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River Floating: A Current Affair

Why huff and puff to get to an isolated campsite? Simply grab a paddle, then let the current carry you to a secluded riverside trailhead.

Rio Grande, Texas

The water: Along that bump on the bottom of southwest Texas, the Rio Grande takes a sharp turn from southeast to northeast. For more than 100 miles-all of it spectacular and often very remote-the river separates the desert of northern Mexico from Texas’s Big Bend National Park, passing through the outstanding canyons of Santa Elena, Mariscal, and Boquillas. Below Boquillas, the river leaves the park and slips into the Lower Canyons, the most isolated section of the Rio Grande (about another 100 miles of paddling). All along the river, you’ll find limestone walls that reach as much as 1,800 feet above the water to the Chihuahuan Desert. Between long, calm stretches, rapids might reach Class I or II, sometimes III in high spring runoff. Water levels vary greatly during the year, to the point where river travel is sometimes impossible, so call ahead.

The hikes: About 10 river miles below the put-in at Lajitas, Texas, the Rio Grande enters Santa Elena Canyon with a good campsite located at the canyon’s mouth. On the Mexican side, you can hike into a shady side canyon where you’ll find a swimming hole, fern-cloaked walls, and an easy route to the top with grand views across Texas. On the park side, a rugged trail at the mouth of Santa Elena Canyon ascends about 4 miles to more open country, excellent views, and a opportunity to spend a day or two exploring the desert off-trail (bring an accurate map). You can spend 3 weeks on the river, hiking any of the side canyons, and only scratch the surface of this vast wilderness.

Experience level: Novice to intermediate paddling and moderate hiking.

Season: Accessible all year, depending on water levels. Spring and fall are the most appealing seasons, weather-wise.

Logistics: From I-10, TX 118 runs south to secondary road 170, which leads west to Lajitas. Where you take out will depend on the length of your trip: it’s about 2 days to Castolon, a week to Boquillas, a couple of weeks to La Linda. Sign up for a guided canoe, kayak, or raft trip with (or rent boats and accessories from) Big Bend River Tours, (800) 545-4240; www.bigbendrivertours.com; or Texas River Expeditions, (800) 839-RAFT; www.texasriver.com.

Guides: USGS topo maps are Santa Elena Canyon, Lajitas, and Mesa de Anguila. Check out Hiking Big Bend National Park, by Laurence Parent (Falcon, 800-582-2665; www.falcon.com; $12.95).

Contact: Big Bend National Park, (915) 477-2251; www.nps.gov/bibe/home.htm.

-B. Tilton

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