Lower Canyons Of The Rio Grande, Texas Canoe Expedition Reflections

Rio Grande scenery, with smooth water reflecting the sky.

Recently I joined up with two almuni in west Texas to canoe the 83-mile lower canyons of the Rio Grande river. We put in at Heath Canyon Ranch near La Linda, and paddled/poled/dragged 83 miles downriver to Dryden Crossing. It was a hard trip, marked by low water levels and headwinds, but the scenery was like nothing I’ve ever seen before.

First, the water levels. They were low. Locals said they’ve been low since they finished building a dam on the Rio Conchos in Mexico. Above the confluence with the Rio Conchos, the Rio Grande is often completely dry. The rivers are managed for agriculture and hydro-power, not for tourism or the ecology of the riparian zone. Link: More on the water levels of the Rio Grande and Rio Conchos.

What that meant for us was dragging across gravel bars, and lots of it, as well as a lack of current in the main river channel. When rivers get low, they often develop something I call a “pond and drop” hydrology. Long stretches of river with no gradient turn into ponds with no current, separated by sections where shallow water runs down over gravel bars of varying lengths, often without enough water to float a boat. This is what we found for the first half of the river. We were fortunate to get a bit more water on the lower river, allowing us to pole through shallow rips. But we definitely didn’t run the bigger rapids, as there was nowhere near enough water. This meant carrying twice and lining once. Of the 83 miles, about four were easy; the rest, on account of stiff headwinds and very little current, took significant work and was slow going.

This was my first desert paddling trip. There were no bugs to speak of, and no rain. We made camp along the river and slept out under the stars each night, even though we had two tents with us. We brought a portable toilet and packed out our poop, a fire pan to minimize campfire scars on the land, and a propane cook stove instead of cooking over an open fire.

The scenery was amazing. 1500 foot cliffs routinely rose straight up from the river. Once we passed through the outlaw flats, the remaining 50 miles were spent at the bottom of a series of named canyons. I’ve got a lot of photos and some videos, and will be posting them.

Overall, it was a fun and satisfying trip. I had an absolute blast sharing the river with friends, and the camps at night were full of laughter and shenanigans. I’d definitely do the trip again, but with the caveat that I’d want a bit more water next time. There are other rivers in the area, as well as other canyons on the Rio Grande, that I want to explore. Although no hard plans have been made, our small group of desert adventurers have been discussing the lower Pecos river, as well as some of the upper canyons of the Rio Grande, for next winter.

If you go, you need permits from the national park service to float and camp on the river, as well as a permit to takeout at a private ranch at Dryden Crossing. You’ll also have to track down a vechicle shuttle, or spend an extra day shuttling vehicles yourself.

Exploring out of the way places by canoe is one of my favorite things (along with raindrops on roses, whiskers on kittens and brown paper packages tied up with strings). Getting to do so with old friends, with great weather, amazing scenery was a huge bonus. Low water made it challenging, but at the end of the day I like a challenge. In all, it was a great trip and I’m richer for having done it.


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