Questions on Canoeing the Rio Grande

I’m in the early stages of planning a canoe trip with my wife and a bunch of

friends for the lower Rio Grande. The trip probably won’t happen until the

autumn, but I’m looking into logistics right now. We’ll probably put in at

La Linda and take out at Dryden Crossing. I have some basic questions for

anyone who has run this reach.

First, is it doable in hard shell canoes? Participants will range from very

experienced to somewhat novice. Of course we won’t make a couple novices

run any class III or higher rapids, but are portages possible and not too

painful for some rapids?

Next, can anyone recommend an up to date guide for the river?

Finally, I’m in Tucson so I’m pretty familiar with the U.S.-Mexican border

issues. Over the past few years, the border area has gotten pretty

dangerous out here. In fact I often feel more comfortable running rivers

and camping in Mexico than camping in southern Arizona. I’m not worried

about undocumented aliens, but the coyotes and drug runners can be pretty

ruthless. Anyway, I’ve read a few things about potential crime on the Rio

Grande. Can I assume that because this stretch is pretty isolated we just

need to keep our eyes open and stay near our equipment or is that naïve?

Thanks in advance.


Running the Lower Canyons
My experience includes 5 recent (last 28 months) trips on the Rio Grande between Talley and Dryden Pass. Two of those were Lower Canyons trips.

The run is 83.5 miles on mostly flatwater with a few Class II+ to III+ rapids that can quickly escalate to a level higher in high-water conditions. On a trip in November, 2004, the RGV gauge read 2.9 feet and dropping when we launched (optimum levels are 3.5 to 4.5 feet), and the river was too low for rafts.

We had 7 solo open canoes, 2 tandem open canoes and one expedition kayak for 12 people. All the outfitters on the Rio Grande in Texas run canoes whenever the water is too low for rafts, which is most of the time.

The river unexpectedly flooded on us, and surged to 15 feet in a matter of less than 12 hours. The storm which produced the flood conditions moved upriver and caused the river to stay between 14 and 15 feet for nearly 5 days. We had to paddle the last half of the trip, including three of the biggest rapids, in flood conditions with no opportunities for scouting, portaging or lining.

Upper Madison Falls (described as “a bad dude at ANY level”) flipped every one of our canoes like paper and sent us swimming in fast-moving water. I was washed 3.5 miles downriver before being able to right my boat, get back inside, get it under control and get to the Texas wall. One member of our group had a massive heart attack from the stress of Upper Madison and nearly died right there.

I love the Lower Canyons more than any river I have ever run, and I paddle about 1,000 miles per year, but I would NEVER recommend the Lower Canyons for anybody who is not at least a strong intermediate level whitewater paddler with First Aid and Swiftwater Rescue training unless going with an experienced and trained guide.

Southwest Paddler ( has a detailed description of the river, as well as photos on the river description pages and in the photo gallery. There is also a trip report in the “Trip Reports” section.

Once you begin a Lower Canyons trip you are committed to the end unless you want to scale 1,200 to 2,000 foot mountains, then hike for 2 to 4 days across open desert with rattlesnakes, copperheads, scorpions, mountain lions and possibly bears.

You do not actually start trips at La Linda anymore. The bridge on FM 2627 between Stillwell Store and La Linda is closed and barracaded. You start at Heath Canyon Ranch (owned by Andy Curie) at FM 2627 and the river. The Dryden Pass take-out is at John’s Marina (contact Dudley Harrison for access there), and the drive from the take-out to US 90 takes about 1.5 to 2 hours to travel just 22 miles. If you miss that take-out, then the next one is about 35 miles further at Foster’s Ranch.

I have never seen ANY living soul other than those in my group when paddling the Lower Canyons. Coyotes and drug smugglers can find MUCH easier crossings than in the Lower Canyons. In fact, except for my Thanksgiving trip last November to Boquillas Canyon (just above the Lower Canyons) I have never seen any other people on ANY part of the Rio Grande between Mariscal Canyon and Dryden Pass other than some ranch hands around San Vicente, and they do not bother anybody.

In late-February and early March a group of us are planning a run through Colorado and Santa Elena Canyons over 5 days with one layover day in Santa Elena Canyon. We may also paddle the Great Unknown, a 47 mile reach between Castolon at the bottom of Santa Elena Canyon and Talley at the top of Mariscal Canyon if we can squeeze a few more days off work for those who have regular jobs.

Most of the Rio Grande is navigable by novice paddlers, but you need to be especially careful in Santa Elena, Mariscal and the Lower Canyons due to boulder garden rapids that can be VERY dangerous at any level and especially hazardous in high-water conditions.

Southwest Paddler has links to all resource sites you will need to check for current information.

More Question on lower Rio Grande
Thanks for your information. It was very helpful.

Let me give you a little background and ask a few more specific questions.

I consider myself an intermediate paddler. I’ve canoed rivers like the flat water portion Green in Utah (Stillwater and Labyrinth Canyons), the class II and III San Juan in Utah and New Mexico, the Rio Yaqui in Mexico and a few others. If we do the lower Rio Grande, most of us will be in Old Town Appalachians or something similar. I am very comfortable in wilderness situations so that aspect of the lower Rio Grande doesn’t bother me. It’s the flows and possible inability to portage/line boats that concern me, well O.K., my wife.

I’ve looked at the hydrograph of the Rio Grande and it does confound me. I’m trying to understand why high flows are in the autumn. The headwaters are in the mountains of Colorado and New Mexico which makes me assume that snowmelt in the spring would be high flows but apparently that’s not the case. There must be some weather patterns circulating in the Gulf of Mexico that cause things to peak in the fall; perhaps the same conditions that cause hurricanes.

Anyway, is it considerably safer and perhaps a little less technical to float the river in the spring or summer when flows are down? Also how drinkable is the water? I’ve used water filters before, but if pesticides or heavy metals are a problem, I assume we’d need to bring all our drinking water.

Your posting has freaked my wife out connsiderably ;=) Now I’m into fun and adventure as much as the next guy, but I don’t want to go all Donner Party on my vacation. My question is, was your story an aberrant situation that can be avoided by floating the river another time or is what happened a serious possibility any time of year.

I’ll look forward to your posted reply.



Paddling the Rio Grande
I would really like to talk to you about the Rio Grande. The lower canyons trip was my first experience doing a week-long trip. Your wife really doesn’t need to freak out about it.

My friends and I used to meet up on the Rio Grande to do either the upper or lower canyons every year. I haven’t been on the lower canyons for a long time, but I remember many of the twists and turns well.

Each time I went, I did see other people. We weren’t around them for long, but there were one or two groups of paddlers or Mexican goat farmers or something. We kept our gear close at night.

I am currently looking for other paddlers for a trip in March. Just to get an idea of what the trip entails, I am looking for people with outdoor experience. I need to know that someone will be able to paddle alone if there is an accident. I also want those that can paddle against the wind for 12-15 miles (if need be) since we run across that at least once each trip.

I want those that are able to be able to portage the boats since the water there is usually pretty low.

As for drinking water, there are springs along the way where we filter the water. We never take it out of the river directly. Upper canyons is a much easier (and shorter) trip with water avaialable at Big Bend National Park. It almost sounds like your trip should be in the upper canyons -more hiking, less worry, a bit easier, more camping availability, more scenic.

I’m also in Tucson. Let me know if you want to talk about the Rio!


Rio Grande flows
The monsoon season in the Chihuahuan Desert is July through October. The prime season is usually October or November through March, depending upon flow.

The optimum level is 3.0 to 4.5 feet on the Rio Grande Village gauge. You can do a trip at 2.0 feet or lower, but it may require some dragging through small rapids. Above optimum you need to be VERY good at controlling a fully loaded canoe.

There are usually places where you can line or portage, if necessary, but at high water those opportunities may be severely limited.

For the record, there are only six major rapids (higher than Class II) on the entire 83.5 miles, and they start at 41.0 miles (Hot Springs Rapid - Class II+ to III).

A good gauge to use is the NOAA web site at,1,1,1,1,1 . You will be looking for readings at Rio Grande Village (Boquillas) and Dryden to get a feel for relevant conditions.

From the Upper Canyons (Colorado, Santa Elena, The Great Unknown, Mariscal, San Vicente, Hot Springs and Boquillas) through the Lower Canyons the flow is most affected by inflow from Rio Conchas in Mexico.

You do NOT want to do a Rio Grande trip in late spring or summer. The water will be too low and the daytime temperatures on the desert floor will be 110-115 degrees, with PLENTY of sunshine! Going between April and October is a good way to become buzzard bait.

For a complete description of the river visit, click the link to “Texas”, then select “Rio Grande”.

The Lower Canyons trip is most frequently canoed, and it can be rafted if the water is high, but kayaks are not the best choice unless you want to go VERY primatively and eat a stark diet.