Paddle the Parks: Big Bend National Park

A river on the edge of Texas and Mexico

Big Bend National Park. Photo: Whit Richardson
Big Bend National Park. Photo: Whit Richardson

River on the Edge

Big Bend National Park, Texas
By John Manuel

We were already a bit tense, having spooked a big rattlesnake while tamping down the grass for a lunch spot, when across the Rio Grande came three vaqueros. They rode up the bank past our canoes and reined their mustangs to a halt.

“Buenos dias,” said the lead vaquero, bad teeth flashing beneath his black moustache. “Tienes un cigarillo?”

Burt shook his head. “We don’t smoke.”

“No?”

The vaquero eyed Jane in her tank top and cut-off shorts. We were half-naked, unarmed, miles from civilization. These men could do anything they wanted to us.

“Que pena!” the vaquero said. “Too bad.”

And just like that, they were gone, swallowed up by the tamarisk and the tawny canyons.

This is what I love about paddling through the Big Bend National Park. So much of what one encounters is crazy different—the landscape, the vegetation, the animals, and, sometimes, the people.

The Rio Grande, which borders the southern edge of the park for 118 miles, is by itself unimpressive—shallow, muddy and mostly slow. But over the millennia, it has carved its way through the backbone of the Sierra del Carmen, creating one spectacular canyon after another. Soaring as high as 1,500 feet above the river, the canyons are endlessly varied—sheer, fluted, pockmarked with small boquillas, or mouths.

Between the mountains, the low-lying Chihuahuan Desert spreads across much of this 800,000-acre park. The desert is home to more than 60 species of cactus—prickly pear, pineapple, horse crippler, strawberry hedgehog. Each sports a devilish arrangement of thorns that can stab the unwary traveler. The animals, too, are suitably armed—the peccary with its sharp tusks, the scorpion its stinging tail, the tarantula and rattlesnake their venomous fangs.

“It’s all good,” as the river guides say. “Watch your step, be polite, and you’ll do fine.”

Click the links below to read about paddling adventures in a few of our favorite parks around the country:

The Missouri National Recreational River

A journey through time in South Dakota and Nebraska


Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Paddle over the horizon line of waterfalls in Tennessee and North Carolina


Wrangell St. Elias National Park

Paddle through a seascape of water and ice in southeast Alaska


Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Explore Lake Superior’s panoramic coastline in Michigan


Ozark Scenic Riverways

A secret worth sharing in Missouri


Channel Islands National Park

Experience isolation 40 miles south of Santa Cruz, California


Grand Canyon National Park

Experience America’s 2 billion-year-old river canyon in Arizona


Lewis and Clark National and State Historical Parks

Follow in the footsteps—paddle strokes—of great American explorers in Washington and Oregon


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The complete list of our favorite national parks for paddling


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