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Rio Grande Wild & Scenic River

    It's a long storied river of abiding historical, cultural and political significance. It's also one of stark beauty. These are the unspoiled parts, meeting the exacting national criteria of Wild & Scenic. Totaling nearly two hundred miles, this portion features numerous canyons, some over 1500 feet deep. The "Lower Canyons" are acknowledged to be one of the remotest river trips in the Lower 48. It is alternatively too though, a very accessible river in other places, one that can promise a wilderness experience in an afternoon, day or overnight trip. From placid and languorous in stretches, to technical and challenging in others, it is a pathway through time and wonder no matter what your experience level. There are a number of options to add this wonderfully contrasting avenue of exploration to your desert experience. We are currently offering a couple of day trips directly via "packraft" or canoe, with three local outfitters having the larger rafts and guides for longer forays.  Keep in mind that river levels can vary considerably, and can sometimes have a last minute impact on paddling options.
    The briefest of exposures, but not the least intriguing is via the novel but eminently capable "packraft". A very small but versatile craft, the packraft is basically a ruggedly constructed but very lightweight one-person inflatable raft. Designed for carrying compactly to otherwise inaccessible locations (the "pack" part), the packraft weighs less than five pounds and rolls into a small sack. A four piece kayak-style paddle and inflatable life vest make up the rest of the  paddling ensemble, all of it fitting in a daypack. Born of the demands and ingenuity of long-distance wilderness racing, the boats are quite nimble, forgiving and fun. Being a single-person craft, we'll of course each have our own and so a certain comfort with water should be considered a prerequisite, as you'll be the crewless "captain".
    Our "intro" doesn't involve crossing mountain ranges or glaciers, but rather a delightful 3.5 mile day hike from the Rio Grand Village to the Hot Springs (soak optional), with a float back. After our hike much of which parallels the river, and just upstream from the springs, we'll deftly (ingeniously) inflate our boats and paddle about in a river pool to get familiarized. After quickly getting to feel comfortable and confidant, we'll enter the current and slide by the bath house ruins and through the little riffles in front, floating back lazily through the calm but scenic Hot Springs canyon, past impressive side canyon arroyos and rock walls. We wager that at this point, you'll most likely be thoroughly hooked. And if so, then there's the next level "class" . . .
    A longer day trip is the Colorado Canyon of the Big Bend Ranch State Park, paddling through a bigger canyon with some Class II-III rapids. It's a great day trip and next step in your pack rafting career. The canyon is deeper and the water a bit more exciting, though thoroughly enjoyable for the confidant recent convert. Remember, these boats are quite forgiving and the worst that can happen is to get wet on a hot day. All the rapids are short, and can be easily portaged if desired --after all these boats don't weigh much! We can decide at the last minute just how many miles you'd like to tackle, and then we'll head west from Terlingua to pick up a permit at the park office in Lajitas. The scenic River Road then winds past our chosen take-out where we'll drop a vehicle, and on up over La Cuesta, the Big Hill, to the put-in.
    Colorado Canyon is cut of an entirely different geologic strata than the national park, being almost entirely igneous. It's a wonderful paddle with constantly changing scenery from open views to the cool shadows of steep walled sections. The stretches of lazy flat water are interspersed with short drops, mostly at the confluence of side canyons entering the river, where the outflow during floods has built up, usually forming a short "rock garden". Other than with rock climbing equipment, it is only by traveling the river that one can examine the "exit" of Closed Canyon, the narrow slot canyon that you most likely have explored previously (or will next!)  from the River Road side. It's quite the rewarding day, but you have to be careful though, as next you might be ordering your own boat for home. 
    River levels of course dictate any boating experience, and the local outfitters offer some fantastic ones longer than those described above. Santa Elena Canyon is probably one of the most famous, featuring the notorious labyrinth rapid "Rock Slide", a Class III-IV at reasonable water. It is usually done as an overnight, though three days can make it an even more intimate experience, camping within the towering 1500 walls with only the sliver of light above. Other stretches feature Mariscal and Boquillas Canyons, and of course there's always the "Lower Canyons" of remote allure, usually taking a week for the 83 miles of wilderness. In short, there's a long list of possibilities for discovering this magnificent gem. 

The River - editorial comment:

    Associated with westerns, wars, and romance, the Rio Grande has always had an aura all of its own. For millennia it has been viewed as an artery, giving life to so much on both sides, and uniting rather than dividing the human populations. In May of 2002 that all changed with the slamming shut of the border after 9/11. Across what had always been an informal border in these parts, the casual exchange and life sustaining trade that brought people together, suddenly became illegal and the river transformed into a barrier. Park visitors could previously count on the wonderful experience of taking a local ferry across to the Mexican village of Boquillas, ensuring enough economic activity through the local cafe and small shops to keep the school open and the few dozen families fed. Exchanges now are limited to verbal ones, and to the illegal sale of small crafts, snuck over to the US side with a cash "honor" jar to be retrieved later. These items are regularly confiscated by the authorities and destroyed. Identical ones though, are available through the Park concessionaire for several times the traditional price.
    Pressure from the imperiled economy has though resulted in slightly ameliorating the draconian prohibition against stepping foot anywhere on the Mexican side by US boaters, with a Memorandum of Understanding that allows limited foot travel and camping in non-inhabited areas. It is not applicable in the reverse for the Mexicans though, nor is trade or commerce in any form between the populations outside of the official crossings many miles away. After closure, a large number of enterprises on both sides quickly ceased being able to continue economically, forcing many families to leave. There are ongoing efforts to reopen some sort of limited crossing capability in a couple of locations, but in the currently politically charged climate, prospects are not promising.
    Work too has continued on the dream of establishing a cross-border park of gargantuan dimensions, first proposed and pursued in the 1930's. The border closure has made the project infinitely more difficult, though the Mexican federal government has dedicated much of the land and there are some exchanges between the two countries' park administrations. Perhaps there will be a saner more mature climate one day.
    Abused physically too for much of its length, the river almost disappears below El Paso due primarily to agricultural use. Fortunately though, the river reconstitutes near Presidio/Ojinaga, where the major tributary Rio Conchos enters from Mexico, returning legitimacy and grandeur to the river known south of the border as Rio Bravo. Efforts to dedicate waters and thus stabilize flows are ongoing, led principally by the non-profit Trans Pecos Water Trust that educates on the issues and leases water rights from voluntary holders to preserve river inflows. Other perils include water gulping non-native species such as the salt cedar or Tamarisk tree. So thirsty are they that locals note dramatic drops in river water levels when they start to leaf out in the spring. Efforts too are directed at their reduction and that of other non-native species.
    And so it's though but a smattering, there's obviously no dearth here like anywhere, of complex issues relevant to the neighborhood. With apologies for the unsolicited introduction, we thought a bit of background on them could serve as such for your visit. Sometimes the behind the scenes can enrichen that apparent. Thanks for listening.

National Park Map - scalable


Adventure Alaska Tours, Inc.   P.O. Box 64    Hope, Alaska  99605        (800) 365-7057  or   (907) 782-3730       fax: (907) 782-3725