Any one paddled Big Bend NP?

I’ll be heading to the SW this winter for 2-3 weeks and always thought Big Bend NP looked like a really neat place. I’m tempted to bring a canoe along to do some paddling and it sounds like it’s a beautiful river there.

I’ve found very little info about the river though, such as if there is much whitewater and what water levels can be paddled (what’s too high/low). I see there are a couple outfitters running the river and that they do both rafts and canoes. I’m assuming since they don’t make much if any mention of whitewater on their websites that there isn’t much (I’m not looking for it).

Anyway, would appreciate some input from anyone who’s paddled the area. I’m not very concerned about illegals crossing in the area but if anyone with more knowledge has a reason I should be I’d be happy to hear it.

I’ll be solo in either a Bell Magic or (hopefully) Kite/Osprey if I get it built in time. Depending on water levels and how I feel it will either be day trips or up to a week and 150+ miles.



Big Bend is wonderful
Wish I could help here because Big Bend is a great place for birding and hiking. I saw Colima Warbler there – the only place in the U.S. that you can find it – if you’re into that sort of thing! Even if not, you should plan on doing some hiking. It’s just an extraordinary place – both the mountain in the middle of the park and the two desert oases – not to mention admiring the river itself at both ends of the park (the big bend in the river).

We looked into doing a raft trip on the Rio Grande in Big Bend, but when we were there (late 1990s?) the area was in the 4th or 5th year of a drought and the river didn’t have enough water for outfitters to run trips. One of the long trips involves serious rapids near the end. I found plenty of information online and in guidebooks back then, and I think you will too. Check for books on desert Southwest national parks and on Big Bend in particular.

One thing I remember is that the children of the park staff had one of the longest commutes to school in the United States – down into town 25 miles away and then by schoolbus another 75 or 80 miles. Not much out there! And that’s part of the appeal.

If you do a river trip I hope you’ll give us a report! I’d love to go back.

G in NC

Not much water
I was in Big Bend about 3 winters ago. Very little water in the Rio Grande. And very difficult to go upriver so you’ll have to work out a pick up and roads are few. But, it is beautiful. I paddled and dragged my kayak from one of the campgrounds up into a beautiful canyon. It was worth the effort. Your best bet is probably to hook up with an outfitter.


Winter in BB is a dry time
They get most precip from summer “monsoons” in the afternoons. I’ve been there all seasons but summer, and winter is dryest, in my experience.

As for the border problems, they were heating up in 2003 when I last went. I’ve read that things have gotten much worse since then. You’d do well to check with park rangers about that aspect. BB has always had trouble with vehicle break-ins along River Road. I have a trail guide I bought back in 1987–published before that–warning people. But now you have to consider the risks associated with increased drug smuggling and illegal immigration.

It’s really sad, because it’s such a beautiful place.

Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande
I have not paddled in Big Bend NF, but have paddled the Lower Canyons from La Linda, Mexico to Dryden, TX. There are no day trips in this section as access is very limited. It was one of the peak experiences of my long paddling life but I don’t think I would feel safe doing it again. There is an old book by Louis Auibach and Joe Butler, The Lower Canyons of the Rio Grance, (1988), that is excellent. I’m sure the upper canyons are beautiful also.

I took up birding a few years ago so that’s definitely one of the reasons for going to Big Bend. I’m really looking forward to it.


Good to know
I know that some areas in the SW have their second “wet” season around January and I was hoping it might be enough to keep the levels up, sounds like I shouldn’t hold my breath. Oh well. I’ll likely be dragging a boat along anyway for other paddling destinations so if I get lucky and the river is up while I’m there I’ll take advantage.

Just before the trip I’ll get in touch with a couple outfitters and the park service to see what current conditions are.



wouldn’t feel safe
You said you wouldn’t feel safe paddling there again. Is that because of the border problems or river conditions?


Maybe the drug war being waged between police and traffickers and rival cartels? It’s happening in some border towns. On the other hand, Big Bend is way, way, way away from everywhere. The Mexican village across the Rio Grande at the upstream end of the park appeared to have no men in it when we visited in the late 90s – I assumed they were away working elsewhere in the country or in the U.S. (We took at roundtrip rowboat ride across for $3.00 and had a beer and a nice chicken mole lunch in a cantina.) At the downstream end of the park (100 river miles, I think) we saw a Mexican guy walking across the river to the park. At that time, the camp store in the park had pinto beans in 5-pound bags, so I assumed that Mexicans could get some basic groceries there after just walking through very shallow water for a little way. I’d do it for an ice cream cone!

When we were in south Texas, there was an interstate highway where all traffic was stopped and cars checked for either illegal aliens or drugs. I never knew which. They passed us right through. We must have looked harmless!


Unease on the Rio Grande
In response to the questions, I would be concerned about border problems. There have been several random shootings in this area ocwe the years and although the canyons are very remote, there was were old rowboats in unexpected places. Almost all of the good campsites are on the Mexican side. That said, I would love to go again and maybe someday I will.

park service, yes
Alan, I think the park staff at Big Bend could help you plan your trip. Why not call them now and ask them your questions? They’d even probably tell you where else you could paddle if the Rio Grande doesn’t have enough water. They certainly could tell you about whether there have been incidents and whether there are any areas they’d recommend against going. Just a thought. I always find park people helpful. YMMV.

G in NC

Old situation vs. new

– Last Updated: Nov-29-10 4:48 PM EST –

You're talking about the years before the government finally closed the illegal crossings that they had turned the cheek on for decades.

Tourists in the NP used to cross at Boquillas or Santa Elena, with the Park Service's blessing. I did the Mexican-rowboat-donkey-ride-to-Boquillas thing back in 1987; it cost something like a dollar then. Anyway, along came Sept. 11, 2001, and security got ramped up. After that, to cross legally you had to drive hundreds of miles extra.

You can bet that lots of people are still crossing illegally. Not the kind of people you'd want to meet.

BB is remote, but that is exactly why it and Organ Pipe suffer such horrible side effects of the border wars. The protected guarding near cities simply drove criminals to the big, wild, natural places.

That’s Sonoran desert, not Chihuahuan

– Last Updated: Nov-29-10 4:57 PM EST –

The Sonoran desert has two wet seasons, one of them in winter. That's why it is normally much greener and lusher than the other U.S. deserts. You can see for yourself at Organ Pipe NM...except that that became the worst-ravaged by the border wars of all the national parks. You can still go there--some parts of it, much less than the actual holdings that used to be reasonably safe to visit.

If you can wait, BB does green up in spring with a bit of rain. You'll want to plan carefully to avoid the mobs of spring breakers.

I keep wondering if the desert southwest public lands will ever be safe to roam again. I'm very, very sad to be taking such a long hiatus from places that I once freely hiked and biked in, solo and unarmed.

Yes, I was thinking of the Sonoran desert in SE Arizona, which is where I usually find myself. Last time I was there was 2 years ago. I spent a few weeks and slept every night in my van or in a tent (I have a cot set up in back) in the Chiricahuas and Huachucas.

I’d usually find some out of the way trailhead to sleep at and it was a rare night that went by I wasn’t woken up by the border guard a couple times to see what I was up to. They were always polite and never made me wake up too much before leaving me alone. I was amazed how many border patrol vehicles I saw.

I saw lots of signs and trash left by the immigrants hiking in the Huachucas but the only other person I saw on the trails was at the top of a lonely pass when I turned around to see what made a noise and saw a border patrol agent with a high powered rifle 20 feet from me. A few questions and I was on my way.

Maybe I should be more concerned with immigrants than I am but figure 99% of them just want to go on their way. I feel more uneasy in a large city than alone in the desert. Of course just because that’s how I feel doesn’t make me right.


That’s an area I wanted to go hiking in, but it also is on indefinite hold for safety reasons. I don’t want to go with an outfitter group, because the whole point is to get away from groupthink and other imposed structure.

Your experience with Border Patrol must be routine by now. Last time I went to BB, they had staked out a spot next to my “primitive roadside” campsite. When I asked what was going on, the guy pointed to two figures not far away: illegal immigrants.

Even though the illegals themselves might not pose a threat to us (they’ve always been there), the problem is that you can’t tell if they’re just passing through or if they’re connected with smuggling activities, which amps up the danger factor. It’s the druggies and coyotes (not the canid variety) I’d worry about.

When I was in the Chiricahuas 2 years ago I don’t recall seeing any sign of immigrants when hiking around the mountains, nothing like in the Huachucas. I was south of the Chiricahua National Monument (which has some great hiking and I’d think a lot lower chance of running across undesirables) around the town of Portal and in the wilderness area of the range. Didn’t see any border patrol driving through the roads in that area either.

Around the Chiricahuas on the flat lands there seemed to be plenty of activity though with lots of border patrol. The police pulled me over one night 20 miles north of Douglas because I had a license plate light out and was driving too slow. While the officer was back in his car checking things out I saw movement out my passenger window and watched as the border patrol marched over a dozen immigrants out of the desert.

Unless things have changed a lot in the last couple years I wouldn’t think twice about actually being in the Chiricahaus, especially if you were there during a busier season or in the National Monument area. I’ve only ever been there in winter and hardly see anyone (ranger stations are closed too). Never met anyone on the trails, except in the monument section.

I hope to be there in a little over a month, it will be good to be back.

I’m rarely worried about being out alone in areas like that but many times have thought that if I was a woman I probably wouldn’t take the same chances. Not that women can’t handle themselves, just that the temptation for idiots to try something might be a bit higher.

I hope you get there sometime, it’s a beautiful area.


Big Bend is a great trip
I went in March of '09. The river level was too low for the outfitters to run raft trips. The gage at Presidio was about 190 cfs. The good–not many paddlers, sunny, warm. Bad–we had to line or portage almost all the “rapids”. A lot of work, but well worth it. In fact, we are talking about another trip this spring through Boquillas canyon.

We did a four day trip. Two days paddling above Lajitas (where Big Bend NP starts). Then two more below Lajitas and through Santa Elena canyon.



Big Bend Info sources
Alan, I have paddled all of the Upper Canyons of the Texas Big Bend (Colorado Canyon, Santa Elena, Mariscal, and Boquillas) numerous times over the past several decades, so here are some resources for you to consider when planning your trip.

For your first Big Bend river outings I would strongly suggest that you do “guide-assisted” trips with Big bend River Tours ( or Desert Sports (; both outfitters are headquartered in Telingua. Their prices are reasonable, their food is superb, and their expert guidance is invaluable. To learn about paddling the Big Bend Canyons, read Marc McCord’s excellent descriptions at For current information about park conditions, weather, and river levels, go to the National Park’s Daily Report. Another resource to look at is, but take what you read there with a grain of salt (kind of like when you read these Pnet threads); the posts are a mixed bag.

The Big Bend area is huge and fascinating. Educate yourself about what you’ll face and get some expert assistance for your first river trips down there. Go for it; I think you will be more than impressed. George

That’s a great website. I’ve been perusing it and it’s answered a lot of questions already.