Rafting the Rio Grande

On Saturday we woke up at 6, and headed in the darkness towards Terlingua, TX (west of Big Bend). The sun started to rise as we left the park, and was fully up when we arrived at Far Flung Outdoor Center around 7:30. We changed into our river gear, applied copious amounts of sunscreen, and met our guide for the day, Craig (who was originally from Austin).

There were supposed to be two other people on our raft but they never showed. So we had the boat and Craig all to ourselves. We put in at Lajitas, where I caught my first sight of Mexico! Right there across the Rio Grande. While we were chatting about the nuances of an international border literally a stone’s throw away, I referred to the Mexico-side and the US-side. Then someone “corrected” me: “We like to call it ‘The Texas-side'”. Ah, Texas.

Lajitas raft put in on the Rio Grande
Rio Grande “put-in” at Lajitas

And so began our day-long float down the Rio Grande. Unlike our previous rafting adventures (Lower Kern, South Fork of the American River), Craig did all the paddling. We just sat and enjoyed the ride while he described the geology, biology, and history of the river.

Twice we got out of the raft and just floated down the Rio Grande (to cool down). Turns out the river is only about 3-4 feet deep with a few inches of mud/gravel at the bottom (the flow was about 1100cfs). The water was rich with sedimentation, like coffee with too much cream. At one point I waded over to Mexico and touched it.

Justin in the Rio Grande
Justin in the Rio Grande
Brian (Dad) and Justin in the Rio Grande
Dad in the Rio Grande
Stephanie in the Rio Grande
Stephanie in the Rio Grande

The highlight of the trip was traversing the Santa Elena canyon, a narrow section of the river with 1800 foot walls on each side. There were several light rapids, and then one very challenging section called the Rock Slide. Craig had to navigate the raft through multiple tight spots not much wider than the raft itself. It wasn’t so much splashy-splashy, as it was very technical, and from our vantage point, it looked like there was no way the raft was getting through. He got through like he wasn’t even trying. We cheered.

Santa Elena Canyon entrance on the Rio Grande
Approaching the start of Santa Elena Canyon
Santa Elena Canyon view on the Rio Grande
Nice view within the canyon
Lunch spot in the Santa Elena Canyon on the Rio Grande
Our lunch spot
Downhill optical illusion in the Santa Elena Canyon on the Rio Grande
“Downhill” optical illusion
Santa Elena Canyon exit on the Rio Grande
Approaching the end of Santa Elena Canyon

From then on it was a fairly calm ride the rest of the way. The canyon ends about as abruptly as it began. The whole route was a little over 20 miles. We got picked up around 3:30pm, and then had a nice hour-long drive through another section of the park heading back to Terlingua.

Terrain map of Rio Grande rafting route through the Santa Elena Canyon
Terrain map of Santa Elena Canyon

That night, back at the campsite, we saw more ominous clouds in the sky, but we had time to cook some hot dogs and mac and cheese. Gourmet! After dinner we drove up to the lodge for a better vantage to watch how the weather developed. If it started raining, we’d get another cabin, if not, we’d head back. We were treated to another thunder and lightning show as the sun set, but all of it was in the distance. Once we’d decided the weather had passed with clear skies were above us, we headed back to our tents for the night.



How gorgeous, especially that last shot. Love it!

All these were shot with Stephanie’s new Canon SD1200IS (easier to bring on the raft, less risk than my Pentax K-7). To me they have an almost otherworldly feel, like photos from a 50 year old National Geographic.


I don’t get the downhill optical illusion. What am I not seeing?

Andre, look at the lines of the rocks on the right. Doesn’t it look like the river is rapidly descending?

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