Rio Grande River Tours
Big Bend National Park Area
Photo and Text by George Oxford Miller
In July, 2000, Cartographic Technologies, a Vermont company, released a study identifying Thorofare Valley in Yellowstone National Park as the most remote spot in the contiguous United States. The Thorofare Ranger station is 20 miles from the nearest publicly maintained road.
According to Texas’ Brewster County road map, however, our campsite along the Rio Grande lies 25 miles from the closest highway. We would have to hike 10 miles across the Chihuahuan Desert just to reach the nearest dirt ranch road. This corner of western Texas is about as remote as you can get in the Lower 48.
Remoteness is one of the main reasons our group decided to float the Rio Grande’s Lower Canyons, which are located downstream from Big Bend National Park. Few of us had ever gone 24 hours without hearing mechanized noises. Most of us had never seen a satellite streak across a sky unsullied by city lights.
Once we push off from the two-lane bridge separating the Black Gap Wildlife Management Area from the Mexican village of La Linda, the closest contrivances of civilization lie 85 miles downstream. We’ll take out near a dot-on-the-map town called Dryden, population 13. With a late afternoon start, we set a pace as lazy as the river. The depth measures a little more than two feet, about ideal for the 1.5- to 5-foot range considered to be safe. The April sun beats down on us with the air temperature peaking in the 90’s, although the water temperature still carries remnants of a mountain chill.
In an hour we reach Horse Canyon. Like a portal to an alien land, the shadowed walls rise 300 feet above the water and greet us with a cooling breeze. After we set up camp, I climb to the canyon rim to get a lay of the land. In the distance behind us, the adobe houses of La Linda gleam in the setting sun. Downstream I can see a range of rocky hills and another small canyon. Cacti and creosote bushes dot the rugged landscape. Our tiny canoes look like driftwood askew on the sandbar below. The breeze carries no sounds. Only the circling forms of a trio of turkey vultures fill the void. A lizard stares at me, reluctant to relinquish his sunny perch, then dashes away when I move. I am equally reluctant to give up my solitary perch high above the desert floor. I tarry until the stillness of sunset enfolds me in its quietness, and then, with the last glimmer of light, I scamper like the lizard to the security of camp.
The first Spanish conquistadors who entered this area called it El Despoblado, desolate or worthless land. This section of the Rio Grande was the last segment of the U. S. boundary to be surveyed. For three decades after Major John Wesley Powell made his historic journey through the Grand Canyon, these canyons of the Rio Grande resisted exploration. In 1899, after several previous expeditions declared the canyons too hazardous to navigate, Robert T. Hill floated from Presidio to the mouth of the Pecos River, near Judge Roy Bean’s frontier town of Langtry. The 196-mile stretch was designated a Wild and Scenic River in 1978.
The next morning, we push our canoes into the current and float down a narrow green corridor. A luxuriant band of river cane accented by clumps of pink primroses lines the banks before the jealous desert sands reclaim the land.
Though arid, the desert is by no means barren. Red flowers wave on the tips of the thorny wands of ocotillo. Waxy yellow flowers border the pads of prickly pear cacti. Clusters of desert marigold and Indian paintbrushes enliven the rocky soil. Catclaw acacias, javelina bushes, lechuguillas and other thorny shrubs live up to the cowboy’s old saying that everything on the desert either sticks, stings or stinks.
Biologically, these rocky hills support a surprising abundance of plant and wildlife. The surrounding Chihuahuan Desert nourishes 106 species of cacti, more than the other 49 states combined. Some of the circular clumps of creosote bushes took root 10,000 years ago, numbering them among the oldest living things on earth. Rare and endemic species include the colorful Trans-Pecos king snake, horned lizards, kit foxes, several bat species and numerous cacti.
The land looks tough, but the flora and fauna eke out a precarious existence. All day we hear no human sounds except the occasional clack of paddle against canoe, yet the desert is far from silent. The descending flute-like call of the canyon wren greets us as the river twists through tight canyons. Black phoebes dart from their nests under overhanging ledges and cliff swallows and white-throated swifts chatter overhead. Blue-winged teals and shovelers quack in the shallows, and a great blue heron squawks and leads us as it flushes and flies a few hundred yards down river, then repeats the maneuver.
On day four, we enter the most dramatic stretch of the float, the heart of the Lower Canyons. The canyon walls crowd into the stream and tower as much a 1500 feet above the river. The current picks up its pace as we drift deeper into the canyons. The rapids increase in complexity. We stop below Burro Bluff, a 1000-foot precipice that bends the river into a giant horseshoe, and we line our canoes through a boulder-strewn rapid.
We’ve reached a placid stretch below the rapids when a peregrine falcon swoops low over our heads. We’ve caught glimpses of the falcons since we approached Burro Bluff, where they nest. We twist around just in time to see it hit a cinnamon teal in mid-flight. Russet feathers powder the breeze and the duck disappears, but we can’t see for sure whether the peregrine made its kill. It circles and lands on a ledge and watches us patiently as we float by.
For a week, the desert watches us drift with the current. The flow of the river, the rising of the sun, the daily progression of shadows, the moon illuminating the night sky, the rhythms of nature set the pulse of our lives. Our every action centers around the mood of the river, our every decision considers its flow. The desert stream dominates our psyche like the canyon walls overshadowing our canoes. Each evening the waxing moon rises earlier and blinds the crystalline display of stars.
On the last night, I wake and see vultures circling in the light of a full moon. The hoots of a pair of great-horned owls echo off the canyon walls. By this time tomorrow, I’ll be back in what we flippantly call "the real world," but for now the wildness of the Lower Canyons lays claim to my spirit.
Best Time: The best time to float the Rio Grande November through June combines safe river levels and moderate temperatures. During the rainy season, July through October, water levels can fluctuate drastically. The heat can be searing.
See the Lower Canyon Wild and Scenic River website for additional information.
For maps click here.
Logistics: Trips begin at the international bridge at La Linda and take out at Dryden on private property. For take-out permission and fees, contact Dudly Harrison, (1-915-345-2503 or email@example.com).
Rio Grande Float Trip Outfitters
Big Bend River Tours, Terlingua..... 800-545-4240
Desert Sports, Terlingua..... 888-989-6900
Rio Grande Adventures, Study Butte..... 800-343-1640
Texas River Expeditions/Far Flung, Study Butte.....800-839-7238
George Oxford Miller, an environmental journalist, has written A Guide to Texas Parks and Campgrounds and A Guide to Wildflowers, Trees, and Shrubs of Texas.
Camping & RV Parks
There are three developed campgrounds at Great Basin National Park:
- Rio Grande Village -100 sites
- Chisos Basin - 63 sites
- Cottonwood - 31 sites
All have water and rest rooms, but no hookups. Fees are currently $8.00 per night, subject to change. Campsite occupancy is limited to eight people and two vehicles, or one RV plus one vehicle. All campsites are available on a first-come first- served basis only.
A concessionaire operates an RV park at Rio Grande Village. Full hookup capability is required. All sites are available on a first-come first- served basis only.
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Click here to see current desert temperatures!