Recommendations for Big Bend river tour
June 22, 2014 2:03 PM   Subscribe

My GF and I will be visiting Big Bend National Park in late July, and we would like to take a 2-day river tour, probably in Santa Elena Canyon (although I'd love to hear if you think a different one is better for some reason). There are several tour companies listed on the wikitravel page, but I don't know which one would be the best choice. Have you gone on such a trip, and can you recommend or caution against any particular tour company?

The prices seem to be pretty comparable between all of them, so that's not a huge consideration.

Just to give you some background, we're active late-20s / mid-30's burner types, and we're definitely going to want to do some hiking and whatnot. I've done Class IV whitewater rafting before (in Costa Rica), but she hasn't done any at all. Generally speaking, we prefer to be well away from whiny, underprepared, and inconsiderate tourists when we travel, so we don't usually do big tour groups. But for something like this we make exceptions.

The ones we've been looking at so far are:

posted by crookedgrin to Travel & Transportation around Big Bend National Park, TX (5 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
We used Desert Sports for a Santa Elena Canyon trip, probably 10-15 years ago (geez!). It was great.

We signed up for a one-night rafting trip, put in in Lajitas, takeout where the canyon opens up near the trailhead. But the Rio Grande was too low for rafts, so instead we took canoes on an in-and-back from the trailhead area. It was me and my hubs (then boyfriend) in one canoe, and our guide and all the gear in the other canoe. We are not experienced canoers and were fine. The river was so low that our safety training consisted mostly of: the first thig you do if you fall out of the canoe? Stand up. Often we could hear the sand against the hull of the canoe.

Paddled in upstream for half the day-ish, with stops at interesting side canyons, pulled out at a big sandbar/curve in the river. Our guide set up camp, and made an awesome steak dinner. We slept outside under the stars, until we got a light rain in the middle of the night, then moved into a tent.

Next morning, our guide made breakfast, packed everything up, and we went back out, exploring other side canyons. One had a seep, and was full of ferns. Further along, there was a big tinaja that you could only get past by scrambling along curved side walls. Our guide said he'd only seen kids manage it. I figured "why not?" and fell in. It was probably close to 100 degrees out, and damn that water was cold and felt so good! The Desert Sports Suburban that met us at the pull out had the AC on full blast and a cooler full of ice and sodas. Heaven.

The hubs bought a ball cap with their logo on it (he, let's say, "collects" baseball caps), and still wears that thing, even though it's beat to hell. It's one of his favorites, mostly because it reminds him of that awesome trip. It was an awesome trip.
posted by mon-ma-tron at 5:51 PM on June 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

I stayed with Far Flung in December 2012. We didn't do a river trip, just hiking and such and we stayed at the Far Flung "casitas" which were very nice. The guides were very friendly and knowledgeable and I definitely can recommend the company. Have no experience with the other contenders you mention.

To echo what mon-ma-tron says: the Rio Grande is VERY shallow, even completely dry in places at some times of the year, from what I understand. There's a very good chance you will be in canoes, not rafts, and unless things are very different in July than in December (which they might be; I think the rainy season begins sometime around July) you may even have to carry it around particularly shallow areas. I also seem to recall the guides saying that the river conditions can vary a lot from year to year --- you may want to just call up one of the tour companies and ask how things are going this summer w/r/t temperature, rainfall, and river depth.

Enjoy! Make sure you have extra water jugs in the car --- it's a long drive from anywhere, and the thought of a breakdown out there in the summer with such spotty cell service gives me the willies.
posted by slenderloris at 9:56 AM on June 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

I can't tell you much about rafting operators, but I can tell you a few things about Big Bend (a.k.a my favorite place on earth and where I want my ashes scattered). First off, it's the least visited national park in the lower 48, and July is the bottom of the season, so you probably won't be surrounded by whiny tourist types, no matter what you do.

Secondly, by the time the Grande gets to Big Bend it's been pillaged by several states for irrigation and what hasn't evaporated in the Texas summer will be rather slow-moving and shallow.

There are a number of great hikes in BBNP, and I would love to see Santa Elena from the water, as the canyon hike is only about two miles round trip. My other advice is that you MUST make time to visit Big Bend Ranch State Park right next door. There is SO MUCH to do in BBNP, but BB Ranch is a whole world unto itself and is even less-visited than the national park. It would be a shame to travel all the way out there and not get at least a day in the state park. Even if all you do is drive the Camino del Rio between Lajitas/Terlingua to Presidio
posted by Brittanie at 11:44 AM on June 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Yeah, slenderloris is right, definitely check about the water level. Our trip was in late August / early September. There are some rapids in Santa Elena canyon, downstream from Lajitas. I seem to remember reading that they're no fun / dangerous to portage over when the water is low, so that's why we ended up doing an out-and-back.

And nthing Brittanie on the remoteness. The distances between things was sort of mind-boggling to us, as east-coasters. (We loved it though, and that's one of the reasons we ended up as recovering New Englanders in New Mexico.) We didn't see another soul the whole time we were on the river.

Big Bend is amazing.
posted by mon-ma-tron at 8:43 PM on June 23, 2014

If you're staying at Chisos Lodge in Big Bend at all, I highly recommend getting one of the little freestanding CCC-built stone cabins if you can. I went back and checked our old lodge book, we managed to score cabin 103, which has killer views of the Window from the front porch.
posted by mon-ma-tron at 8:51 PM on June 23, 2014

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