It's not easy to get to Big Bend in west Texas. That gooseneck of border isn't on the way to anywhere. And this stretch of the Rio Grande is a daunting place once you arrive - searing summer heat, thorny vegetation, sheer rock canyons. It’s an arid, rugged, exposed land full of jutting volcanic outcrops. By the same token, it is mystical and haunting, with pockets of lush beauty where springs create oases or shady water pockets (tinajas) support soft, green ferns.
The Rio Grande winds through some 240 miles of outstanding paddling terrain with a Wild and Scenic River designation. More than 117 miles of that is within the Big Bend National Park, but the reach encompasses Colorado Canyon upstream of the park, and the lower canyons downstream.
Quite a few paddlers sample the canyons - most notably Santa Elena Canyon with its sheer, slot walls, Class IV Rock Fall Rapid, and sweet side-canyons. Day trips and overnight outings are pretty common. I'm an advocate for the longer sweep. Don't stop at the mouth of the canyon, continue on through the open country full of big views and expansive terrain. When you make that kind of effort to get somewhere, stay on the river for a while.
To get the true taste of Chihuahuan desert, days of sustained, deep canyons, and a seriously remote experience, take on the Lower Canyons, from La Linda to Dryden, an 80-mile bit of solitude under some of the darkest night skies in North America, rife with side-canyons to explore, hot springs to soak in, rapids to dodge through and the exotic mystery of this storied borderland. When you say you've been down the Lower Canyons, even the locals perk up.
Put-In and Takeout: Put in at the bridge at La Linda, downstream of the national park on Texas highway 2627. There's a $10 fee at the access and depending on your vehicle, you may have to portage gear several hundred yards to the river's edge. Take out at an unmarked dirt road just downstream of a very prominent river gauging station on river left (Texas). Look for the dirt road in the vegetation and walk up to a sun shade structure above the river. The takeout is on private ranch property and you'll pay a fee there as well (it was $50 in 2016). The rancher will provide you the gate combinations along the road out.
Distance/Time: The Lower Canyon trip is roughly 80 miles. A week or more is nice and leisurely, and affords time to soak at the hot springs, explore side-canyons and laze along. With higher water levels the distance can be covered in 5 days. (We took 6 days in December at moderate water levels.)
Best Time of Year: If you have your pick, go for October. It's after the rainy season so water should be high, the weather tends to be splendid, and the days haven't shortened to winter hours. I've also gone in December and February with good results. Avoid spring break weeks in March and April because it's a zoo down there, and be warned, May - August are really hot and dry.
Fees and Permits: It's pretty low-key. Check in at the National Park Visitor Center at Panther Junction to fill out some paperwork and pay a nominal fee (it was $6 for us). Other than that, it's the fees charged at launch and take-out.
Ideal Water Level: Check the USGS gauge at Castolon and Rio Grande Village. It's pretty much always runnable, even as low as 200 cfs, because of the springs that come in and add water along the lower reaches. 500 - 1,000 cfs is primo and above that, you'll really make time.
Maps: Buy the set of River Guides through Big Bend Natural History Association or pick them up at the Visitor Center. Three guides cover the entire reach, or just pick up the section you want to paddle.
Best Boats: Solo or tandem canoes work best in most conditions. A spray deck is nice so you don't have to bail after sets of standing waves. Small rafts and inflatables are also appropriate.
Hazards: A couple of rapids deserve special scrutiny; namely - Hot Springs (Class III-IV), Upper Madison Falls (IV) and Lower Madison Falls (III). We were able to run Hot Springs, had a short portage on the Mexican side at Upper Madison, and lined Lower Madison along the Texas shoreline. Other than that the whitewater was no big deal (different water levels will change things).
Special Gear: Take at least a 5-gallon jug with an eye to topping off at hot and cold springs along the way. Portable toilets/groovers and fire pans are required.
Outfitters: The National Park website lists local outfitters, shuttle services, hotels, restaurants, etc. We used Big Bend River Tours with good results, but there are several to pick from. Beware, the shuttle from the Dryden take-out is both long and expensive. Expect to spend the better part of a day doing it.