Run the Rio Grande

By David Nolan.

The hurdles to mounting this paddling expedition are relatively low. The Rio Grande can be run year-round, but cooler temperatures and higher water levels make October through February the best time to go.

Participants need only intermediate camping and canoeing skills. And just a couple of months of lead time are required to arrange flights, rentals, and gear.

Once on the water, the payoff comes quickly. Within a few miles of the put-in at Heath Canyon Ranch, paddlers drift through Temple Canyon and bounce through Maravillas Rapid.

By day three, the trip’s most spectacular scenery kicks in—and continues until the takeout near Dryden. Every bend in the river seems to bring yet another canyon—more than 25 gorges in all. Many paddlers plan for layover days to explore caves and hike canyon rims before continuing down the big river.

All prices in U.S. dollars

STEP ONE: Prepare to Paddle

Paddlers should have the ability to handle emergency repairs and administer first aid. They should know basic canoe strokes—the J-stroke, rudder, draw, cross-draw, sweep, pry—and should be able to read and maneuver with confidence through Class II-plus white water.

Due to numerous wall shots (sharp bends in a river at cliffs and boulders), a proper ferry technique (paddling across the current) is important. Two stretches of Class III to IV water on this route—Upper and Lower Madison Falls—can be portaged, but most intermediate paddlers can run these rapids at normal water levels. (Almost all rapids on the route can be lined or portaged.)

Paddlers should also have experience in consecutive-night desert camping and multiday river trips with at least Class II rapids (for example, the Allagash in Maine or Upper Green in Utah).

Skill Builders
In the town of Terlingua, just outside of Big Bend National Park, Desert Sports (888 989 6900 [U.S. and Canada only]; http://www.desertsportstx.com) offers one-day white-water-canoeing clinics in nearby Colorado Canyon (Class II) for $110.

Outward Bound (888 882 6863 [U.S. and Canada only]; http://www.outwardbound.com) has seven-day courses in white-water canoeing or desert backpacking in the Santa Elena or Colorado Canyons for $1,095. A ten-day Outward Bound course in both white-water canoeing and desert backpacking in either of the canyons costs $1,400.

For basic to advanced river skills, Nantahala Outdoor Center (800 232 7238 [U.S. and Canada only]; http://www.noc.com, based in Bryson City, North Carolina, leads two- to five-day instructional canoeing courses ($380 and up).

STEP 2: Decide When to Go

Though the route can be run year-round, water levels and weather vary significantly.

  • March through April: Low to medium water levels; sluggish canoeing; pleasant weather; peak wildflower and cactus bloom

  • May through June: Low water levels; very hot; long days

  • July through September: High water levels; sudden water-level changes due to flash floods (a deck cover is advisable); rainy season (thunderstorms); high temperatures

  • October through February: Best canoeing water levels; pleasant weather (70-degree [21-degree-Celsius] days, 30-degree [-1- degree-Celsius] nights)

STEP 3: Spec Your Canoe

Unless you own a canoe and live within driving distance of this part of the Rio Grande, you’ll need to rent a boat. Look for a 16- or 17-footer [5- or 6-meterer] with a moderate rocker (3 to 6 inches [8 to 15 centimeters]). Preferred material: rugged, flexible Royalex. The canoe should have D-ring cargo lash points (four to six), small bow and stern flotation bags, and bow and stern lines at least 15 feet [4.6 meters] long.

At Desert Sports, a 16-foot [4.9-meter] Royalex Mad River Explorer rents for $40 for the first day, $30 per day for the next seven days, and $20 per day thereafter. Rentals include two life jackets, three paddles, and, on request, flotation bags.

STEP 4: Pack for the Place

In addition to basic, three-season camping and canoeing equipment—tent and fly, sleeping bag, ground cloth, bailer, sponge, stove, et cetera—make sure you take layers of waterproof and quick-drying clothing and long pants of lightweight material to protect your legs from the sun. Select light colors, which reflect heat.

Bring polarized sunglasses to cut the glare off the water, along with a strap. Pack a sun hat with a "stampede string" to prevent your headgear from blowing off in strong winds.

Your canoe-repair kit should include duct tape and bailing wire. (The wire can be used to "sew" rips in the Royalex.) A folding chair comes in handy for lounging around camp. Fire pans should be used to avoid leaving long-lasting scorch marks on the desert.

STEP 5: Check Water Levels

Before departure, call a local outfitter or Big Bend National Park to check the water levels at the takeout: John’s Marina, at Dryden Crossing.

  • Less than 2.8 feet [0.8 meter]: Forget it.

  • Between 2.8 and 3.5 feet [0.8 and 1 meter]: Runnable but bony; expect to scrape rocks and to drag the canoe. The trip risks becoming tedious.

  • Between 3.5 and 4.5 feet [1 and 1.4 meters]: Ideal conditions.

  • Between 4.5 and 6 feet [1.4 and 1.8 meters]: Challenging; use caution.

  • Between 6 and 10 feet [1.8 and 3 meters]: Experts only.

  • More than 10 feet [3 meters]: Consider turning your expedition into a rafting trip.

STEP 6: Take Off for Texas

Southwest, American, Continental, and Northwest service the airport at Midland, Texas, where car-rental companies are located. Select a vehicle with high clearance—you may encounter rough roads.

If you arrive late in the day, lodging is available in Midland or in Marathon, four hours south. If you arrive in Midland early in the day, you can drive six hours south to Terlingua or nearby Lajitas, both of which have lodging and outfitters with shuttle service.

For $80, drivers from Desert Sports in Terlingua transport paddlers and their gear to the put-in at Heath Canyon Ranch. For $165, they pick up paddlers at the takeout at John’s Marina. Drivers from Big Bend River Tours in Lajitas charge $100 for put-in shuttles and $225 for takeout.


  • Time: Seven to ten days, plus two days of travel
  • Distance: 83.5 miles [134 kilometers]
  • Season: Year-round (prime time is October through February)
  • Skill Level: Moderate
  • Permits & Fees: $10 entrance fee per vehicle to Big Bend National Park; free river permit (available at the Persimmon Gap Visitor Center); $4 put-in fee per person; $10 takeout fee per person; $30 fee per vehicle for road access from takeout to U.S. 90
  • Campsites: No designated sites
  • Contacts: Big Bend National Park (+1 915 477 2251; http://www.nps.gov/bibe), which provides a list of local outfitters with gear rentals and shuttle services;
    Persimmon Gap Visitor Center (+1 915 477 2393);
    Big Bend Natural History Association (+1 915 477 2236; http://www.bigbendbookstore.org)
  • ResourcesThe Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande ($20), by Louis Aulbach and Joe Turner, available from Desert Sports (888 989 6900 [U.S. and Canada only] http://www.desertsportstx.com); River Guide to the Rio Grande, Volume 3 ($4.50), available from the Big Bend Natural History Association; Canoe Guide’s Handbook ($11), by Gil Gilpatrick; Complete Wilderness Paddler ($13), by James West Davidson and John Rugge
  • Total Cost (Estimated cost per person, based on an 12-day trip for a group of four. All prices in U.S. dollars.): Airfare $300 from LA, $400 from NY; Car Rental is $25 for a 4x4 for 12 days;  Lodging at Marathon for 2 days is $85; Shuttles is $61; Total is $1,070/$1,170.

© 2002 National Geographic Society; All Rights Reserved.

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