land Management manages 22 miles of it from El Vado Ranch to Chavez Canyon access, then the next nine miles are managed by the Santa Fe National Forest Coyote Ranger Station. These 31 miles have been designated a Wild and Scenic River.
People enjoy camping, boating, fishing, hiking, and wildlife viewing along this beautiful river above which sandstone canyon walls rise to 1,500 feet above you. At points along the river, you can take hikes to peaks, mesa tops, and historic sites, and explore side canyons. Watch for birds that follow the river flyway and enjoy a landscape that enchanted artist Georgia O’Keeffe.
Rapids are generally Class II on the Rio Chama. The wild portion of the river, above the Christ in the Desert monastery, requires permits from the BLM for overnight float trips. The scenic part of the river below the monastery can be floated by private boaters without a permit. Outfitters provide guided full-day or multi-day trips on the Rio Chama.
San Juan River
The San Juan River is 383 miles long, running through southeastern Utah and northwestern New Mexico. It’s a main tributary of the Colorado River and merges with it at Lake Powell. In Utah, you can explore the Upper San Juan, the 27-mile stretch from San Island near Bluff to Mexican Hat, or the Lower San Juan, which picks up at Mexican Hat and runs 57 miles to Clay Hills near Lake Powell.
The Upper San Juan trip can take two to three days to float through the area’s natural beauty. The longer Lower San Juan takes rafters through an area rich with archeological sites and interesting geologic history and takes four to five days to complete.
Be aware that access to the river is regulated with permits required by the BLM and the Navajo Nation. Or you can contract with an outfitter to experience the San Juan.
The Animas River, like many others, has headwaters in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. The Upper Animas River has rapids rated Class IV and V while the Lower Animas near Durango, Colorado, is mild enough to allow young children to go along for the ride (wearing a life jacket, of course!).
The Upper Animas has more than 100 rapids and according to an outfitter’s website is “considered to be one the most difficult commercially run rivers in the U.S.” While hurtling down the rapids, you may even see the Durango-Silverton train go by and you’ll lean back to gaze at peaks that rise 14,000 feet above the river.
Navajo Reservoir is the principal water storage facility for the Navajo Irrigation Project, but before it waters agricultural fields, it provides recreational opportunities for hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. It’s the second-largest body of water in New Mexico.
The reservoir lies mostly in New Mexico and creeps into southern Colorado. Both states have developed state parks along its shores. Colorado’s Navajo State Park is 2,100 acres and offers fishing, biking, boating, 138 campsites plus cabins, and even winter sports like cross-country skiing and snowmobiling.
Navajo Lake State Park in New Mexico offers campgrounds, two marinas, and two boat docks. The park allows motorized boats, kayaks, and canoes, and is a fun place for water skiing.
Those searching for a place to cast a line will enjoy fishing at Navajo Lake. The shallow waters are populated with small-mouth and large-mouth bass and catfish while the deeper waters are home to trout, northern pike, and kokanee salmon. Be sure you have a fishing license for the state in which you’re fishing!
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
This 1.25-million-acre recreation area celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2022 and extends from Lee’s Ferry in Arizona to the Orange Cliffs of southern Utah, including Lake Powell. This huge area is in the “Grand Circle” of national parks, monuments, and forests.
Motorboating and houseboating are very popular activities at Lake Powell, with multiple places from which to launch and two concessioners who rent boats. Kayaking is a popular way to enjoy the waters of Lake Powell, the Colorado River below Glen Canyon Dam, or the Escalante River.
There are many places to camp within this huge territory, some National Park Service campgrounds and some operated by park concessioners.
Those who love to fish may find a further incentive in the bounty placed on non-native brown trout caught in specific areas. Rainbow trout and other fish are found in the waters of the recreation area.
About 20 miles from Durango, Colorado, is Vallecito Lake, surrounded by more than 2.5 million acres of beautiful, high-altitude public land including the Weminuche Wilderness and the San Juan National Forest. The reservoir is on the Pine River and offers 12 miles of shoreline. The waters are stocked with trout, pike, and kokanee salmon.
Enjoy boating with a ramp that is open from May through October or launch your kayak anywhere and enjoy the beauty of the mountains and forest with just the sounds of your paddles splashing in the water and the sounds of birdcalls. There are plenty of great hiking trails in the area, too.
There are several privately operated lodging options near the lake plus National Forest Service campgrounds. Some are only available in summer while others are open in the winter but don’t offer services from September through May.