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Rio Grande

the fifth longest river in North America

Rising on the Continental Divide in the southern Rocky Mountains in southwestern Colorado, the Rio Grande flows for 1,885 miles before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico near Brownsville, Texas. Early Spanish explorers gave the river its name, which means "large river."

map of the Rio Grande River

Upper Course

The Rio Grande's headwaters lie within Rio Grande National Forest. It flows southeast to Alamosa, Colorado, where it turns south and flows into and through central New Mexico. In northern New Mexico, the river, fed by mountain streams, passes through a series of basins separated by narrow valleys. The river valley widens out above Albuquerque, and the river flows out upon a dry plateau. Here Elephant Butte Dam impounds the river for about 40 miles. The Caballo Reservoir lies further downstream, and the two impounds together store water for the Rio Grande Reclamation Project at Las Cruces. The American Dam controls the waters of the Rio Grande north of El Paso at the Texas, New Mexico, and Mexico borders.

Middle Course

From El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico, the Rio Grande forms the border between the United States and Mexico. It turns north at Presidio, Texas to bypass the mountainous Big Bend country, and then flows eastward until the Pecos River joins it. The river flows southeast for the rest of its course. Amistad Dam spans the river about 12 miles northwest of Del Rio, Texas, forming a reservoir that extends upstream 86 miles. This part of the river flows through very dry country, and the Rio Grande has been known to go dry in late summer.

Lower Course

The Rio Grande widens between Eagle Pass and Laredo, and is joined by the Salado River about 50 miles below Laredo. Falcon Dam, about 20 miles below the mouth of the Salado River, forms Falcon Reservoir, which extends upstream more than 35 miles. A series of three reservoirs between Rio Grande City and Brownsville allow farmers to grow citrus fruits, vegetables, and cotton. A 17-mile canal carries the river from Brownsville to the Gulf of Mexico.

Big Bend National Park

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The Robinson Library >> New Southwest >> General History and Description

This page was last updated on June 23, 2018.