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Adventure Guide: Big Bend National Park

Texas-sized solitude is practically guaranteed when you explore the high peaks and striking river canyons of this lightly visited wilderness.

2 Santa

Elena Canyon

Paddle the Rio Grande through massive gorges on this exciting overnight.

©Steve Howe

The National Park Service administers 234 miles of the Wild and Scenic Rio Grande, including the 188-mile stretch that defines Big Bend’s entire southern boundary. Along this border portion lie three deep, narrow river gorges lined with towering limestone cliffs: Boquillas, Mariscal, and Santa Elena. Santa Elena offers the best combination of scenery, action, and access; a 20-mile canoe trip here is easily done in 2 days. (For a longer trip, try the 76-mile journey linking Santa Elena and Mariscal via the rarely traveled Ghost Stretch.)

From its start at Lajitas, the Santa Elena winds through 12.5 miles of open country and short, swift rapids before hitting the half-mile-long Entrance Rapid, a massive cobble pile formed by floods from Mexico’s Arroyo San Antonio. Just beyond, the gorge deepens, and after several tight turns, you reach Rock Slide Rapid (mile 13.7). At high river flows, the house-sized boulders here make for dangerous Class IV whitewater. When the river is low (about 350-700 cfs), Rock Slide can be negotiated by a combination of wading, lining, and paddling. Small, secluded campsites are located on cobble bars and rock ledges just below Rock Slide. Three miles downstream, you’ll encounter Arch and Fern Canyons, two striking gorges that angle in from the Mexican side and are separated by a large bench with fine camping. As you paddle, keep an eye peeled for peregrine falcons soaring the cliffs.

The Way Launch from the riverside park in Lajitas on FM 170 and take out 1 mile below the Santa Elena Canyon Overlook, 7 miles west of Big Bend National Park’s Castolon Visitor Center. Pick up a permit at Panther Junction or Big Bend Ranch State Park’s Barton Warnock Center near Lajitas. For shuttles, equipment rentals, and guided trips, contact Big Bend River Tours (800-545-4240; bigbendrivertours.com).

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