Added by Trey Brennan
This is a moderate - advanced float trip with opportunities to fully experience the wonders of Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park.
With a small group of people, canoes and kayaks, and one vehicle the boomerang trip (paddling against the current, then floating back downstream) up Santa Elena Canyon is the best option for floating the prettiest section of the Rio Grande while simultaneously avoiding pesky outfitters and the headache of scheduling shuttles out of Terlingua, TX. In whitewater terms, the Rio Grande is not particularly challenging, however paddling through Santa Elena Canyon should still be on every whitewater paddler's bucket list, simply for the breathtaking views. Santa Elena Canyon is a comparatively narrow gorge (100-150 feet wide) with vertical cliff walls that tower as much as 1500ft above the river on both sides. This is one of the most remote and untamed stretches of river in Texas. The entire canyon is about 18 miles in length however this particular trip only goes about 4-8 miles into the canyon. Before you plan your trip it is strongly advised to check out the water levels of the river. The Castolon gauge is down river of the Santa Elena Canyon mouth and is the gauge most commonly used for the boomerang trip. This information is best found at waterdata.usgs.gov. The best time to float the river is in the spring or fall when water levels are moderate to low. The lowest advisable level is 150cfs and the maximum for going up river is 500cfs or below.
The entire section of river is in Big Bend National Park and requires a permit obtainable at park headquarters or in Lajitas, TX. After obtaining your river permit you and your group can set out for Santa Elena Canyon river access boat ramp (a couple miles before the Santa Elena Canyon trail head). After loading up your boats at the bottom of the boat ramp you can park your vehicle in the parking lot next to the boat ramp. Depending on how far up the river you would like to go (the best camping is found between miles 3.6 – 7.3) it’s advised to start your float before 12:00p.m. The first 1.1 miles consists of the approach to the canyon mouth where you'll find all of your Santa Elena Canyon trail hikers. After paddling a mile or two up the canyon the silence, stillness, and astonishing views commence.
With a mix of flat water and small rapids you can paddle and walk your boats up stream with relative ease dependent on current water levels. Generally, the rapids in the canyon will require some maneuvering by canoeists, particularly when the river is relatively low and channelized. However, whitewater paddlers will probably find them to be straightforward. The river becomes more assertive as you go further up and only becomes unmanageable at high levels (thousands of cfs). The first noticeable reference point is 2.8 miles up river and is named Smuggler’s Cave (alcove formation on Mexican side). The next reference point is Fern Canyon (significant side canyon on river left) and is 3.6 miles into the trip. Fern canyon is a popular short hike and marks the beginning of quality gravel bars that are suitable for camping.
During busy periods of the year (spring break and fall break) there will be numerous outfitters that can potentially reach and claim the better gravel bars if you’re not the first ones there. However this shouldn’t be cause for worry given the fact that there are plenty of gravel bars to camp on. If you’re seeking a quite place to set up camp you’re best bet is to simply paddle up around the next bend. When you find a gravel bar suitable to your taste you can set up camp and enjoy a few brews in Mexico (on the south side of the river), I’d personally recommend the Big Bend Brewing Company’s Hefeweizen. After a siesta or fiesta, whichever you prefer, you’re guaranteed a quiet night of sleep in arguably the prettiest part of Big Bend National Park.
The next morning is easy sailing as you pack up camp and head down river. After an easy float back to the boat ramp you can load up the boats and enjoy the other wonders of Big Bend National Park. In the end, floating and camping on the Rio Grande is a bucket list item and if you're one to forego the guides and outfitters this boomerang trip is the way to make this trip affordable as well as unforgettable.
- Camping gear
- Dry bags
Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.
Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph. Learn More
ReviewsLeave a Review
Have you done this adventure? Have something to add? You could be the first to leave a review!
More Adventures Nearby
Camp at Roadrunner Campground
Texas / Roadrunner Flat Primitive Campground
We set off from Austin to Big Bend, a 7 hour drive with no stops. Some advice had wizened us to the idea of staying in a state park along the way.
Hike the Four Notch Loop
Texas / Four Notch Hunter Camp
The Four Notch Loop is a relaxing ~10 mile hike just north of Houston.