The Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande, along the border between Texas and Mexico, is one of the last truly wilderness river trips to be found in the United States. This 137 mile runs starts at Heath Canyon Ranch across the river from the abandoned Mexican mining town of La Linda, or at the alternate Adams Ranch access about 3 miles upriver, making the total distance about 140 miles. It ends at either Dryden Pass (John's Marina), Foster's Ranch or Langtry, the home of the legendary Judge Roy Bean, the Law West of the Pecos. Most paddlers take 6-10 days to do this trip (depending upon ending point), allowing time off the river for exploring any of the many side canyons and lounging about on the river banks in a very remote place where you are not likely to see anybody other than those in your party except during peak holiday seasons. What you might see are rattlesnakes, copperheads, coachwhips (red racers), javelina, black bears, beavers, mountain lions, eagles, hawks, falcons, cacti, yucca, sotol, ocotillo, lechuguilla and any number of other wild animals, birds and plants that are native to this area. You will also find a lot of Tamarisk trees, also called Salt Cedar, which are not indigenous, and which wipe out other plants as they hoard all available water they can get, though willow trees are still the predominant species in the Lower Canyons.
Trips on the Lower Canyons run start a short distance below Boquillas Canyon, and include Heath, Temple, Maravillas, Big, San Rocendo, San Francisco and several other gorgeous canyons, some with walls towering nearly 2,000 feet overhead. The area is in the midst of the Chihuahuan desert of northern Mexico and southwestern Texas. Getting emergency help on a Lower Canyons trip would be nearly impossible, and some of the rapids rate strong Class III to IV levels, so being prepared is key to a successful run. Paramount to a trip here is taking along plenty of drinking water, because there is nowhere near the river to resupply after departing Heath Canyon Ranch. If you are looking for adventures far off the beaten path, and have the stamina to survive a week or more in the desert, then this trip may be for you. An interesting note is that the best water is usually between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, when the temperatures cool to highs in the lower 80's in daytime, down to near freezing at night. Rain is also more likely during this period, so be prepared for potential flash flooding.
The Lower Canyons run starts in Brewster County off FM 2627, across the river from La Linda, Mexico and usually ends at John's Marina in Terrell County in far southwest Texas on the Texas-Mexico border. There are, however, two additional downriver access points at Foster's Ranch (119 miles below La Linda) and Langtry (137 miles below La Linda) that can be used to extend trips between Big Bend National Park and Lake Amistad.
Dallas 540 miles; El Paso 360 miles; San Antonio 445 miles; Houston 645 miles; Austin 455 miles (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. For current river conditions click HERE.
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. Summertime low-water conditions may be inadequate for rafting, but canoes can almost always navigate the river. Competition for great campsites can be high during holiday periods, especially during the fall and winter months when optimum conditions usually prevail, but seeing other paddlers is rare most of the time.
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. Park entrance fees are not required if only entering the park to obtain permits for the Lower Canyons. Back country permits from Big Bend National Park are required for all trips through the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande. Permits are available at a charge of $10.00 per group ($5.00 with a Senior Pass) from BBNP Rangers, and may be obtained from the Ranger Station at Persimmon Gap or park headquarters at Panther Junction. Group size is limited to 20 person excluding professional guides. For full details contact Big Bend National Park at 432-477-2251. Click HERE for required equipment and regulations.
There are several significant rapids in the Lower Canyons, some of which can pose great risk to life, limb and gear. Maravillas Rapid, at 11.2 miles, is a Class I-II rapid with strong cross currents and large standing waves. Immediately below Maravillas Rapid is another small rapid in the same class, also with large standing waves. Big Canyon Rapid, at 27.0 miles is a solid Class II rapid with medium to large standing waves that can swamp an open canoe - run left of center. Hot Springs Rapid in San Rocendo Canyon at 41.0 miles is a solid Class III-IV drop that has caused much trouble for boaters over the years. Beach above the rapid at the mouth of the canyon and scout it carefully. Boats can be lined along river right, on the Mexican side. At 44.0 miles lies Bullis Fold Rapid, a Class II-III with large standing waves, whirlpools and strong cross currents that make navigation tricky. Palmas Rapid, at 45.0 miles, is a Class II boulder garden at Palmas Canyon on the Texas side that can be scouted from river left.
Rodeo Rapid, at 50.0 miles, is a Class II run with large standing waves that is best run just right of center. At 55.0 miles lies the toughest rapid in the Lower Canyons - Upper Madison Falls, a Class III-IV drop that MUST be taken very seriously. It can be dangerous at any flow level, but is safer between 3 and 4 feet. Below 3 feet or above 4 feet it is generally best to portage on river right along the Mexican bank. Between 3 and 4 feet it can be run, with extreme caution IF, AND ONLY IF, you have sufficient whitewater paddling skills and the ability to self rescue. Exercise all caution and your very best judgement in deciding if and how to run Upper Madison Falls. Two miles later, at 57.0 miles, lies Lower Madison Falls, a solid Class III that can be run through the Texas channel at normal water levels or lined down the Texas side at any level. (Note - this rapid is also occasionally referred to as Horseshoe Falls.)
Panther Rapid is another Class II-III rapid that is best scouted from river left, then run with caution after careful planning. Beware of the quicksand along the Texas side within about a quarter mile of Panther Rapid - it is about 3-3.5 feet deep and VERY sticky! San Francisco Rapid, at 66.0 miles, is a Class II-III drop that is navigable at a little above normal flows or portaged or lined down the Mexican side on river right. Sanderson Rapid, at 78.0 miles, is a tough Class II rapid that can smash you right into the Texas side of the canyon wall if not run properly. Very large boulders crowd the river channel along the Texas side (river left). Scout the rapid carefully, then pick the best line to run. If you have any doubts about running the rapid, then line your boat down the right side at low water levels. Arroyo Agua Verde Rapid, at 82.0 miles, is an outwash rock garden in the Class II-III range that can be very dangerous if not negotiated properly. It has difficult to read and navigate cross currents, especially at high flow levels, that can smash you into the canyon wall on the Mexican side (river right). Run it left of center, and take care to avoid hitting the big rock protruding from river left.
There are other rapids in the Lower Canyons, but most are easily negotiated with careful scouting and paddling. The key in the Lower Canyons is to leave bravery at home, pack your gear in waterproof bags or boxes, scout rapids carefully, and plan your line downriver, as well as where you will rescue or be rescued in the event of a mishap. The Lower Canyons is a great trip for the well prepared who have sufficient whitewater paddling and swiftwater rescue skills. This trip is NOT for the faint-hearted, anybody in weak physical condition or anybody who lacks confidence in their ability to negotiate tricky cross currents and large standing waves.
There are some mandatory rules in place that Park Rangers enforce vigorously. First, a permit is required to paddle the Lower Canyons. These are easily attainable from the Park Ranger office or local outfitters. Rangers may check your boat and gear for minimum safety requirements before allowing you to proceed. Each boat much carry at least one USCG-approved PFD for each person on board (this is federal law everywhere in the US). Each boat must have an extra paddle or oar, and kayaks must have an extra paddle for each person. Boats may be checked for maximum weight and capacity - overloaded boats will NOT be allowed to proceed. Total weight includes boat, gear and passengers. If you have a raft or other inflatable craft, then you MUST carry an operable pump and a repair kit for patching holes and leaks. If the flow exceeds about 6.5 feet, then permits will only be granted to inflatable rafts of a minimum dimension of 6 feet wide by 12 feet long and having at least 4 air chambers, decked canoes or canoes with at least 50% flotation, or canoes with 25% flotation and a full-length spray skirt, rigid kayaks and dories. It is best to exceed minimum standards for trips through the Lower Canyons.
Heath Canyon Ranch (N 29° 27' 01.98" / W 102° 49' 18.97") at the end of FM 2627 on river left (contact Andy Kurie at 432-376-2235 for access at Heath Canyon Ranch); John's Marina (N 29° 48' 32.47" / W 102° 08' 53.34") on the Dudley Harrison Ranch at Dryden Pass on river left at about 83.4 miles (contact Jon Tom Lowrance at 432-345-2403 or 432-345-2503 for access permission at Dryden Pass); Foster's Ranch () on river left at about 119.0 miles (call 432-291-3232 for permission to gain access at Foster's Ranch). Almost, if not all, property along the river below Foster Ranch is private property, so you MUST arrange permission for access prior to paddling below Foster Ranch. DO NOT start this trip unless you are prepared to go all the way to one of the access points listed above because there are no other options unless you know somebody who owns property along the river.)
Access to the former put-in at La Linda, Mexico is blocked, and crossing to it is illegal with severe punishment awaiting anybody caught crossing into Mexico and then re-entering the United States other than at legal points of entry at Presidio, Boquillas Crossing (in Big bend National Park) or Del Rio (temporarily crossing into Mexico to camp on the Mexican side while on a river trip is leagl as long as you complete and file a Customs Declaration after your trip.) 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. This has generally not been a problem when parking cars at Stillwell Store, Heath Canyon Ranch or John's Marina at Dryden Pass, though precautions should be taken as a rule of thumb.
There are no commercial campgrounds in this area. There are, however, abundant riverbank campsites all along the way. Be sure to camp high and secure everything carefully! DO NOT leave anything behind except footprints. THIS IS A WILDERNESS RIVER TRIP - PLAN ACCORDINGLY! You will be a LONG way from getting medical or logistical assistance after leaving the put-in. Check, then double-check everything. A gear, supplies and equipment checklist is highly recommended. as is a satellite phone with at least one extra battery.
Maravillas Canyon (11.2 miles) - camp right (Mexican) side; Black Gap shelters (14.0, 15.0, 16.0, 19.0 20.0 miles) - camp left (Texas) side; Taylor's Farm (23.0 miles) - camp left side; Big Canyon (27.0 miles) - camp right side; Hot Springs Rapid (41.0 miles) - camp right side; Upper Madison Falls Rapid (55.0 miles) - camp right side on rock slab, or camp left side behind cane break; San Francisco Canyon (66.0 miles) - camp left side; Lady Finger bend (72.0 miles) - camp left side; Middle Watering (75.0 miles) - camp right side. Note: due to regulations of the Department of Homeland Security it is no longer legal to cross into Mexico for any reason. Though some of the best campsites are on the Mexican (river right) side, it is recommended that you seek adequate campsites on the Texas side to avoid running afoul of the law.
There are at least four known commercial outfitters offering rentals, shuttles, guided trips and/or river information for this reach of the Rio Grande.
What can one who loves remote wilderness river running say about a Lower Canyons trip? Words barely suffice to describe the immense natural beauty and solitude found here. There is no river trip in Texas that can compare to the Rio Grande. The Lower Canyons offer moderate to very technical 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. Serenity and solitude are all around on Lower Canyons trips where you may not see anybody other than those in your own party.
The Rio Grande offers one of the few remaining true wilderness river trips in the United States. The Lower Canyons offer the biggest water, reaching Class IV+ status during high water, on a 6-10+ 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. Lower Canyons trips can be either 83.5, 119 or 137 miles, depending upon your take-out. The lush, verdant vegetation along the river corridor stands in stark contrast to the adjoining desert just a few yards away.