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Kayaking In New Mexico – Welcome To The Land Of Enchantment

Mark Armstrong
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When you think of New Mexico, you probably don’t think of lots of water. But, on the contrary, there are plenty of excellent places to go kayaking in New Mexico. With dozens of fantastic lakes and reservoirs, plus a few major rivers, you shouldn’t have to search too far to find great spots.

Check out some of our favorite places to paddle in the Land of Enchantment.

A view on the winding river in New MexicoPin

5 Best Places To Kayak In New Mexico

1: Elephant Butte Lake, NM

A view at the Elephant Butte Lake, on a sunny dayPin
Courtesy: Psyberartist on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Elephant Butte Lake is an impoundment of the Rio Grande, covering 40,000 acres. With lots of beach access, it can be easy to launch from just about anywhere in Elephant Butte Lake State Park but there are also dedicated boat ramps and marinas. You’ll also find restrooms and places to camp.

The water is generally calm, making it great for families and beginners. There are many coves and islands for interesting paddling trips. It’s also possible to paddle along the Rio Grande, below the dam, to Caballo Lake State Park, around 17 miles south of Elephant Butte Lake State Park.

Kayak rentals are available in Elephant Butte, near the state park.

Class of Rapids rating:

Class I/Flatwater (easy)

Where to Launch & How to get there:

Marina Del Sur, 101 NM-195, Elephant Butte, NM 87935.

2: Rio Grande

Famous for flowing along the US-Mexico border, the Rio Grande can be an exciting place to paddle. As the river flows through Albuquerque, it is calm and slow-moving. Between Bernalillo and Albuquerque, the river can be peaceful, with good wildlife viewing opportunities.

A good place to launch is at the Rio Rancho Bosque Preserve, a couple of miles south of Bernalillo. This can let you paddle around 10 miles down to the Alameda Bridge in Albuquerque. You can also launch at the Route 550 bridge. If you want to continue beyond the Alameda Bridge, you’ll have to portage around a small dam. There are other launches and take-outs in the city.

Kayak rentals and tours can be found in the town of Bernalillo, as well as in Albuquerque.

Class of Rapids rating:

Class I/II (easy)

Where to Launch & How to get there:

Rio Rancho Bosque Preserve, 1740 Black River Drive NE, Rio Rancho, NM 87144.

3: Fenton Lake

Fenton Lake is surrounded by ponderosa pine forests with beautiful scenery and great fishing. The lake is home to rainbow trout and brown trout, so can be an ideal spot for fly fishing.

This picturesque lake lies within Fenton Lake State Park and features calm water for a peaceful paddle, which can be great for beginners as well as kayak anglers. You can also check out views of the surrounding Jemez Mountains.

There’s a dedicated boat launch, as well as camping and picnic areas in the state park. It’s also good to note that there are no motorized vessels allowed on the lake, except electric trolling motors. And there’s a maximum boat length limit of 16 feet, which can make it more relaxing for kayaking.

There are no kayak rentals on-site but you can rent off-site daily rentals in Bernalillo, north of Albuquerque.

Class of Rapids rating:

Class I/Flatwater (easy)

Where to Launch & How to get there:

455 Fenton Lake Road, Jemez Springs, NM 87025. The boat launch is opposite the park office.

4: Heron Lake

If you’re looking for wildlife, Heron Lake can be a great place to go kayaking. There are several campgrounds within Heron Lake State Park if you want to spend a few days exploring. The lake is generally calm and flat, but it can get windy in exposed areas. However, there are wind warning lights at certain points that can alert you to the conditions.

The surrounding area is filled with pine forests and mountains, with chances to view raptors, bears, elk and even mountain lions.

There are lots of sheltered coves and you can paddle up Willow Creek on the northeastern side of the lake, past the sailing marina. This can be a quiet spot, with calmer water than in the center of the lake, especially if it’s windy.

Kayaks can be rented off-site.

Class of Rapids rating:

Class I/Flatwater (easy)

Where to Launch & How to get there:

La Laja Boat Ramp, MN-95, Los Ojos, NM 87551.

5: Rio Chama

Kayaker on a river in Rio ChamaPin
Courtesy: Bureau of Land Management on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The Rio Chama features a 31 mile section that is designated as a National Wild and Scenic River. Beginning from the launch at El Vado Ranch, southwest of Tierra Amarilla, the river gently flows through some stunning scenery.

The trip takes roughly three days, letting you paddle through the Chama River Canyon Wilderness to the take-out at Big Eddy, west of Ghost Ranch. There are some mild rapids along the way but they can be easy to navigate.

There is primitive camping alongside the river, making sure you follow the “leave no trace” principle. With this being a wilderness area, there can be great opportunities to view wildlife in its natural habitat.

There are several outfitters where you can rent kayaks or take a guided tour, with options around La Junta and Pilar, along the Rio Grande.

Class of Rapids rating:

Class I to II (easy to moderate)

Where to Launch & How to get there:

El Vado Ranch, 3150 NM-112, Tierra Amarilla, NM 87575.

New Mexico Kayak Laws

US Coast GuardPin

Do You Need To Register A Kayak in New Mexico?

No. But you will need to register and title it if you add a motor of any kind.

We’ve included a few of the main kayaking laws that apply in New Mexico. However, you may want to check out the laws yourself, as some rules may vary depending on your specific location. This is not intended to be legal advice.

  • A PFD must be worn at all times by each person in a kayak, canoe or raft.
  • Boating Under the Influence of alcohol or drugs is illegal in New Mexico. This law is strictly enforced.
  • Boater Education Card is required to be carried by anyone born in or after 1989 for operating any motorized vessel. This applies to motorized kayaks.

Kayak Rentals And Tours Around New Mexico

There are a few places where you can rent a kayak in New Mexico, with some outfitters offering guided tours of specific locations. Some of these outfitters offer off-site rentals, allowing you to self-transport the kayak to your preferred paddling location.

Final Words

Kayaking in New Mexico can let you experience some of the state’s most picturesque waterways and journey through some remote landscapes on multi-day adventures.

Remember to always wear your PFD while paddling in New Mexico. And keep your eyes peeled for wildlife. Don’t forget to share this with your fellow paddlers and let us know how your next trip goes.    

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