If you are looking for a laid back, leisurely place to paddle your canoe, kayak or raft, then the Pecos River is NOT it! The river is a remote wilderness excursion of about 66.3 miles that will test your skills as a boater and a camper. Located near the Texas-Mexico border and emptying into the Rio Grande above Langtry, where Judge Roy Bean was "The Law West of the Pecos", the river requires 4 or more days for most paddlers to complete, and at the end is nearly 15 miles of deadwater paddling into a prevailing headwind that is tough as nails. The Class I-IV rapids (depending upon water conditions - most will be in the Class II-III range most of the time) will test your skills, and if you capsize, then your swiftwater rescue training will be tested, as well. Some of the hazards must be run because portages or lining are not practical. At other hazards you MUST line or portage because to do otherwise could be injurious or fatal.
The Pecos River is one of those with a downriver distance that is shorter than the road distance between the put-in and take-out. The section most frequently paddled flows from Pandale Crossing off the dirt road FM 1024 in Val Verde County, Texas down to Seminole Canyon State park boat ramp on river left just below the US Highway 90 Bridge on the headwaters of Lake Amistad and the confluence of the Rio Grande about 20 miles west of Comstock. The trip requires good physical conditioning and thorough preparedness. All gear should be stowed in drybags or dry boxes and securely lashed to your canoe. Open canoes should have additional flotation and/or a spray skirt to prevent swamping. Summer trips can be met with very low water and winter trips can be long and cold. The scenery is awesome - the river flows through the Texas part of the Chihuahuan desert. Canyon walls, getting progressively larger as you move downriver, offer many side canyon trips to investigate and photograph. These can extend your trip by one or more days, so plan accordingly. Continental Ranch, just above Lewis Canyon Rapid, is the site of the largest petroglyph collection known to exist in Texas, and the area is accessible from the river, or by road (with permission and a very long, arduous journey over open desert "roads". Many caves are found in the surrounding area, and most have historical value. It is illegal and inappropriate to take objects from those caves. The area is patrolled for looters and anybody pilfering caves will be arrested and prosecuted. Take all the photos you want, but leave arrowheads and other artifacts where you find them. Violations of antiquities should be reported to Park Rangers at the Pecos River Marina (915-292-4544).
The Pecos River flows through Loving, Ward, Crane, Pecos, Crockett, Terrell and Val Verde Counties (in Texas) to the confluence of the Rio Grande above Lake Amistad in the Texas Chihuahuan desert, ending about 20 miles west of Comstock.
Del Rio 40 miles (from the take-out); Midland-Odessa 150 miles; Dallas 450 miles; Fort Worth 420 miles; Austin 250 miles; San Antonio 200 miles; Houston 400 miles; Oklahoma City 660 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination to the put-in at the river and route taken.)
Usually clean and clear, the river flows over limestone and gravel with enough water for paddle trips most of the time. The dog days of summer will have low flows unless recent local rains have caused the river to rise. An island near the put-in is the barometer of water flow for your trip - if water flows around both sides of the island, then you can expect a good flow for the trip, but if it flows around one side only, then expect to do some walking and hard paddling, especially if the headwinds are blowing.
Late spring, early summer and mid- to late fall offer the best combination of flow and good weather. Mid-summer can be very tough, with low water and strong headwinds. Winter paddling can be done IF you are properly prepared for cold air and water temperatures and a strong north wind. You WILL get wet, so pack everything accordingly. Allow adequate time for whatever Mother Nature throws at you.
The Pecos River has plenty of places where an inexperienced or ill-prepared paddler can get into trouble. Most of the rapids fall into the Class II-III range, but some are minor Class I's and some can rise to Class IV during periods of high water. Good river walking shoes are mandatory on the Pecos in the event you have to portage or line your boat from the riverbed or the banks. The fluted limestone, with grooves running parallel to the banks, can cause ankle sprains or breaks, so be careful where and how you plant your feet. Be especially careful in the area from 17.0 to 24.0 miles below the put-in.
Oppenheimer Canyon Rapid at 7.0 miles is a solid Class II rapid; Harkell Canyon Rapid at 23.5 miles is a Class I+; Bluff Rapid at 29.0 miles is a solid Class II rapid; Still Canyon Rapid at 30.5 miles is a Class II rapid; Lewis Canyon Rapid at 31.5 miles is a Class II-III (depending upon water level) that can be lined, or portaged on either side; Unnamed rapid at about 32.1 miles is a solid, and potentially dangerous, Class III to III+ boulder garden curving left to right that can be portaged on either side; Shackleford Canyon Rapid at 35.0 miles is a Class II-III rapid that is closely followed by Shumia Bend Rapid (Class II) at 36.2 miles; Painted Canyon Rapid at 38.0 miles is a Class III-IV rapid of about 125 yards in length that is considered to be the most dangerous hazard to be encountered on this section of the Pecos River. It features three drops amid a boulder garden without clearly defined channels and no place to portage, though you can line down the left bank. Open canoes should be decked or have adequate flotation (air bags) to prevent swamping; Weir Dam (isn't that redundant?) at 39.0 miles is a Class II drop that will require a portage on river left of a short distance - this dam has a very strong, keeper hydraulic current from the middle right to the right bank that should be considered very dangerous at any navigable level; Big Rock Rapid at 42.5 miles is a Class II drop, and is the last rapid above Lake Amistad. In addition to the rapids, strong headwinds should be considered hazards, especially if they change your line as you are approaching a rapid. Many paddlers hire and schedule a boat to pull them the last 12 miles or so down to the takeout. The hot summer sun is a definite hazard if you are not well prepared and protected. Flash flooding is not uncommon on the Pecos, so consider inclimate weather to be a potential hazard that requires advance preparation. Another occasional hazard may be dead cane floes that wash upriver from Lake Amistad, and which can be nearly impassable - you cannot paddle over it or through it! Many people paddle close to the bank and have a bowman push the cane to the side as the stern paddlers propels the boat through the cane. There are no other physical hazards of significance on the Pecos, but weather, climate, skill level, experience and physical strength can all make hazards harder than normal.
Bed Rock Ford Crossing on river left (east bank) at 0.0 miles; Old US Highway 90 bridge at 66.3 miles on river left west of and near Seminole Canyon State Park and the Town of Comstock. You should make a note that the gravel road from Pandale to the put-in is very difficult to find, especially in the dark. Roads in the area are poorly marked, if at all, and you should arrive during daylight hours to allow yourself ample time to locate your put-in. There are no mid-point access roads between the put-in at Bed Rock Ford and the take out at US Highway 90, so plan your trip accordingly!
Seminole Canyon State Park (915-292-4464), located near the confluence of the Rio Grande, has some 30+ campsites, water, electricity, hot/cold showers, restrooms and a dump station for RVs; Primitive camping is available at the Bed Rock Ford put-in on a first come, space available basis; There are numerous natural primitive campsites along the river, though most are on private property. Access to them from off the river is difficult, at best, but be sure to be a good neighbor and pack out everything you take in with you, and a little more just to keep the river clean and neat for other paddlers and the animals that live there. There are no public or private campgrounds along this section of the Pecos River.
Water taxi shuttles are no longer available from the outfitters who formerly operated on Lake Amistad. Local fishing guides, however, may be available to assist you for a fee. All operators MUST be licensed by the National Park Service, so you should contact NPS for a list of all approved services who can help with shuttles or water taxi services.
The Pecos might be a good warm-up trip for the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande because of the similarities in ruggedness, general inaccessibility, scenery, topography and similar factors. This is not a trip for the weak-willed, ill-prepared or inexperienced paddler. It is a trip that will challenge your whitewater paddling skills and possibly your swiftwater rescue skills, if you are not on your game when you go there. Having adequate water to paddle can be a real problem depending upon the time of year you go (avoid the dead of summer unless there has been significant recent local rainfall, then be careful of the rapids, which become dangerous at high water flow levels), but April through early June and again from early October to late November are generally best overall conditions. Look out for strong headwinds coming upriver from Lake Amistad.
Take lots of film and a good camera in a waterproof, shock-resistent case. There are great photo opportunities everywhere, including Indian pictographs dating back more than 4,000 years on cave walls all along the way. Please do not deface the natural topography or pictographs and do not remove any artifacts or antiquities from the area under penalty of law and because not doing so is the proper thing to do out of respect for nature and the cultures and histories of those who were here 5,000 years ago. Arrive in daylight so you can find the put-in, and make arrangements in advance for a motor boat tow down to the old US Highway 90 bridge, especially if the wind is blowing off Lake Amistad. This is an ideal trip for serious river runners who are properly experienced, outfitted and who have made careful trip planning a part of their preparations.