Kayaking in Big Bend National Park

It's been 20-something years since I've been to Big Bend National Park, and that was long before I started kayaking.  Big Bend National Park is only about 11 hours from Albuquerque, but once you're in Panther Junciton (the heart of the park) you're only an hour or two, at most, from any river access point, making it very easy to hit several sections, back-to-back.

Many New Mexicans have experienced the park through dozens of hiking trails as well as improved and backcountry camping areas.   Climbing and mountain biking are also allowed in the park but are "unofficially discouraged" because there is little written information, the conditions are harsh, and often well away from water sources.  All of this makes kayaking on the Rio Grande River one of the best, and least known ways to experience Big Bend National Park.

There are 7 major canyons in the park.  Colorado Canyon, Santa Elena Canyon, Mariscal Canyon, San Vicente Canyon, Hot Springs Canyon, Boquilles Canyon, and the Lower Canyons.  Each canyon is distinctly different than the others, and it's quite amazing to me that the Rio Grande could have carved its way thru these canyon walls as the topography shifted upward.

Another added bonus for making the trek to Big Bend, is that the main season generally compliments our season in New Mexico.  Monsoon rains from June through October fill a resivoir in Mexico, which then releases water into the Rio Conchas from October through April (on a good year), which merges with the Rio Grande in Presidio, TX, about 30 miles upstream of the first canyon, Colorado Canyon.  Winters in this area are pretty mild, and are generally warm and sunny!

Here's a brief run-down of each canyon;

  • Colorado Canyon - Colorado Canyon actually resides in the Big Bend Ranch State Park, but is co-managed by the Big Bend National Park.  TX highway FM 170 follows the canyon and has been described nationally as one of the Top 10 most scenic drives in the US.  Colorado Canyon is about 8 miles, but trips vary from 8 - about 34 miles, depending on where you put in and take out.  Colorado Canyon has some notabile rapids, but they are generally pretty easy to paddle.
  • Santa Elena Canyon - Santa Elena is the tallest of the seven major canyons.  Most measurements seem to average about 1600ft, vertical cliffs extending from the river-bed to the sky.  Imagine the World Trade Centers at 110 stories, plus another 300 feet.  The run from Lajitas to the end of Santa Elena canyon is about 21 miles, and easily done over two days.  I should note, we kayaked the river when the flow was 64cfs, and while it was low in a few spots, most of the river was easily navigable.  Over the 21 miles, 2-3 portages were necessary.  The guide books listed several class III rapids, which would require skill at higher flows.  However, at the extreme low flows when we paddled, the rock slides posed no threat.

Leaving Santa Elena Canyon. For more photos, click on the image above.

  • Mariscal Canyon - Mariscal Canyon is the narrowest of the major canyons.  While the canyon walls are only a mere 1300 ft tall, there are places where the river is only 20 feet across.  For this reason, I have to vote Mariscal Canyon as my favorite, at least of the canyons I've paddled thus far.  Mariscal has two notable rapids, each listed as class III at higher flows, but again - when we paddled at 64cfs, the rock slides were quite easy.  And, even at 64cfs, I can only recall one spot that was too shallow to paddle.  Overall, Mariscal was the best low-water trip.

Entering Mariscal Canyon. For more photos, click on the image above.

  • San Vicente Canyon was short and sweet.  The canyon walls weren't quite as dramatic as the others, but the water was deep inside the canyon, making it an especially enjoyable trip.  In all, San Vicente Canyon was about 3 miles in length.
  • Hot Springs Canyon - Hot Springs Canyon gets it's name from the two (possibly more?) hotsprings just above the canyon.  In the late 1800's, a resort was built near the larger of the two, and remains a 'hot spot' for tourist to the park.  A smaller, warmer, but lesser known hot spring can be found about a mile upriver, on the Texas side. Hot Springs Canyon is only a mile or two long, but a good leisure float from the improved hot springs area down to Rio Grande Village.
  • Boquilles Canyon & The Lower Canyons - I haven't had a chance to paddle this, but will be going in the Fall; I'll update you all then with a new blog :) Comments are welcome from any others who have paddled either Boquilles or The Lower Canyons.  What I do know, is that Mariscal Canyon is the longest of the canyons within Big Bend National Park, at roughly 30 miles.  The Lower Canyons trip is a total of 83 miles, and includes several smaller canyons.  I understand both Boquilles and The Lower Canyons have some pretty good whitewater, the Lower Canyons especially.

Our trip through the canyons was pretty amazing, and I am really looking forward to going back again soon! 

For the most part, the Rio Grande through Big Bens is pretty mellow, with only a few rapids.  In general, people go for the amazing scenery, the size and magnitude of the canyon walls, etc., not particularly for the whitewater.


If you've got anything to add, please leave your comments below.
Kelly Gossett


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Upcoming Kayak Instruction Classes

Currently there are no Intro to Kayaking clinics scheduled. Please see our Calendar of Events for upcoming Intro, Roll, Whitewater and Touring clinics, or Contact Us for a private lesson.
Currently there are no Kayak Roll clinics scheduled. Please see our Calendar of Events for upcoming Intro, Roll, Whitewater and Touring clinics, or Contact Us for a private lesson.
Title Date City Name
(Level 3) Whitewater Kayaking Made Easy Saturday, September 22, 2018 - 9:00am - Sunday, September 23, 2018 - 5:00pm Pilar Pilar Yacht Club
Currently there are no Advanced Whitewater clinics scheduled. Please see our Calendar of Events for upcoming Intro, Roll, Whitewater and Touring clinics, or Contact Us for a private lesson.
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"Open House" Kayak & SUP Fun, Games and Practice Wednesday, September 26, 2018 - 5:30pm - 7:30pm Bernalillo Sandia Lakes Recreation Area