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Paddling the Rio Grande

Santa Elena grandeur takes you to new heights
Written by Melissa Gaskill. Photographs by J. Griffis Smith.

12 Canoe

My family has made a number of trips to Big Bend National Park over the past 30 years, driving the scenic routes, hiking its many trails, camping, and enjoying stargazing and hot springs. We love this 800,000-acre park for its incredible and diverse landscape: swaths of thorny Chihuahuan Desert, verdant springs, sand dunes, rocky ridges, and entire mountain ranges hiding waterfalls and spruce-filled canyons. Even more, we cherish its opportunities to get away from the madding crowds.

Perhaps nowhere is that more possible than on the 118 miles of Rio Grande edging the park, and two days floating the river through Santa Elena Canyon comes pretty close to my definition of heaven. Since a guided trip provides all the fun and adventure while someone else does most of the work, we opted on our last trip to go with Big Bend River Tours. At the time, the water ran too low for rafts, so, at a boat ramp just upstream from Lajitas, we launched canoes. My youngest daughter Bridget and I claimed one; my oldest daughter Holley and her brother Collin another; and my husband Corey his own. Each canoe carried dry bags with our clothes and sleeping bags, two-man tents, and chairs. Our four guides piled their individual canoes with tables, ice chests, food, water, cooking pots, and more.

We spent a fairly low-key first morning, paddling with a slight current, crossing occasional rapids and startling birds in the brush, then stopped on a sandy beach for lunch, eating perched on rocks, canoes, or the shore, gazing at Mexico. Communities along the river used to intermingle freely, but current rules forbid crossing except at formal checkpoints. There’s the recently opened Boquillas crossing inside the national park, and another in Presidio, nearly 70 miles from the park’s western entrance.

Through the afternoon, the mountains grew closer, the rapids a bit more challenging. We reached the mouth of Santa Elena, a narrow gap in high limestone cliffs, under the warm glow of a late-afternoon sun. The canyon runs some 10 miles through a massive uplift, and paddling through it would take most of the next day.

Our tents pitched on the sandy shore, we gathered around a campfire as the guides created a feast from Dutch ovens and a camp stove—turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, salad, hot yeast rolls, and cobbler. The last light faded and then, as if we’d ordered the deluxe edition outing, a full moon rose over the cliffs, so bright it threw shadows. Not a single manmade light marred the horizon, not even a plane overhead, and we heard no sounds save the gurgle of river and crackle of the fire. Snug in my sleeping bag, I felt the vastness of landscape around me, a corner of the world devoid of people and all their trappings yet thrumming with life—birds, lizards, mountain lions, foxes, and coyotes. This kind of wildness grows ever rarer, its primal darkness and silence ever harder to find. I wanted to stay for days.

But the canyon beckoned in the morning, so—fueled by breakfast tacos and coffee—we packed the canoes. The boats glided into the gap, falling under the shadows of the cliffs on each side, the sky a ribbon of blue overhead. Constrained by the canyon, the river rolled into rapids that presented more of a challenge, and we “lined” the boats (leading them by rope from the shore)through some spots. There’s no lining around the Rock Slide, though, a Class IV rapid created thousands of years ago when the cliff overhead dropped boulders the size of small houses into the water. We shot through the narrow passages between them one by one, our shouts echoing off the canyon walls.

Those walls, which come within 30 feet of each other in some places, top out at an impressive 1,500 feet. We lunched beside one the color of wet sand, then hiked up a slope to the entrance of a side canyon, squeezing past an opalescent pool and scrambling over rocks until the way grew too narrow. Our guides have run this river dozens of times and say its powerful waters constantly rearrange rocks, gravel, and shorelines. The most dramatic changes occur when Mexican reservoirs release volumes of water following hurricane-season rains.

In the afternoon, we passed people in boats paddling upstream, and, nearer the end of the canyon, others hiking a trail on shore. We left the canyon, following the river’s sharp right turn to follow the edge of the mesa we had cut through. At the take-out, a mile farther on, we piled into a van for the 35-mile-plus drive across the park back to Terlingua. We’d come 22 miles, seen a giant snowball moon rise over the cliff, water carving rock walls it created centuries ago, and a tarantula the size of my hand. Downstream from our stopping point were more canyons, then a 126-mile stretch of Wild and Scenic River, so remote that once you start, the only way out is six or seven days of paddling. I think I heard it calling my name.

Contact Big Bend River Tours, 800/545-4240. Find more on lodging, attractions, restaurants, and activities in the Big Bend at

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