The Rio Grande, or Rio Bravo del Norte, as it is known in Mexico, is the most remote river in Texas, and is one of the very few true wilderness trips available in the United States (even though it is really in the Country of Texas!) Flowing through the Texas-Mexico desert, the river offers spectacular views of high mountains, the desert floor, wild animals, beautiful sunrises and sunsets, breathtaking flora and fauna and just about everything except signs of civilization. In many cases, the only people you will see are in your own group.
From its headwaters near Alamosa, Colorado, the Rio Grande flows through New Mexico and down the Texas-Mexico border through Big Bend to Brownsville and the Gulf of Mexico. However, paddling is generally limited to the Taos Box area near Taos, New Mexico, through the Upper Canyons (Colorado, Santa Elena, Mariscal, San Vicente, Hot Springs and Boquillas) starting in Presidio County and ending in Brewster County, Texas or the Lower Canyons (Heath, Horse, Temple, and Maravillas) running from La Linda, Mexico (Brewster County, Texas) down to Dryden Pass in Terrell County, Texas. But, paddlers are starting to discover the unique opportunities for paddling the Rio Grande between Lake Amistad and Falcon Lake.
This reach of the Rio Grande explores the river between Eagle Pass and Laredo, a distance of about 125.6 miles through the lower Chihuahuan Desert of Texas and Mexico. News stories of random acts of violence along the border, mainly around the Falcon Lake area, have scared a lot of people away from the Rio Grande, but those fears are largely overblown. The Lower Rio Grande might be the world's most closely watched river. Border Patrol agents monitor it by air, land and sea, and use a sophisticated array of remote surveillance equipment to cover where they can't go. No paddler has been known to have encountered a problem with people on either side of the border, and outfitters in the Laredo area routinely put people on the river to kayak without incident.
The Lower Rio Grande is generally free from hazards like rapids, waterfalls and dams, though there are a few places where conditions create minor challenges. These include swiftwater currents around river bends and small shoals that are more fun than hazardous. Access points are few and sometimes far between, so other than around Laredo be prepared for a multi-day trip. Most adjacent land is privately owned, so be careful not to trespass without permission. This reach begins in the semi-arid brush lands and ends in the semi-tropical regions of deep South Texas where lush vegetation borders the river. Summers are hot, and the average annual temperature is around 74°, ranging from highs/lows in January (coldest month) of 43° / 68° to July (warmest) of 75° / 102° with relatively low humidity.
Maverick and Webb Counties forming the boundary between the United States and Mexico. This reach begins in Eagle Pass and ends in Laredo. The nearest major city is San Antonio about 145 miles to the northeast.
Dallas 432 miles; El Paso 480 miles; San Antonio 145 miles; Houston 340 miles; Austin 240 miles; Oklahoma City 610 miles; Little Rock 740 miles; St. Louis 1,135 miles; Kansas City 950 miles; Denver 985 miles; Albuquerque 746 miles; Phoenix 910 miles; Salt Lake City 1,280 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)
Historically, this reach of the Rio Grande has had very low quality water, but in recent years much has been done to remedy that situation. BECC (the Border Environment Cooperation Commission), based in Juarez, and NADBank (the North American Development Bank), based in San Antonio, design and finance environmental infrastructure for the Border. Joint U.S. - Mexican financing has built billions of dollars of wastewater infrastructure in virtually every city along the Rio Grande. Raw sewage discharges have been reduced dramatically. Hot spots remain at some of the larger cities (Nuevo Laredo most notably), but the vast majority of the Rio Grande is bacteriologically safe for full contact sports.
Year-round mild tempeatures and adequate flow from Lake Amistad at Del Rio above this reach provide a continuous paddling opportunity. Summers are very hot with low humidity (it is a DRY heat!) Average annual temperature is 74@&176 (61.5° historical low / 86.3@#176 historical high) with July being the hottest month at 88.5@#176 (75.4 / 101.6) and January being the coldest month at 55.6@#176 (43.7 / 67.5). Average annual rainfall is about 21.5 inches.
No permit is required, but the Department of Homeland Security has illegally determined that you cannot touch foot in Mexico (even along the river bank) without re-entering the United States through a legal port of entry, Eagle Pass or Laredo for this reach of the river, so carrying your passport and another form of photo ID would probably be advisable. The right to paddle the Rio Grande is enshrined in Article VII of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ("said boundary shall be free and common to the vessels and citizens of both countries"), an International Treaty that was ratified by the US Congress and which cannot be abbrogated by a regulation or policy of DHS, Border Patrol or any other law enforcement entity. In other words, citizens of both countries have full rights to use the entire width of the river. As a boater, you are not legally required to observe an imaginary line down the middle of the channel.
This reach of the Rio Grande is free of majaor obstacles such as dams, spillways, rapids and waterfalls. An occasional fast current around a river bend may present some challenges to less experienced boaters, especially in high-water conditions, but those are not common or frequent. The heat and direct sunlight exposure can be a hazard to health during summer months, so wear appropriate clothing (a hat is always recommended on this river) and use sunscreen to protect exposed skin. Solar exposure is much greater along this river than in most places within the United States because of its extreme southern proximity.
Behind Lucky Eagle Casino southeast of Eagle Pass (N 28° 36' 28.60" / W 100° 26' 36.21") off Riverside Drive at Kurt Bluedog Road on river left at 0.0 miles; SH 255 Bridge (N 27° 42' 00.00" / W 099° 44' 44.66") at Columbia, MX on river left at about 94.0 miles; World Trade Bridge (N 27° 35' 48.08" / W 099° 32' 18.48") in Laredo on river left at about 116.6 miles; Laredo Water Treatment Plant (N 27° 31' 24.34" / W 099° 31' 27.38") off Jefferson Street on river left at about 122.4 miles; Boat ramp adjacent to Los Dos Laredos Park (N 27° 29' 59.11" / W 099° 30' 27.67") off Pedregal Street at IH 35 Business Route in Laredo on river left at about 125.6 miles. There MAY be other access points along this reach of the river between Columbia and Laredo that are not confirmed.
There are a couple of campgrounds in Eagle Pass, Texas that allow tent camping. There are no known campgrounds located in or around Laredo, Texas. Both cities have several reasonably priced motels, as well as RV parks, near the river. Abundant natural campsites can be found along the river, but please take care to avoid trespassing on private land.
There is at least one commercial outfitter in Laredo that offers kayak rentals, shuttles and guided trips on the Lower Rio Grande. Other outfitters may serve the areas around Eagle Pass or Laredo.
Only recently has anybody really started thinking of the Lower Rio Grande between Lake Amistad at Del Rio and Falcon Lake below Laredo as a paddling destination, primarily because of poor access, poor water quality and a lack of available local services. Since about 2007, that has started to change because of efforts to reduce pollutants from being dumped directly into the river from border towns on both banks. The City of Laredo is actively promoting river recreation as a part of its overall tourism strategy, and is working to make it an enjoyable asset that will lure more visitors to the area.
If you prefer whitewater, then this reach of the Rio Grande is not for you, but if a relaxing trip on gentle current without hazards is your cup of tea, then the Lower Rio Grande may be just what the doctor ordered. Best of all, you can almost always paddle this reach of the river year-round due to sufficient flow from Lake Amistad and temperate winter weather conditions. Even mid-summer conditions are more pleasant than around Big Bend where daytime temperatures hover near 115@#176.
Access is limited on the upper end of this run, and starting there will commit you to a multi-day trip of about 120 miles, but around Laredo you will find several available access points for starting and ending trips.