Big Bend Park, Part Two
In Part One we discussed beautiful hiking areas available in the Big Bend area of south Texas, along the Rio Grande River.
We talked about hiking the rim trail in the Chisos Mountains, and hiking up near the summit of Mount Emory at an elevation of just below 8,000 feet.
But for a large part of the outdoor adventurers who travel to Big Bend, the real gems of the Big Bend area include the majestic river canyons which can soar up to 2,500 feet above the valley floor.
Big Bend can be divided into four areas: (1) the aforementioned Chisos Mtns., in the center of the national park; (2) the park itself, which contains the four most commonly floated canyons: Santa Elena Canyon, Mariscal Canyon, the very short Hot Springs Canyon, and the longest canyon in the park, Boquillas; (3) located upriver from the national park is some Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land and a fairly new Texas state park called Big Bend Ranch State Recreation Area; and finally (4) a remote 120-mile remote stretch now designated as a National Wild and Scenic River portion that includes many smaller river canyons, collectively called the Lower Rio Grande Canyons. These include canyons, such as, Horsethief, Regan, Warm Springs, Dryden and several others.
From Redford, below Presidio, Texas, for about 280 miles, all the way to Langtry, Texas, located upstream from Del Rio, Texas, there is available for viewing some of the most incredible river canyon scenery in North America. And the best way to see it is to float these remote and fabulous canyons.
From El Paso, Texas for 110 miles down to Presidio, Texas, the Rio is an ugly, usually channelized ditch, used mainly for irrigation purposes for tomatoes, melons, onions, cabbage, etc, It is often maybe only 15-yards wide and maybe 30 inches deep.
But at Presidio and its sister city on the opposite bank, Ojinaga, Chihuahua, the Rio Grande is revitalized by a beautiful influx of almost clear green water from the Rio Conchos River flowing out of the Sierra Madre Mountains, in western Mexico. This range is basically the southern extension of the Rocky Mountains into Mexico, reaching elevations of over 10,000 feet.
There is a stunning river canyon –and I don’t mean to exaggerate the use of these adjectives here – named Black Canyon of the Conchos, located about 40 miles above its juncture with the Rio Grande in the State of Chihuahua. A very narrow canyon slot and quite dangerous at high water, the Black Canyon revitalizes the Conchos, and with its whitewater ledges and chutes, cleansing and aerating the stream. The Rio Grande at its juncture with the Conchos is in desperate need of a good infusion of clean, green water.
And, now with many canyons awaiting the Rio downstream, the cleansing continues.
However, during periods of high water that mainly occur in the fall, following hurricanes or tropical depressions which have encroached into the interior, the water can quickly turn into a rising muddy torrent, full of riverside tamarisk and mesquite trees angrily moving downriver.
By the way, Presidio is a town about the size of Ava, but Ojinaga just across the river, contains ten times the population as Presidio, and there is a beautiful town plaza with outdoor shops, good restaurants, and a lot of liquor stores for CHEAP beer and tequila. Unfortunately, because of rising drug cartel violence along the Mexican border for the last few years, you may have to skip this interesting stop. And for the same reason, a float through the dark confines of Black Canyon is probably also off-limits as well.
Check for these potential issues at the border:
If you take your auto across the river instead of a taxi, be VERY careful and cautious.
A passport is now required.
No firearms of any type are permitted.
And a regular United States auto insurance policy will not normally cover any problems which might incur in Mexico. You can buy special auto insurance “riders” which will cover your vehicle and liability in Mexico at almost any U.S. border town.
Trust me, if you go, take a Mexican shuttle bus or taxi to cross the border, or consider walking.
Again, gain local knowledge before visiting any Mexican border town. For the most part, the Mexican people love Americans and the “greenbacks” that they bring with them. They are a warm and friendly people with many relatives who reside on the northern side of the river.
Also, if planning to eat or drink, drink bottled beer and bottled water only. And remember, cafes and bars generally close during siesta for the hottest part of the day, and that is normally from around 2:00 p.m. until about 5:30 p.m.
But, back to the Rio Grande which has now had its volume increased at least threefold after the Rio Conchos joined its course –– rapidly descend-ing for hundreds of miles to the Gulf of Mexico at Brownsville, Texas.
The real action begins along the river, first in the Big Bend Ranch State Park, and later in the National Park below Lajitas, Texas. When you see Rio Grande River canyons, think Grand Canyon, but on a smaller, more personal scale.
The first of seven beautiful Rio Grande Canyons begins below Redford, Texas, and the last one ends almost 300 miles later at Langtry, Texas. Langtry is the former home of famous Texas magistrate, Judge Roy Bean, self-described as the only “Law West of the Pecos.”
Here are the Canyon runs from top to bottom:
Tapado Canyon Run: 5.5 miles, solid class II-III water. Quite scenic, but beware at high water. BLM land.
Texas Ranch Canyon Run: 15 miles, solid class II water. This area has several small canyons that border the riverside highway in Texas. Note the numerous car wreck bodies on the eastern side of the 16% grade of Big Hill next to the river. It runs next to State Highway 170 and the Texas State Park, for the most part.
Santa Elena Canyon, Big Bend National Park, 18.5 miles, with 7.5 miles of beautiful 1200-1500 ft. sheer-walled narrow canyon and at one point, it is only 30 yards wide. Class II-III water except for the Rockslide Rapid encountered in the first mile of the canyon; most smart boaters make a very difficult one hour portage around this dangerous class IV-V rapid. Very remote.
The Santa Elena run from Lajitas near the park boundary to Terlingua Creek at the canyon near the Park’s Cottonwood Campground is the most popular canyon run in Big Bend. It possesses the most scenic canyon. Across from the mouth of Terlingua Creek is the tiny Mexican village of Santa Elena.
Twenty years ago when I last visited, there was a general store and a small cantina filled with Mexican farmers and cowboys. In the village of about 150 people, I observed only one old Ford pick-up in town.
Warning: Be careful! Remember you are in a foreign third-world country and the two riverside cantinas – the one in Santa Elena and the other in Boquillas, Mexico, just downriver from Rio Grande Village – do not socially accept women or their desire to sip an ice-cold beer in their bars. Females should probably drink stateside only along the border.
Mariscal Canyon, 12 miles, (canyon is about 10 miles long). Very scenic and very desolate. Must take spur roads off four-wheel drive, only dirt and boulder filled River Road in the park. Very scenic break in the middle of the canyon at a place called Pancho Villa Crossing, which makes for a beautiful riverside camp. Again, very remote, located within the Park at its southern-most tip.
Be alert as this camp is visited by neighboring Mexican ranchers and cowboys, all usually armed, of course. This crossing and the gentler one at Lajitas are old Comanche Indian crossings which were used by the revolutionary leader General Pancho Villa around 1915, when Mexico was experiencing a civil war. Warning: you must employ shuttle bunnies for this canyon run. In other words, your vehicle’s safety cannot be guaranteed if left riverside, either during daylight or nighttime.
Hot Springs Canyon Run, 3 miles (canyon is ½-mile long) from the beautiful 103.0° Langford Hot Springs (no camping, within ½ mile) to Rio Grande Village, a large camp-ground and RV park. Not the best scenery; class I water. Be sure and experience Hot Springs and the normally chilly 50° water of the river in February just across the low sandstone wall of the spring. Very invigorating! Inside park boundary.
Boquillas Canyon Run, 33 miles (canyon is 24-miles long) from Boquillas, Mexico, about one-mile downriver from Rio Grande Village to LaLinda, a now closed class “B” Mexican border crossing due to stealing and violence in the valley area. An old DOW Chemical Smelter plant, now closed, was used for iron, silver and cinnabar, with many buildings and homes located across the river in Mexico. Very remote. The very end of this run is located outside the Park boundary.
Interesting, the classic and beauti-ful superintendent’s home is located on the American side where the new owners operate a small cantina, a restaurant and campground. The canyon run is scenic, with easy class I-II water. Also, about one-mile off the river, on the Mexican side, is a beautiful old church, the Mission de San Vicentes.
Dryden and Regan Canyons (also known as the Lower Rio Grande Canyon Run) are located outside of the Park, but this run is designated as a ‘national wild and scenic’ stretch from LaLinda to Langtry, Texas, approximately 120 miles. This goes through the Mexican National Park on the southern bank, as well as private remote ranchlands located on both sides of the river.
Most people take out at Dryden Ranch Crossing, after 84 miles. There is a 25-mile rough dirt ranch road with locked gates and requires written permission, knowledge of the lock combinations, and a paid fee of $75 – $100.
For local information, inquire at the historic Stillwell Store on Texas Highway No. 2627, or the Ford dealership in Sanderson, Texas.
The river’s first 84 miles contains a series of fairly short, whitewater (class II-III) filled canyons. I cannot stress enough as to how remote this stretch is. No people, no roads, no cellphone service. Just miles and miles of canyons, arroya and mesa-tops, which if you are lucky and it has recently rained, will be covered with fields of blooming bluebonnets, red berry blooms from the ocotillo plant, purple blooms of many prickly pear cactus, and the shimmering tall white blossoms of yuccas and Spanish daggers.
It can get quite colorful, even after a very small amount of precipitation. Also, be on the lookout for Mexican cowboys and goat-herders. I have traveled these lower canyons a total of four times, and usually you won’t see anyone, but sometimes you have a feeling that someone is watching you from a far-off vista as you pick your way down through the many small canyons that you encounter.
Below Dryden Crossing, the only canyon left, is the nine-mile long Langtry Canyon, with class I water. The river broadens out with few riffles and is subject to nasty headwinds. However, this whole lower run is very scenic and very remote!
Don’t miss the Texas State Park and the official Roy Bean Museum at Langtry with its original bar/store building, and the bear cage where a big black bear resided. Roy Bean would commonly fine wrongdoers $5 or $10 and they would have to buy the large bear a brew also.
Of course, as a Texas Magistrate, Roy Bean, contrary to popular belief, never had legal authority, nor did he ever assess a “hanging by death” penalty during his lifetime.
Note: Although already mentioned in Part One, it is worth repeating –– You are literally in the middle of nowhere in a friendly but nonetheless ‘third world country’ on the southern riverbank. Be wary, be cautious, and be very careful.
Every plant you rub up against is either going to have razor-sharp edges or spiny thorns which will be tough to get out of you, as well as your clothing. Carry clean drinking water or be prepared to filter, boil or treat it.
As for getting ill or suffering a serious injury, this would be a very bad idea as you may be days away from help, depending on which canyon run you take. As previously mentioned, you must carry a well-stocked and complete first aid kit in a waterproof container. Such a kit should include triple-A ointment, betadine, alcohol, a lot of gauze and bandages, adhesive bandages, suture kit, and prescription drugs, such as antibiotics and narcotic pain killers to lessen the chance for shock in severe injury cases.
Yes, it seems there is always some young buck who wants to climb out on the highest rocky outcropping along the river, beat on his chest like Tarzan, and tempt fate!
One other thing, our neighbors to the south are mainly a mixture of many different Indian tribes. They, for the most part, appear to be pretty good at surviving with very few creature comforts and not a lot of extra foodstuffs. I cannot help but feel overstuffed, and a little bit guilty as I am loading up my Suburban after a river trip. I am probably hauling more ‘stuff” in my truck than most of these people will possess in their lifetime. So, this poses a dilemma, just as bird-feeding and other non-natural activities of life do.
But I usually do it anyway. If I have an extra camp chair, an older cooler, small radio, etc., I will usually place it in the shade with leftover foodstuffs like rice, pudding mixes, peanut butter, and even canned meats and canned hams. I rationalize this by saying I am making my load lighter for the long, rough haul across the desert, back to the highway. And I have a feeling that it never goes to waste.
That’s why I used to tell my kids, after dragging them through this desolate country, that they should be very thankful they were born in America. And, of course, they would give me a blank stare back, like “whatever.”
Now, get up and go visit our beautiful Ozarks outdoors!