Boquillas Canyon is more renowned for its scenic beauty than for a technical, bumpy ride. It is the last of the Upper Canyons along the Big Bend area on the Texas-Mexico border, and gives the appearance of leaving the big canyons behind. While it has magnificent canyon walls and rock formations it is much more open and "airy", with erosion more evident than in the other Upper Canyons. The river is a little wider and more shallow than above Boquillas. There is only one major rapid to encounter, and it comes near the end of the trip about a mile above La Linda and the Heath canyon Ranch take-out. The trip ends with a 4-6 mile paddle through open desert that can be especially tough with a strong headwind.
Good riverbank campsites with moderate of firewood are almost always available. Even though the Rio Grande has generally been too low to paddle for several years except for brief periods following heavy local rains, paddlers are advised to camp high off the river and secure boats well above the waterline just in case it rained somewhere else within the past few days, sending rising waters down the canyons. There are several liveries and shuttle services operating in the Upper Canyons, any of which can help with anything from shuttles to turnkey guided river trips, one of whom also treats you to nighttime musical entertainment by your river guide, Steve Fromholz. Going for that alone would be well worth the price! Steve is a true Texas legend in music circles and among afficionados of quality musical composition and performance.
The trip is long for some people. At 36 miles, most paddlers prefer a 3-4 day trip. It could be accomplished in a single day, conditions permitting, but you would miss out on the chance to see some really unbelievable side canyons, wildlife, plantlife and the awesome grandeur of the Rio Grande - the Texas Grand Canyon (see, everything is NOT bigger in Texas, as we can admit that the few times it happens.) Javelina, deer, raccoons, raptors (mostly hawks) and buzzards are in abundance. Snakes, including rattlesnakes and water moccasins, may be seen during warm to hot months (see safety section for information relating to snakebite avoidance and treatment.) Take a properly protected camera and capture photographic images you will not get on other rivers.
Far southwest Texas, in Brewster County on the Mexican border and inside Big Bend National Park. Marathon is a little more than 70 miles away to the north and Alpine is about 135 miles to the northwest. No other American cities are anywhere near Boquillas Canyon. The Town of Boquillas del Carmen is just across the river from Rio Grande Village in Big Bend National Park and the ghost town of La Linda is just across the border from Heath Canyon Ranch on FM 2627, but access to those Mexican towns is strictly prohibited by current federal regulation.
Dallas 500; Austin 415; San Antonio 400; Houston 600; El Paso 350; Midland-Odessa 175; Oklahoma City 710; Little Rock 815 (all distances are approximate and depend 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 down 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. Adequate flows are available when the Rio Grande Village gauge is at or above about 2.3 feet - any lower and you can expect dragging through gravel bar areas, usually where the river bends.
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. BBNP 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.
Entrance permits to Big Bend National Park are required for all vehicles entering the park for river access. Fees are $20.00 per vehicle (increasing to $25.00 in 2015) and allow park access for up to seven consecutive days. Leaving vehicles overnight in a campsite also requires an additional fee of $10.00 per car per night (there is no additional fee for leaving cars in designated parking lots, but you do need to get an "overnight pass" for your dashboard so that rangers will know yours is not an abandoned vehicle.) Backcountry permits ($10.00 per group / $5.00 with Senior Pass), issued by Big Bend National Park and available through local outfitters and BBNP Ranger Stations, are required for all trips on or along the Rio Grande by automobile or boat at all times. River runners in Boquillas Canyon are limited to a maximum group size of 20 people, and groups must launch at least two hours apart. Groups are not allowed to stop, eat or camp together along the river. For more information, call Big Bend National Park at (432) 477-2251.
There are no significant hazards in Boquillas Canyon. You just have to be properly prepared and outfitted for a 2-4 day trip, allowing time to "smell the roses" and considering possible weather or other environmental factors that are unpredictable. About 1.5 miles before Heath Canyon Ranch there is a Class II rapid where the river turns sharply to the left, then back to the right. It is characterized by a strong current that sweeps toward the Texas (left) bank, which is rife with Willow and Tamarisk trees. There are two distinct ledge drops of a few inches each, but the real hazard is getting capsized by rolling up onto one of those ledges in the swift current. With a loaded canoe it is generally best to line or portage on the left. The right channel, around an island, offers a sneak route if there is adequate water. The two chanels join again about a quarter mile from where they split. Once you start the 36 mile trip you are committed to the end regardless of what happens along the way.
The ONLY put-in is at Rio Grande Village. Take out at Heath Canyon Ranch at the La Linda Crossing at 36.0 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. The problems of theft and vandalism are much less probable if parking cars at Stillwell Store or Heath Canyon Ranch.
Rio Grande Village in Big Bend National Park has good campsites and parking for vehicles. There are numerous great campsites inside the canyon, but there are several major factors that must be considered and planned for accordingly. Winds through the canyon can be fast and furious, coming and going without warning. These can blow away tents, loose gear and boats. Be SURE you secure everything before going to bed for the night. Choose a campsite that is high off the water, sheltered from the upriver headwinds that prevail by camping close to and behind rock walls whenever possible, and pitching tents parallel to the riverbed and canyon walls to allow them to bend with the wind. Camping is also available on Heath canyon Ranch at the take-out. There are no other campsites in the Boquliias Canyon area.
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.
Boquillas Canyon is an easy trip that most people can enjoy regardless of paddling skills. It is accessible in canoes, kayaks and rafts when the river is staging at or above about 2.0 feet. The biggest difficulty factor is probably the strong headwinds that can whip up dust storms, blow away tents and make paddling very tiring with little or no advance warning. Good natural campsites can be found on both the Texas and Mexico sides of the river. 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. The scenery in Boquillas Canyon is simply awesome, and except for periods around Thanksgiving, Christmas or Spring Break you are unlikely to encounter anybody else while on a Boquillas Canyon trip.