Rafting the Rio Grande

We were excited as we set off down the road to Lajitas at 8:00 with our guide, friends, and raft in tow for the short drive to our rafting put-in spot on the Rio Grande. For the previous few days we had heard a lot about the recent flood and the damage that was done from the high water and we knew the mighty Rio Grande was still flowing faster than normal. In fact, during the September 2008 flood the Rio Grande grew to over 30 feet deep (it's normally 2 to 3 feet deep) and expanded beyond the normal channel to inundate vast areas of flood plain on both sides of the river. The volume of water exceeded 50,000 cubic feet per minute. Significant damage was done to roads, the Lajitas Golf Course, Big Bend campgrounds, farmland, and lots more. On the drive to the put-in our guide kept talking about some of the wild and thrilling rides shortly after the major flooding. We were looking forward to a fun and exciting ride. John is from

We selected Big Bend River Tours for our trip because they were highly recommended and they are the oldest full service outfitter in the area and specialize in trips in the Big Bend Area. Big Bend offers a wide variety of rafting, canoeing, and kayaking trips from a half day to 21 days on the Rio Grande. They provide everything you need to have a fun, painless, and memorable trip. We signed up for the rafting trip through the magnificent Santa Elena canyon and we couldn't have been happier with the service, the good lunch, and our guide who was fantastic - he was very knowledgeable of the river, history, and geology; personable and very interesting. In addition to raft and canoe trips, Big Bend River Tours offers guided hiking and backroad trips.


Getting startedFirst part of the tripBeatuiful scenery & calm water


Ready for small rapidsThrough the rapidsOur put-in spot was a few miles north west of Lajitas and we had 4 people, plus John our guide, on a six person raft. The Rio Grande was cool, brown, and much deeper and flowing much faster than normal which made our trip about 6 hours instead of what is normally 9 or more hours.

For the first couple hours the river flows through the Chihuahuan Desert and past Native American grinding stones, ancient pictographs, a candellia wax processing camp, and scenic bluffs. We encountered several small rapids and saw plenty of wildlife, high mesas, and scenic side canyons on the 11 mile ride to Santa Elena canyon. First stretch of the river was a very relaxing (John does all the rowing, unless you have a desire for some strenuous exercise, he's happy to let you row for awhile) and pleasant ride as we took in the scenery and listened to John talk about the history, geology, and life in Terlingua. A potty stop along one of the tributaries was a welcome relief and got us out of the boat, exploring around the area, and swimming in the cool water.

After a couple hours, we entered the majestic Santa Elena canyon - wow, what a magnificent trip for the next 3 hours. Santa Elena canyon is the most impressive canyon in Big Bend and was formed by movement along the Terlingua fault. The river flows through narrow slots with sheer cliffs that rise up to 1500 feet above the river. Absolutely stunning scenery with both calm fast flowing water and a few small rapids. We rode in awe of such majestic scenery.

Entrance to Santa Elena CanyonIn Santa Elena CanyonIn the Canyon

Lunch on the riverWaiting for lunchAbout the time our tummies were starting to growl, we pulled ashore in the middle of the canyon on a small rocky beach. John and the other guide set up lunch while we skipped rocks, explored our landing zone, and waited for "come and get it." Lunch was simple (make your own deli sandwiches, relishes, pasta, chips, cookies, cheeses, and more) but tasted great as we ate under the towering limestone walls and beside the mighty Rio Grande.

After lunch we were ready to tackle the infamous Rockslide rapid, which can be a Class IV rapid and is technically very challenging to negotiate. To keep us excited and wondering what it would be like, John told us stories about some previous trips and flipping the boat, getting tossed out, and more thrilling stuff just prior to our approach to Rockslide. But he kept assuring us that he hasn't lost a client yet! He did make it very clear that if we fell out we may be on our own for awhile until he has a chance to reground and recover us. If we do fall out, he said just relax, float done the river, and enjoy the scenery. Sounds fun! But we were still a little timid and nervous as we approached Rockslide. We know there was only one way out - down the river because there is no way we could shimmy up sheer limestone 1000 foot cliffs! Rockslide approached, we made it through it safely, and then were anxious to go back and run it again.

Getting ready for RockslideSome rapids


Having survived Rockslide we rafted to a short stop to explore Fern Canyon, a 2 mile narrow side canyon carved out of the rock with refreshing pools of clear water, walls covered in ferns, and white limestone rock bottom polished smooth by water which typically floods through the canyon. We hiked a ways up the canyon, played in the water, crawled through under and some some boulders, and wished that we could have spent more time exploring further up the canyon.

Crawling under the rocks and up the river bedSqueezing through a creviceFern CanyonFern Canyon

Shortly after Rockslide, you could see the exit of the canyon and we were disappointed that our trip was ending. Waiting for us at the take-out was our ride back to Big Bend River Tours through a part of the beautiful Big Bend National Park. A great trip with a fantastic guide. If you are planning a trip to Big Bend National Park then you should call

In addition to several rafting trips, they offer guided canoeing, hiking, and backroad tours.The raft trip was just part of an fun and adventurous 14 days exploring West Texas and included camping, hiking, biking, Terlingua Chili Cookoff, golfing, houseboating, caving, and more. Read more about this fantastic West Texas Vacation.

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