by Alan Kesselheim
first appeared in Canoe Journal 2005
Why to Go: The Chihuahuan Desert in the Big Bend area of Texas, and continuing south into Mexico, is haunting in its beauty and harsh power. The Rio Grande is one of the best ways to experience this international landscape. Along the border of Big Bend National Park, the river cuts through a series of three spectacular canyons with some fun rapids, most notably the Rock Slide in Santa Elena Canyon, rated Class IV in higher water. Side canyons lead to fantastic explorations of fern-lined water holes and slickrock. Between the canyons, the Rio Grande flows through open desert with spacious views and quiet wilderness where few people paddle.
The border country is full of exotic bird species, some seen only in this section of the United States, as well as javelinas, tarantulas, roadrunners, and other desert critters. A couple of riverside hot springs offer nice diversions along the route. This watery ribbon forms the U.S.-Mexico border and, as such, offers a cultural immersion as well as a wilderness adventure.
Why Not to Go: Lack of river water is the biggest concern. Heavy upstream irrigation dewaters the Rio Grande much of the time, and water for the Big Bend section is provided mostly by the Rio Conchos, in Mexico. In addition, persistent drought can last a decade or more. Check river levels and contact local outfitters to assess the status for your trip.
The border country is full of exotic bird species, some seen only in this section of the United States, as well as javelinas, tarantulas, roadrunners, and other desert critters.
From April through September, heat is a major concern. Temperatures between 90 and 110 are common, and shade can be a scarce commodity. One the other hand, winter trips (November-March) can encounter windy and hypothermic conditions. Be aware of the usual array of desert hazards—snakes, scorpions, thorns, and flash floods. Finally, the international border is, by definition, a zone of potential tension. Illegal immigration and a thriving smuggling trade can lead to some dicey moments if you get caught in the middle. Camp on the U.S. side of the river to minimize the wrong place/wrong time potential.
If You Go: Consider the variety of shallow, flatwater paddling spiced with occasional whitewater when deciding which canoes you want to take. Drinking water is available at a couple of campgrounds en route, but take containers to carry several days’ water at a time. Get River Guide To the Rio Grande: Colorado Canyon through Santa Elena Canyon from the Big Bend Natural History Association (432-477-2236, www.bigbendbookstore.org) for the best mile-by-mile maps and discussion of river-running considerations. Free permits are required for overnight camping. Contact the Big Bend National Park office at (432) 477-2251; www.nps.gov/bibe. The River Guides and National Park offices have complete listings of local outfitters, guides, and shuttle services.
When You Go
- Put-In: There is dirt-road access to the river just west of Lajitas, Texas, off Highway 170.
- Take-Out: The Highway 2627 bridge at La Linda is eight miles downstream of the National Park boundary.
- Days Needed: 9-12 days (longer and shorter itineraries are possible)
- Miles of Paddling: 125
- Difficulty: 1