Canoeing, kayaking or rafting through Colorado Canyon is 8 miles of natural beauty amid multi-colored canyon walls on the 9-, 21- or 34-mile trip that starts near the Town of Redford in Presidio County and ends in Lajitas at an easy takeout. Colorado Canyon is the first of the big canyons on the Rio Grande, and therefore has walls not quite as majestic as those found downriver, particularly in Santa Elena and Mariscal Canyons or the Lower Canyons. Colorado Canyon lies within the boundaries of Big Bend Ranch State Park and is administered by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Technically, Colorado Canyon itself is only about 6 miles long, ending just before Panther Creek and Panther Rapid. The rest of the trip is through open desert with numerous side canyons adjacent to the river.
The drive to the put-in can be as interesting and time-consuming as the downriver trip. Just getting to the general area is a trip of several hours unless you are one of the few people who actually live in that part of Texas. Be sure your gas tank is filled when you leave Marfa (where the "Marfa lights" are frequently seen at night), Marathon, Alpine or Study Butte It is a good idea to have a few extra gallons of gasoline for emergency use. Gasoline is available at Lajitas Trading Post, in Terlingua and at several convenience stores in Study Butte.
Actually, there are three trips you can take at Colorado Canyon. The first is a short trip of 9 miles from the put-in at Colorado Canyon Public Access (formerly called "Rancherias") just above the canyon down to Teepee Roadside Park off Highway 170. The teepees are visible for more than a mile upriver, but getting to them at the takeout is somewhat cumbersome - the climb is steep, but short. The park is outfitted with grills and picnic tables for your convenience in preparing and serving food. The second trip runs 21 miles all the way down to Lajitas from the same put-in point. The full 34-mile trip starts at the Town of Redford and ends at Lajitas, though paddlers can begin trips in Presidio, near the confluence of the Rio Conchos flowing in from Mexico and providing about 40% of the Rio Grande flow below Presidio.
Presidio County in far southwest Texas, along the Texas-Mexico border, southeast of Presidio and northwest of Lajitas. Colorado Canyon is situated within the boundaries of Big Bend Ranch State Park on the Texas side, and is very near Big Bend National Park and its western boundary at Lajitas, where Santa Elena Canyon trips begin.
Dallas 582 miles; El Paso 339 miles; San Antonio 547 miles; Houston 650 miles; Austin 523 miles; Oklahoma City 685 miles; Little Rock 901 miles; Kansas City 1,037 miles; Albuquerque 604 miles; Phoenix 768 miles; Denver 883 miles; Salt Lake City 1,225 miles (all distances are referenced to Rio Grande Village and are approximate, depending upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)
Good most of the time, but muddy during periods of high water. Illegal dumping of heavy metals can lower the quality of the water at any flow rate. Flow is generally adequate for river trips except during periods of prolonged drought. Beware of flash floods that can raise the river level and flow rates very quickly after rainfall in the drainage basin, even if it does not rain at the river. Due to the remoteness of the area it is generally best to be prepared for any and all weather possibilities.
Early November through mid-March is generally the best time to paddle the Rio Grande. Summertime temperatures can soar above 100° F. Spring and Fall are frought with the possibilities of flash floods. Off-river camping areas are limited and may be very crowded during holiday periods or during the winter "snowbird" season, which is also the time most likely to have favorable paddling conditions. Summertime low-water conditions may be inadequate for rafting, but canoes can almost always navigate the river, although some dragging or carrying may be necessary during low-water periods.
River access permits from Texas Parks and Wildlife Department are required for paddling Colorado Canyon. Permits are available for a small user fee of $4.00 per person, which can be paid at the Barton Warnock Center (432-424-3327) in Lajitas or at the west entrance to Big Bend Ranch State Park at Fort Leaton (432-229-3613). Self-registration is also possible at both locations. Vehicle access passes may also be required.
Colorado Canyon is not a particularly hazardous place to paddle, though some of the Class I to II rock gardens can rise to Class III status during high flows. PFDs should always be worn and gear should be stowed in waterproof drybags or dry boxes and securely lashed to the boat. Rapids should be scouted if there is any doubt about where to run them, and lined or portaged when necessary, depending upon paddler skills and flow conditions. Even in low-water conditions the flow can be strong enough to pin and wrap canoes, kayaks and rafts. Lining or portaging boats may be necessary at any flow level.
Rancherias Rapid (Class II to II+) is located immediately below the put-in, and is best run on river right, but beware getting caught in overhanging trees and brush. Closed Canyon Rapid (Class II to II+) is about 2 miles below the put-in, with several possible lines depending upon flow. Quarter-mile Rapid (Class II to II+) is located about 2.5 miles below the put-in, with several possible lines depending upon flow. Panther Rapid (Class II to II+) is about 6.5 miles below the put-in, with several possible lines depending upon flow. Ledgerock Rapid (Class II to III) is about 10 miles below Rancherias, and is a ledge drop of about 1.5 feet spanning the river - scout the best line in moderate to high water. Fresno Rapid (Class II to III+) is at the mouth of Fresno Canyon, which enters on river left about 15 miles below Rancherias, with several possible lines depending upon flow. All class raings for rapids depend upon flow conditions. Other minor rapids will be found all along this 21-mile reach between Rancherias and Lajitas.
Redford access at 0.0 miles; Highway 170 put-in near Rancherias Canyon at mile 13.0; Teepee Roadside Park at 22 miles; Lajitas at 34 miles. Auto theft and vandalism is a recurring problem at backcountry parking areas, so do not leave unattended vehicles there if not necessary, and do not leave valuables inside vehicles. If valuables must be left with a vehicle, then make sure they are locked securely in the trunk.
There are numerous riverbank campsites in the Colorado Canyon area, the best of which is located on the Mexican bank just above a fun and respectable Class II rapid, and about a half mile below Teepee Roadside Park. This camping area offers a great view of the rapid. Get an early start so that you can have a choice of spots for tents or bedding. While not specifically a campground, the Teepee Roadside Park immediately below Colorado Canyon offers some protection from the elements in inclimate weather. There are no public campgrounds operating in the area, though gear and supplies are available from area outfitters. Note: due to current restrictions imposed by the Department of Homeland Security crossing over into or camping on the Mexican side is illegal, and may result in your being arrested, fined and/or jailed. Generally speaking, this rule has been relaxed in 2005, and paddlers can camp on the Mexican side as long as they do not journey into Mexico or collect artifacts while there. Trade with Mexican nationals is strictly forbidden.
There are at least four known commercial outfitters offering rentals, shuttles, guided trips and/or river information for this reach of the Rio Grande.
There is no river trip in Texas that can compare to the Rio Grande. The Upper Canyons offer moderate whitewater rapids breaking the calm of flatwater pools amid towering canyon walls on one or both sides. Native American culture is evident in the pictographs that appear on canyon walls dating back one or two hundred years, perhaps much longer. Hot and cold natural springs are many, as are caves, high, sheer walls of rock, boulder gardens in mid river and a chance to put life in perspective as you wonder about the age and geological process required to create such a beautiful, natural landscape. Colorado Canyon is outside the boundaries of Big Bend National Park and is situated within Big Bend Ranch State Park. It is regulated by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department which requires a small user fee for access. Depending upon access points, Colorado Canyon can be a 1 to 3 day trip with easy rapids and scenic canyon walls that are smaller than in canyons further downriver.
Colorado Canyon features everything from open desert to moderately high bluffs, cliffs and mountains. The scenery is awesome and the many small rapids can be fun, even challenging, depending upon flow conditions and how loaded your boat is. Along the way paddlers will pass the Contrabando movie set on river left where "Dead Man's Walk" (1995), "Streets of Laredo" (1995) and "The Journeyman" (1999) were partly filmed. The movie set is typical of Old West villages on both sides of the border, and makes for some interesting photographs. Colorado Canyon is the first of the Upper Canyons trips that include Santa Elena, Mariscal, San Vicente, Hot Springs and Boquillas Canyons, all running through Big Bend National Park.
The Rio Grande offers one of the few remaining true wilderness river trips in the United States. The Upper Canyons are a little easier than the Lower Canyons, and trips to the Upper Canyons can be planned for one or more Canyons during a single trip, each short enough to enjoy and long enough to fill you will awe at the adventure you experience. Colorado Canyon is the easiest water, with trips of 9, 21 or 34 miles depending upon where you start and end your journey. The rapids are a little more challenging in Santa Elena and Mariscal Canyons. The Lower Canyons offer the biggest water, reaching Class IV status during high water, on a 6-8 day trip into hundreds of years ago. You might see bears, mountain lions, bobcats, javelina, feral hogs, rattlesnakes, smugglers or who knows what else - or you may just see Mother Nature at her finest hour.