Big Bend National Park Travel Guide
Boating and Rafting
Much is made of the park's hiking trails and the exquisite views they offer. Likewise, the watery pathway that is the Rio Grande should be mentioned for the spectacular views it affords. The 118 miles of the Rio Grande that border the park form its backbone, defining the vegetation, landforms, and animals found at the park's southern rim. By turns shallow and deep, the river flows through stunning canyons and picks up speed over small and large rapids.
Alternately soothing and exciting (Class II and III rapids develop here, particularly after the summer rains), the river can be traversed in several ways, from guided rafting tours to more strenuous kayak and canoe expeditions. In general, rafting trips spell smoother sailing for families, though thrills are inherent when soaring over the river's meringuelike tips and troughs. Always respect this river, however, for fatalities have occurred. Be sure to check the river levels before planning an outing—many times during the year the river's too low to get a decent rafting experience. Conversely, during an especially wet monsoon season (as in 2013), the river rises to levels that even guides won’t challenge.
You can bring your own raft to the boat launch at the Rio Grande, but you must obtain a $10 river-use permit (which allows you to camp along the river) from a visitor center. Leave the Jet Skis at home; no motorized vehicles are allowed on the Rio Grande. For less fuss, go with a tour guide or outfitter on trips that range from a few hours to several days. Most outfitters are in the communities of Study Butte, Terlingua, and Lajitas, just west of the park boundary off Route 170. They rent rafts, canoes, kayaks, and inflatable kayaks (nicknamed "duckies") for when the river is low. Their guided trips cost in the tens of dollars to thousands of dollars. Personalized river tours are available all year, and because this is the Lone Star State, they might include gourmet rafting tours that end with beef Wellington and live country music. Though many of the rafting trips are relatively smooth, thus safe for younger boaters, be sure to tell the equipment-rental agent or guide if a party member weighs less than 100 pounds or more than 200, because special life jackets may be necessary.