Whitewater rafting the Rio Grande in March

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
Week of March 5-11, 1998
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Whitewater rafting the Rio Grande in March
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Whitewater rafting the Rio Grande in March
Question: I am looking forward to a canoe trip to Big Bend this Spring Break (March 14-21). Are the water levels unusually high this year because of all the recent rain? I have whitewater experience but want to be able to take one or two beginners without worrying about getting wet. I also want to take a four-day trip but don't know which canyon to take. And in general, how much water does one take per day in a canoe?

Devin Ginther
Bryan, TX

Adventure Adviser: Good old unpredictable El Niño has left the Rio Grande surprisingly benign. In fact, as of March 1 water levels were normal, if not a little low.

But a lot can happen in three weeks, so be sure to check in with a visitor's center 24 hours before your trip to hear the latest water levels as well as obtain your free, but mandatory, permit. You might want to call Big Bend National Park at 915-477-2251 for tips on rafting and camping in the park.

One cautionary word: March 14-21 is one of Big Bend's busiest weekends of the year. Spring Breakers head there in droves, so be prepared for RV-lined roads filled with happy-to-be-free college students. As far as drinking water goes, a good rule is to have 2 gallons per person per day.

There are four canyons in Big Bend, all of which provide spectacular scenery and a few thrills. Boquillas, the longest and deepest canyon, is an ideal three-day trip and is a pretty mild option for beginners. Santa Elena is probably the best-known and most dramatic canyon, but you can only stretch it into a two-day trip at best.

Mariscol Canyon usually takes two to three days, but, depending on the water level, may be a bit too much for your beginner companions. The only other option is the Lower Canyon, a seven-day whitewater thrill ride, probably not a good idea for your group's experience level. In general, the Rio Grande runs pretty slow between canyons and is a mix of Class II-IV in the canyons. Be prepared for tricky wall shots where the water flows in such a manner that it will pin your boat up against a sheer cliff wall.

You may be a cash-strapped college kid, but I recommend you consider taking advantage of one of the following guide outfits that operate on the Rio Grand so you don't have to take responsibility for your beginner crew: Far Flung Adventures (800-359-4138), Big Bend River Tours (800-545-4240), Outback Expeditions (800-343-1640), and Texas River Expeditions (800-839-7238).

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