Thanks to my new best friends at Big Bend River Tours, I can now say I’ve floated – and for approximately one of the trip’s 21 miles, rowed – on the Rio Grande. The water was more than high enough for a raft trip – 6-7 feet, according to our intrepid guides Jason (seen here in the green shirt) and Andy. When it’s too low for rafting, they take canoes. And when it’s too low for canoes, they recommend a nice hike in Big Bend National Park.
Since the only other “whitewater” trip I’ve ever been on was in Colorado, where we just kind of guided the raft through the rapids like a theme-park ride, I was amazed that our guides had to row the entire seven or eight hours we were on the river, reverting to “guiding” through whitewater only once, at a beloved Santa Elena Canyon juncture known as Rock Slide. Here’s Andy at the beginning west of Lajitas, not yet sweating too much.
The undisputed highlight of any Santa Elena Canyon rafting trip is the canyon itself, a fast-moving seven-mile stretch along the squiggly line carved through the Mesa de Anguila. The name means “Eel Mesa,” I think because when the sun gets behind it and turns the whole thing black, it looks like an eel moving across the flat Chihuahuan desert.
If you enjoy being on the water and the thousand colors rocks can take on in the changing sunlight, the all-day Santa Elena Canyon trip is the one for you. There are half-day trips that do other things, and even overnight and multi-night trips that involve camping. But the all-day may well be your best introduction to the world of the Rio Grande.
And… if you get hungry, your guides will find a place where the rock provides shade (even if it’s only a few inches and you have to suck in your stomach to get out of the hot sun) and set up a fairly impressive riverside lunch.
It may not exactly be a cover shot for Food & Wine, but after floating and rowing and riding in the sun all morning and then “surviving” a fast run through the whitewater at Rock Slide, this lunch beside the Rio Grande tastes like Michelin-starred chefs fixed it for you.