Yours truly, Patrick and I, have gotten married. In adventure-us style we weren’t about to go lie about on a beach for a week for our honeymoon. No, we have been itching to go to Big Bend since we first start dating, hiking, and camping together. A week without kids, and Patrick off from work. seemed our perfect opportunity. An added bonus was going in April we hoped the park would not be experiencing it’s brutal summer temperatures.
We had a small hitch in our plans when I injured my knee while we were moving in together. A trip to the doctor and an x-ray later and I was told I had fractured my kneecap and bruised the other bones of my knee. When going up stairs you could hear grinding with every step. It was clear that depending on my knee to carry me out into the wilds and back again, would not be smart. Not to be deterred, we found a great deal on Equinox Kayaks at Costco, bought one for each of us, and decided we would kayak through Big Bend on the Rio Grande.
Another hitch in our plans happened when I came down with a cold the week of our wedding. It got so bad that I woke up the day of the wedding with no voice at all. Thankfully by our evening wedding I was able to squeak out my vows. Knowing that we would soon be far from medical attention I started a course of antibiotics and hoped the infection wasn’t viral. So with a cracked kneecap and no voice, we strapped the kayaks to the roof of the minivan and settled in for the roughly eight hour drive from Dallas to Big Bend.
Big Bend National Park
The first thing you will notice about Big Bend National Park if you’ve never been there is it is B.I.G. To drive from one end of the park to the other will take you over an hour on the 45mph curving roads. The second thing you will notice is that it is desert. Not just dry like the ground of Texas Hill Country but full-on cactus loving desert. The third are the gorgeous worn away mountains and canyons that ripple through the park.
The geology of those mountains and canyons is one of the most diverse around. The land of big bend has been under a constant onslaught of changes for the last 400 million years. This means it is incredibly diverse. From ocean troughs, to warm seas, to earthquakes, volcanoes, and common erosion, all these things had a part in forming the land that is Big Bend today. It is worth reading the park services page on the geology of the area before visiting so that you can recognize all the different rocks, soils, and mountains and understand how they came to lay in the positions they are today.
When looking out at the desert you would be excused for thinking that no one could possibly survive in such a harsh climate. You would be wrong though. Humans have continuously occupied the area for about 10,000 years! When humans first moved to the area it was much cooler and was forested with heavy trees. However, even in it’s current state, the land offers plenty of sustenance to those who know what to look for. So many of the plants are not only edible, but are useful for things like baskets, mats, shelter, dyes, tool production, medicines, and even candles. From the yucca plant with it’s edible fruit, seeds, and leaves, with roots useful for both soap and medicine, to the prickly pear with it’s sweet fruit and pads that will soothe a wound, spines removed first of course, this desolate looking landscape is actually a land of plenty.
Today there are not many grasslands left in the park but that is a man-caused desolation not environment-caused. Big Bend once supported large ranches. Unfortunately, grazing on those ranches caused massive erosion, and today, what used to be a vast arid grassland, has only smaller patches of grass left. Restorations projects in the past have tried and failed to bring back the grasses but a new ongoing project is proving promising. Planted grasses have been successfully returning year after year, and even spreading in some areas, after much trial and error. Some day visitors to Big Bend may, instead of bare ground, see grass filling the space between cacti and other desert plants.
Our Kayaking Adventure
Ready to Launch- Day 1
After a night at a hotel in Alpine, and a two hour drive in, we arrived at the Castalon Ranger Station at about 10:30am ready to purchase our back country permit and get on the river. Unfortunately for us, the Castalon station’s internet was down and they were unable to issue us a permit. They directed us to drive to the closest other ranger station, Panther Juction, and being the huge park that Big Bend is, that entailed an hour and a half round trip drive. So after much running around we arrived at the Santa Elena Take-out with our back country permits.
Pulling into the parking lot we saw a sign that said the area was day use only. After seeing other signs in the park later on in our trip that specifically prohibited overnight parking, we later realized this sign only meant that the picnic area was not a campsite. We were concerned when we parked there that they may have meant no overnight parking, but with no other place to conveniently put in, and it getting so late in the day that if we delayed any longer we’d have to wait until the next day, we decided to risk it.
While Patrick unloaded the kayaks from the van I got our lunch, chicken fajitas, simmering on our canister stove. By the time the kayaks were unloaded and packed for the river lunch was ready. We ate our meal under one of the area’s shaded picnic pavilions, a welcome relief from the noon day sun of the unseasonably hot April day. Around 1pm, after a quick cleanup, we were finally ready to launch.
Thanks to a rainstorm the day before we arrived, the river levels were higher than normal for us. When we put in at Castalon the gauges that day were reading about 150cfs and around 3 feet. Normally, unlike much of the rest of the country, April is a dry time of year in Big Bend. The highest river water levels are typically in late summer to early fall, during and immediately after monsoon season. Prior to the rainstorm the flow was a sluggish 32 cfs and by the time we exited the river two days later the flow had already dropped back down to 51 cfs.
While the increased river flow would have made paddling downstream much more fun, it made an upstream trip, our planned route, that much harder. Since we only had one vehicle and weren’t using a shuttle our plan was to paddle up the Santa Elena Canyon and back down a couple days later. With the river at 150 cfs the trip was just possible. At flows faster than 200 cfs I think paddling upstream would be very hard if not impossible. While the rapids we encountered were tiny, we quickly realized there was no way we would be able to paddle upstream through them. So within a short time of setting off, we found ourselves getting out of our boats multiple times to walk them upstream through rapids.
Before reaching the canyon the sun is pretty brutal so all this walking in the river actually helped keep us cool. Nevertheless, when we spotted the shaded opening to the canyon we eagerly paddled forward.
Entering the Canyon
It took us about an hour to paddle/drag our boats up to the canyon itself. The opening is stark and impressive. The walls crowd in and soar overhead and the coolness and darkness of the shadows are almost a shock to the system after the glaring hot sun of the open river downstream. At the very mouth of the canyon (or tail as this was technically the downstream end), there is a hiking trail that gives the landlocked crowd a taste of the canyon. As we paddled past them their voices echoed over the water. Once we passed the first bend though, all sounds of people faded away and we were met with the quiet of the canyon.
Despite sounds echoing in the canyon it is remarkably quiet there. Except for sections were there are rapids the river flows silently. When on a twist of the river that the wind doesn’t reach, the only sounds are the splash of your paddles, the squeaks of bats sleeping in the canyon walls, and the mocking calls of the canyon dwelling birds. With every stroke of the paddle we drifted further in and felt the stress of the month leading up to our wedding, drift further away.
We saw very few people as we paddled upstream. One canoe overtook us as we took a small break and we passed another family camping on the banks of the river. That was all on the first day and after that we never saw another person.
When we entered the canyon it was after 2pm so after a another couple hours paddling we started looking for a campsite. Unfortunately, on the downstream end of the canyon all the possible sites were on the Mexican side where we were not allowed to camp. After 6pm, we finally came to several great camping areas with nice rocky shores, and higher level grassy areas. With relief we pulled in and set up camp at a spot with our own personal fertility god.
As we ate our dinner of Coconut Chicken Curry that night, the bats were out sweeping the canyon like fighter jets gobbling up any insect foolish enough to venture out. I know a lot of people do not like bats but as a mosquito magnet, I love them. Normally I cannot sit outside at dusk without being eaten alive. One evening, in a mosquito infested area, I stepped outside for less than five minutes and was literally bitten over seventy times. The nights we spent in the canyon I did not get one mosquito bite despite having no repellent on at all.
The weather was also ideal. While it was warm during the day the shade of the high canyon walls made it comfortable and as evening fell the temperature dropped into the 70’s. We laid outside our tent and watched the bats as the night fell.
When the day had completely faded the canyon revealed another of it’s treats, beautiful stars. Against the charcoal night the milky way shone white and the millions of stars, invisible in the suburbs, added their light to the sky. The only other place I had witness such a beautiful celestial show was the middle of the ocean. Somehow though, the canyon’s stars seemed more dramatic, framed as they were by the inky blackness of the canyon walls.
We awoke to the now familiar sounds of the canyon birds and the flow of the river. Day starts slowly in the canyon with the sun not able to shine into it until midday. We adapted to the pace and enjoyed the peaceful surroundings while we sipped our tea and ate our Breakfast Burritos.
After breakfast we packed up and set off to explore upstream. We planned to try to reach Rock Slide rapids that day but as we started paddling I realized I had a problem. Our kayaks had been designed for a man’s torso size and with my shorter frame I had been lifting my shoulders to clear the sides of the boat while paddling the whole first day. Now, as I tried to paddle my shoulders where popping with every stroke sending a shooting pain down my arms. Thankfully, by sitting on top of our extra life jacket I found a more ergonomic position. After the adjustment, my arms still felt sore but the popping abated and the exercise began loosening the stiffness of my shoulders.
We paddled upriver all morning enjoying the scenery of the canyon. We marveled at how green the plants in the canyon were compared to the surrounding dessert. There were also a surprising amount of wild edibles. The huge boulders bordering the river, some as big as house, were something we tried to avoid thinking about because we knew they had fallen from thousands of feet above us. When we stopped for lunch, we were reminded that rocks could fall at anytime as evidenced by the basketball size rock sitting on the muddy beach with it’s fresh imprints of where it had struck the mud and rolled to it’s current position.
Around 2 pm we were down to just two and a half gallons of water. We didn’t want to go further out in case it took longer than anticipated to get back downriver. We had a Sawyer water filter with us but with the recent rains, the Rio Grande was very muddy and the filter would probably have clogged.
In hindsight, we could have continued on because our downstream trip was much faster. The water had lowered quite a bit from it’s post-rain high of over 3 feet at Castalon down to 2.5 feet in just a day. Even though it was low I was able to glide over almost all the rocks of the rapids. Patrick, being heavier did get stuck more often but was able to scoot off the rocks most of the time and didn’t have to walk his boat anymore. Without all the in and outs we made it back to our campsite of the night before by 4pm.
After another relaxing night in the canyon we packed up and headed downstream the next day. We left around 8:30 in the morning and arrived at the Santa Elena Takeout at about noon. By the time we loaded up and drove out to Rio Grande Village for our second kayaking trip up Boquillas Canyon it was too late in the day to launch the boats. There is no camping for a couple miles upstream of Rio Grande Village and we would not be able to paddle that far upstream before dark. We elected to camp in the Rio Grande Village campsite and put our boats in the next morning.
That night we sorely missed the cool confines of Santa Elena Canyon. The air at Rio Grande Village was stifling and there was no hint of a breeze. We spent a sweaty night sleeping and woke up eager to get on the water.
The next morning we put our kayaks in a Rio Grande Village. A short paddle later we had entered a canyon. This canyon was not nearly as deep as Santa Elena and unfortunately did not keep the sun from hitting us. Splashing water on our long sleeve shirts and long pants helped keep us cool though.
The canyon was pretty with its mix of evergreen and deciduous trees. The green lushness of the vegetation next to the river was a pretty contrast to the red canyon walls. But by far the best sight of our trip through the canyon was the horses running wild.
As we rounded a bend we saw them grazing on the US bank. We beached our kayaks and got out to see them close up. As we were taking pictures we heard a whinny from the Mexican Bank and turned to see a stallion come thundering toward the shore of the river. There he reared and then thundered across to challenge the stallion on our side. In awe we watched them spar not 50 yards from us. Rearing up, kicking, and biting until the new stallion had exerted his dominance.
Still in disbelief of the wild sight we had just witnessed we got back in our kayaks and paddled on. Before the morning was half over we had paddled out of the canyon and reached hot springs.
Hot springs is hard to miss both because of the hot springs rapid right in front of it and the fact that it is usually crowded with people bathing in the ruins of the old bathhouse. We pulled out boats up on some rocks near the bathhouse and I climbed into the ruins for a good soak. It felt great after days in the wild.
From there we paddled up the supposed wild and scenic river. We found that instead of wild and scenic it should have been named monotonous and boring. After leaving the canyon there was nothing but the same vegetation bordering the river and gray colorless rocky ground beyond dotted with a few scraggly trees and plants. Besides the odd donkey peeking from the trees there was nothing to break the monotony of the landscape not even rapids or baffles in the river. Worse in this stretch of river there was nothing on the banks to shade us from the beating of the hot dessert sun.
We reached the gravel pit campsite around lunchtime. While we were now allowed to camp we found we had no desire to stay in this barren landscape. The campsite is aptly named as it is just a stopping off point on the gravel road with some deeper trenches of gravel. Not only was there not a spec of shade but the ground was so rocky that we couldn’t even put up a tarp to shade under while we ate our lunch.
Over lunch we decided we would head back to Rio Grande Village and start our drive home a day early. This campsite was not appealing in the least and with the thick vegetation bordering the river there was no real chance of finding an undesignated one. While hot springs did bubble from the bank of the river in different places the thick vegetation on the banks and the sludgey mud meant they were impossible to enjoy. In hindsight we wished we had stayed in Santa Elena canyon, with it’s peaceful and picturesque surroundings, for our whole trip.
As with our other trip downstream this one went fast as well. The rapids further downstream were easy but still fun to traverse. We past our horse friends on our way down and noted that the challenging stallion was now leading the herd. We arrived at Rio Grande Village with just a couple hours of paddling.
Overall it was an amazing trip and made for a much better honeymoon than the typical destination of a tropical resort. We loved our peaceful and relaxing days and nights in the Santa Elena canyon. Seeing the wild horses was an amazing highlight of our second leg of our journey. The hot springs were also great and so much better than a man made hot tub.
If you’re planning a trip through Big Bend on the Rio Grande our advice would be to stick to the canyons!