Santa Elena Canyon Paddle Trip – Rio Grande River – Big Bend National Park, Texas

Some time ago the family and I went down to Big Bend National Park for my daughter’s birthday. We had many adventures while we were there (all of which I plan to share with you someday), but our most anticipated adventure was a paddle trip into Santa Elena Canyon. Something I have always wanted to do was paddle the Rio Grande so when we made plans for Big Bend I knew a paddle trip had to be on the itinerary. With my daughter present I knew we had to keep it safe and simple. I checked the flow gages for the Rio Grande and discovered there was too little water for most of the trips available in the Big Bend region. I checked several guides and called around and eventually decided we would paddle up river into Santa Elena Canyon to see Fern Canyon. According to everyone I spoke to that would be one of the only paddle trips with enough water to keep it enjoyable. Not only that, but Fern Canyon was supposed to be a beautiful side canyon two miles upstream with “ferns growing where water is seeping out of the canyon walls.”

Santa Elena viewed from the inside looking down stream.

I’m sad to say we never made it to Fern Canyon. Our first mistake was renting an inflatable kayak. Those things are worthless. We always take our Dagger and Perception with us and prefer them over renting, but on this particular trip my wife’s teenage brother was with us, so we needed a third kayak. Nobody in the area rents anything but inflatable’s, which I am sure are great, but not when you are paddling upstream. The thing would not track at all and my brother in law was having the hardest time keeping up with the rest of us. I eventually ended up giving my kayak to my wife so she could paddle with my daughter. My brother in law then got my wife’s perception, and I ended up with the inflatable. It was hard work paddling the inflatable, but I thought, at least now we could continue upstream. I really wanted to see Fern Canyon.

My family and that dreaded inflatable kayak.

It wasn’t long before the water became too shallow to continue. We tried to get out and drag the boats for awhile but the soft muddy river bottom made this extremely difficult. No one was having any fun and it was evident. I eventually gave in to my family’s constant requests to turn back after one short mile. It seemed I was the only one that wanted to see Fern Canyon bad enough to continue. Everyone was relieved when I finally gave permission to turn back. In their defense…it was a pretty miserable trip.

We pulled off to the side to enjoy some lunch.

The NPS list the upstream paddle to Fern Canyon as “quite leisurely.,, If the water level is low” adding “you do not have to fight the current much going upstream.” This is a lie If you plan to rent inflatable’s from area outfitters. The water was as low as it gets on our trip and the inflatable couldn’t handle even the slightest bit of current. Keep this in mind and rent somewhere else and bring the boats in yourself. Also be prepared to drag through the mud if the water level is low.

 At times it looked like the river just ended with a solid wall of rock.

I hope…no, I will go back some day and do a proper trip down the Rio Grande. There is so much river down there. I may never get to do it all. But this last trip didn’t satisfy my desire to paddle the Rio Grande. So there will be a trip in the future.

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11 thoughts on “Santa Elena Canyon Paddle Trip – Rio Grande River – Big Bend National Park, Texas”

  1. The pictures look great – but it sucks you didn't have the best time… with the inflatable kayak. You're right, they're much better going downstream in rapids than trying to cut upstream.

  2. I'm sure they are very forgiving in swift current. Unfortunately for us, Texas rapids are interrupted with long pools of calm water. For this reason I will never own a boat without decent tracking ability. Thanks for reading.

  3. Bummer. I've never used inflatable kayaks. But I can see how they wouldn't be good in a current. There seems to be a huge demand for them out here with the lakes (and that they are cheaper). I look forward to hearing about your next trip on the Rio Grande.

  4. I couldn't imagine an inflatable in open water like a lake. The few times i have taken my river runners out on area lakes I worked my tail off. I prefer long narrow kayaks that track well for open water. Much like the ones you (Casey) recently bought. Texas rivers need something in between…short enough for the rapids…long enough for the calm pools. Maybe that is a future post?…the unique boating needs of Texas Rivers.

  5. Hi, sorry to resurrect this old post… however, this has some very interesting info and I am planning an overnight kayak trip down to Big Bend around new years with my gf (I'll be flying). May I ask what kind of inflatable kayak you rented? I plan on bringing my own inflatable and I really want to know if it's feasible or not, I have a pretty respectable sea-eagle fast-track that I've used in ocean kayaking against currents. Does the kayak you rented felt like a solid inflatable? did it have a skeg? what about firm floor? Also, how cold was the water (I assume it was around Feburary), would there be risks of hypothermia? Thanks for the information and I appreciate any comments.

  6. The inflatable I rented was nothing like a solid. It did not have a skeg, nor a firm floor. What part of the River do you plan on doing? Most of the canyons have some pretty serious white water. Combine that with the remoteness of the area and it is a recipe for disaster. If you are planning a calm water trip you should be fine, even in February. The nights will be cold, but the days could be warm (but not guaranteed). I would be prepared with warm clothes in dry bags. Be sure to do your homework. Have fun.

  7. Thanks for the reply! Ah, it looks like the rental you had wasn't that great of an inflatable then (not that I'd expect the rental place to offer anything decent). Yes from googling I saw lots of mentioning of rapids, and I definitely do plan on avoiding them. Do you have any recommendations on which areas are the safest and calmest? I was hoping to go near the Santa Elena Canyon area and perhaps to Fern Canyon because it really just looks amazing (your pictures look great! and the water looks pretty calm. ), and also I plan on doing a round trip thing ( going upstream first and then kayaking back), just to be safe.

  8. If you paddle upstream into Santa Elena you will be fine as long as there is enough water. Texas has been in a pretty bad drought for several years. Mexico doesn't care and keeps irrigating the water from the Rio Grand. It is very likely the water will be too low to paddle and your trip could turn into a wet hike. Check with the ranger office closer to your trip and they will be able to tell you about water conditions.

    If there is enough water you wont encounter any rapids going upstream to Fern Canyon. But you will need a kayak that tracks well to paddle upstream.

    If the water is too low I recomend Backpacking the Chisos as plan B. Feburary is a graeat time in the Mountinas.

    Enjoy your trip and thank you for checking out MyLifeOutdoors.

  9. Got here from BBChat. I was in touch w/ Far Flung about a kayak. They have the inflatable and cohoes. I really like a kayak so I'm leaning towards bringing my Wilderness Systems Pungo 120. Any idea what the flow rate or level was during your float? It's currently around 5' at Presidio and 367 cvs. I'll be paddling one day next week and plan on a solo trip and trying to get to the Rock Slide. If there's a lot of mud dragging I'm not sure if I'll get that far plus the cool temps. Anyway, any estimates of flow rate and river level for your trip would benefit the planning of my trip. Thanks!

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