A Mexican/American Classic: Canoeing the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande

Posted by Spalding Hurst

September 8, 2009


By Axel Thomsen
American Whitewater

I would like to nominate the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande as the best multi-day backcountry whitewater canoe trip in the United States. It has the distance to make the trip long enough: 84 miles, to be done in 6-8 days—long enough to forget about the world for a while. Long enough that you’d really need to carry lots of food and gear. But then it often does not have the water to be paddled by rafts. When we did it we had 250 cfs at the put-in. That leaves a touring kayak or a canoe, and the whitewater difficulty is just right for open boating. So especially if you like to eat well in the wilderness, getting together a small group of canoeists for a week to head down the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande is about as good as it gets. Yet few people venture out to experience this run, so let me tell the story of our trip and compare it to a run more people may know.

The character of the run is that of a desert canyon—the Grand Canyon of the Colorado comes to mind, but there are a few differences. So let me describe the river in terms that the Grand Canyon paddler is familiar with. First the permit. Instead of a lifetime wait, we simply register with the Park Rangers at Big Bend and in 10 minutes we are good to go. If you arrive after hours, you self-register.

The put in is opposite the ghost town of La Linda, Mexico, abandoned maybe 30 years ago when the mine closed. Maybe in 100 years it will look like the Lee’s Ferry historical district. The first day of the trip is spent on fairly flat water in open country. Gravel bars form rapids at this low water, since often there is only 250 cfs of flow and not the 25,000 cfs the canyon runner may be used to. We paddle through minor canyons, the big walls are farther away from the river. Furnace Flats comes to mind.

Day two continues in this way, until finally near the end of the day the canyon walls start closing in. Wonderful sandy beaches await paddlers, just like in the Grand Canyon. Unlike your average Canyon trip though, no other groups have been seen so far, and this is the busy season— spring break. During the third day we are now in the depth of the canyon. The walls are rising 1500 feet—short of the 5000 feet of the more famous Canyon, yet still very impressive. We pull in for an early stop because we have reached Silber Canyon and Asa Jones pumphouse. Silber Canyon makes for a neat exploration with some serious climbing—Silver Grotto comes to mind. Across the river is a hot springs. Everyone soothes paddling muscles and we replenish our water supply. This surely beats the lukewarm murky waters of Pumpkin Springs. Next to and above our campsite are the ruins of an old wax making operation. The candelaria plant was boiled here to extract wax. Commercially more successful than Beamers mining attempts in the Grand Canyon.

On day 4 we soon get to the first major rapid – Hot Springs rapid. It is very rocky at this low water so we decide to line. After all, a loaded tandem canoe is very hard to unpin and we are right in the middle of the canyon. A Grand Canyon equivalent? Hance comes to mind, being kind of rocky, or Crystal, being the second hardest rapid on the run. A solo canoeist successfully negotiates the left side chute. After we successfully line our three loaded boats, we enjoy a soak in the hot springs. There are two other groups in camp so later in the day we continue on. The section from here down to San Francisco Canyon is the nicest part, kind of like the roaring 20s—20 miles with seven rapids of Class II and above. And remember, Class II for a loaded open boat is really like a Class IV for a raft or a kayak—lots of fun, but not too hairy. After all, this place is very, very remote. We paddle down to the Bullis Fold through Bullis Fold rapid, a Class II rapids with lots of boulders requiring a good line. The geology in this area is impressive, the rock strata look bent and tortured. Another campsite on a wonderful sandbar is right below.

The next day we paddle through Las Palmas rapid, then a little later Rodeo rapid. What looks like a simple ledge drop is rough enough to fill up one of our loaded canoes and sink it. And a few miles later we arrive at Upper Madison Falls. Being the hardest rapid on the run, the comparison has to be Lava Falls. We have the same excitement as we approach the falls, but it is a big rock jumble and there is not sufficient water to paddle our canoes through. The intrepid solo canoeist manages to run the rapid, but it is not pretty as he grinds over many rocks. We scout for a while. Then we go through the standard procedure of eddying out right above the entrance rapid, letting kids and wives walk from here, then paddling the boats to the middle bay from where we can portage 200 yards past the crux of the rapid. Everything has to come out of the boat, and be carried over a rocky trail to an eddy below. It is an hour of hard hot labor. Later we watch as another group successfully lines their emptied boats through the jumble. The only Grand Canyon comparison for this was when we had to flip over a fully loaded raft at House Rock rapid and could only do it after un- loading it while upside down. Memorable and fun in retrospect…. We camp right below Upper Madison.

The next morning a few of us do what I would consider the best hike on the Rio Grande, up Burro Bluff. From there you have a view down onto Upper Madison falls from 1000 feet above. Very cool. Not quite as cool as my favorite Grand Can- yon hike—to Thunder River—I have to admit. Three miles below Upper Madison we have Lower Madison, and again the low water makes it very risky to run. Horn Creek comes to mind, a rapid that requires a precise entry and making the right move. Fortunately the lining looks easy, too, so that is what we do (not a good place to pin a boat!).

We have a few more fun rapids, another night in the depth of the canyon, another side canyon to explore. It still feels like the middle of the trip. Yet when we paddle on the next morning the canyon walls drop noticeably. Two more Class IIs are negoti- ated and by the late afternoon we reach the take out at Dryden Crossing. Our shuttle drivers delivered the car to this place in the middle of nowhere. An hour on a dirt road takes us to Dryden—kind of like the drive from Diamond Creek to Peach Springs… and a few hours later we are back home.

So, when your number didn’t come up for the Grand Canyon yet again, there is a fun place to go to experience the beauty of a remote desert canyon. Load up your canoe and head down the Lower Canyons. Only if the water is too high, take a raft instead.

Thanks to Louis Aulbach for an excellent guidebook and Ted Thayer for shuttle ser- vice. Note that the 2008 Rio Grande flood changed the Rio Grande Village gauge sig- nificantly, so all old rules about proper wa- ter levels need to be adjusted. I’d say canoe between 200 and 1000 cfs.

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