To be sure, most of the Rio Grande in the Big Bend of Texas is not accessible by foot or vehicle, and the best way to see it is from a canoe, kayak or raft. On most trips I have made there have been few, if any, other people we encountered. When we did see other people it was usually near Rio Grande Village or the hot springs area of Big Bend National Park. This place is a long, long way from anywhere - in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert that spans the border between two countries.
This reach of the Rio Grande can be thought of as two primary sections - the Upper Canyons and the Lower Canyons. The Upper Canyons are more hospitable to those with lesser paddling skills. There are still some formidable rapids that require good river skills, especially when the water is high, but for the most part the Upper Canyons can be done as one to three day trips by many paddlers. The surrounding land areas can be hiked, biked or visited by car as long as vehicles of any kind remain on the unimproved roads, which are nothing more than places where a grader pushed the dirt and rocks aside to create a definitive path through the desert.
The Upper Canyons include Colorado Canyon, the shortest and least imposing of all the canyons, but the one with the best rapids in both number and intensity among all Upper Canyons. A typical run starts at the Rancherias Public Access in Big Bend Ranch State Park and ends about 21 miles later at Lajitas, where Big Bend National Park begins. Following that is the majestic and truly beautiful Santa Elena Canyon, the one many people claim to be the most scenic of all the canyons of the Rio Grande. It runs about 20 miles from Lajitas to the Santa Elena take-out in the national park just about a mile or so below where Terlingua Creek flows into the Rio Grande. Santa Elena is characterized by its signature rapid, Rock Slide, a solid Class II in low water that can escalate to Class III+ in high-water conditions. Most of the canyon paddling is done on flatwater. Excellent and quite scenic natural campsites, most on the Mexican side, can be found at strategically located points in the canyon.
Below Santa Elena Canyon is a 47-mile reach of open desert where the river flows through a cut bank with walls from a few inches to perhaps twenty or twenty-five feet. The Great Unknown begins at the Santa Elena take-out at Castolon and ends at Talley Access in the middle of the desert. Numerous park service campsites are located along this reach, which flows by Johnson's Ranch, now owned by the National Park Service. This area is accessible by car (high clearance, 4-wheel drive is recommended), bike or foot, though one would not want to hike from any improved campground to this area unless they were truly rugged individuals carrying plenty of water, food and a decent First Aid kit. The Great Unknown, called that because so few people have ever visited it, stands in stark contrast to the deep canyons along most of the Rio Grande. Many excellent campsites can be found along this reach of the Rio Grande on both sides of the river.
Talley Access is the launch point for the short, but very scenic Mariscal Canyon, a run of about 11 miles on mostly flatwater punctuated by the impressive Tight Squeeze Rapid, a boulder garden created from huge chunks of mountain that broke loose and tumbled into the river far below. There is an impressive natural campsite on the Mexican side about midway through Mariscal Canyon, and though it is short enough to run in a single day you might want to linger here for an overnight trip just to enjoy the scenery. The Mariscal canyon run ends in the desert at a place called Solis, a national park access that, like Talley, is a long, slow drive through the desert.
From Solis to Rio Grande Village is a run of about 18 miles that includes the diminuative San Vicente and Hot Springs Canyons with their much shorter walls and a lot of open desert surrounding the river. The Mexican village of San Vicente is located here, and there are a couple of decent Class I to I+ rapids that can make the trip a little more interesting. This reach affords quite a lot of exploration opportunities for those interested in birds, flowers, plants and other desert flora and fauna. It also flows by the old hot springs resort that operated along the river many decades ago, but now is a part of the national park, and a place where many visitors go to refresh in the truly hot springs, with water approaching 100 degrees. The reach ends at Rio Grande Village where you will find an RV park, many great group and individual campsites, a camp store with ice, beverages, picnic supplies and a few food items, a laundromat, fuel and the crowing glory - hot and cold showers!
Upon departing Rio Grande Village for destinations downriver you will paddle by the Mexican village of Boquillas del Carmen, and it is quite likely that you will encounter residents either nearby the river or at a slight distance in the town. They are very friendly, and may even try to sell you a walking stick or other items. These people used to work in the park, and travel to Marathon or Alpine for food, medical supplies, clothing and other essentials until some idiot in Washington, DC decided that this might be a "terrist" crossing point and closed the border.
Technically, it is illegal to buy anything from the Mexicans, so I sometimes give them a few dollars just to help them out. They are truly a very poor people with little resources and not much chance to get out of there. Before the border closing, many park visitors would venture across the river to have a few drinks in the tavern and socialize with the inhabitants.
Below Heath Canyon Ranch you are entering the fabled Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande, the most remote, wilderness river trip in the United States! Do not go here unless you are rugged enough and well equipped for a multi-day trip through some harsh land and four major rapids in the Class III to IV range, depending upon water level. You do have the option of eliminating the first few miles (about 10-11) by starting at the Black Gap Wilderness area, but the access is not easy, the road to and from there is long, slow and very rough, and you would miss some interesting vistas in the smaller canyons and open desert before entering the towering majesty of the Lower Canyons. You could also take out there, but why would anybody do that?
Once you enter the world of the Lower Canyons you have entered a very special place that few have ever seen, and you will never be the same once you have been there! To me, this is the very best place to paddle a canoe in the United States. If you want solitude, then this is the place to be. In a half dozen Lower Canyons trips I have only seen somebody who was not a part of my group on one occasion. But, I have seen beautiful mountains, ancient ruins, relics of past habitations, animals and animal tracks, including those of black bears and mountain lions, neither of which I have actually seen. Most people take a week or more to run the Lower Canyons, and once you arrive you will not want to leave anytime soon, but the trip could be made in 4-5 days if one were so inclined. There is so much to see along the river that taking 8-12 days is my preferred way of seeing this reach of the river.
The first major rapid comes at about 41 miles into the trip. Hot Springs Rapid is a Solid Class II+ rapid at any water level, and can quickly escalate into a Class III to III+ rapid when the flow is high. It is a long and exciting whitewater run that culminates in a short drop of a couple of feet just a few yards above the preferred campsite on this trip. San Rocendo Canyon, on the Mexican side, is a gorgeous campsite overlooking the river, behind which is an excellent hiking trail with many spectacular sites to see including the famous "Man and Dog" rock, a natural "painting" created by mineral leeching from the boulder on which it appears. San Rocendo Canyon is a favorite layover spot for most Lower Canyons paddlers. Behind the riverside campsite is a high ridge, and on the way up you will pass a couple of old, adobe and straw buildings, and a water cistern, that look like they were never finished. At the top you are treated to an awesome view of the winding river below.
At 44 miles lies Bullis Fold Rapid, a Class II-III with large standing waves, whirlpools and strong cross currents that make navigation tricky. Palmas Rapid, at 45 miles, is a Class II boulder garden at Palmas Canyon on the Texas side that can be scouted from river left. Rodeo Rapid, at 50 miles, is a Class II run with large standing waves that is best run just right of center. Then, the fun begins! At about 55 miles is Upper Maddison Falls, which a friend of mine described as "a bad dude at any water level." Upper Madison Falls is a long, torturous rapid with a significant gradient, every boulder within a hundred miles and few clear lines through which to negotiate a heavily-loaded boat, which you WILL have on a Lower Canyons trip. It consists of about 22 haystacks caused by huge boulders scattered across the river for about three quarters of a mile, and if the rapid itself were not bad enough lining or portaging may make you wish that you had tried to run it instead!
After Upper Madison Falls comes Lower Madison Falls, also referred to by some as Horseshoe Falls, at about 57 miles, and it is much easier. The last major rapid is Panther Rapid at about 60 miles, a Class II to III hazard with a long, roller coaster ride that can be run down the Texas side (the chicken route) or the Mexican side (in case you need a bath, and you probably do if you are here.) From here on, the river is a much tamer Class I to II trip for another 23.5 miles down to John's Marina on the Dudley Harrison Ranch near Dryden Pass. But, the fun does not end when you leave the river. The 21 mile drive out to US Highway 90 can be almost as exciting and rough as the river you just ran! It is a great place to have plenty of gasoline and at least two spare tires per vehicle. The road consists of a graded path through the desert that makes the same type road in the national park look like a superhighway.
The Lower Canyons is the place I most look forward to returning. You will take many great memories with you when you leave, and you will probably be planning your next trip before you ever reach pavement.
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I would like to gratefully acknowledge many friends and fellow paddlers who, over the years, have made direct or indirect contributions to my knowledge about paddling and the rivers where we play. This acknowledgement is not complete, and I apologize to anybody whose name is omitted, but who deserves credit. Darin Bird, Bryan Jackson, Jerry Johnson, Roy Pipkin, Bonnie Haskins, Fraser Border, Keith Smith, Ken "Hollywood" Lock, Wendall Lyons, Perry Humphrey, Tom Goynes, Lee Deviney, Dwayne TeGrutenhaus, John Vanness, Ben and Cindy Fruehauf, Steve King, Tony Smith, Archie, Becky and Casey Peyton, Bob Narramore, Rich Manning, Charles Edwards, Rich Grayson, Tom Jenkins, William Baldwin, Lyle Lockwood and Patti Carothers.