Wednesday, March 21, 2018

February 20 - Day 6 in Big Bend National Park - Paddling the Santa Elana Canyon

Cindy and I had been keeping an eye on the weather forecasts for the last few days trying to decide which day would be best for our paddling trip on the Rio Grande River into the Santa Elena Canyon. A couple of days ago, we decided on today, so yesterday we stopped by the Chisos Basin visitor center to get our permit. Permits are free, but required by the park. The park ranger went over all of the rules including the one about not setting foot on the Mexican side except in case of emergency.

We left our camp site early in hopes of being the first boat on the river - and we were. We didn't see anyone else on the river until we started heading back - and we only saw 5 people total. Two were on paddle boards (I got then on video) and 3 were in canoes. The put in area is the same place as we began the hike a couple of days ago. The boat we have is the inflatable Sevylor Colorado. I bought it several years ago before Cindy and I met and I guess Coleman has since bought them out since all the links take me to the Coleman site. It looks like the design has changed somewhat and the current model doesn't come with some of the accessories I got. It's a good fit for us since it packs fairly small deflated and fits easily in our travel trailer. It took us about 30 minutes of prep and inflating, then we were off!

our Sevylor Colorado

The plan was to paddle up river to a place called Fern Canyon, then float back down to this same put in spot. The paddling wasn't too bad to begin with, but as we got a little deeper into the canyon, the head winds picked up and we had to work a little harder to keep our forward momentum. River levels were very low and there were sections of river all along the way where it was easier to just get out and pull the boat.

There were several places to get out along the way and we took advantage of most of them. We were in no particular hurry, and the only deadline we had was to be out by dark. Plus, the scenery is so spectacular through the canyon. Who would want to hurry?! The park web site says the canyon has walls up to 1500' high, but I don't want to guess how high this section is. Cindy and the boat are in a few shots for scale. The next shots below are from our stop with a view of Smuggler's Cave in the background. The cave is on the Mexican side of the river and if you Google for images, you should see pictures of people that have climbed up to it. That wasn't happening today.

looking up river towards Smuggler's Cave
Smuggler's Cave

looking down river from Smuggler's Cave
There was one spot between here and our destination - Fern Canyon - that was particularly difficult for us to get past. The river splits into 2 riffles with an island in between. I was able to pull the boat up along the edge of one of the riffles to the top side of the island. We waded out as far as we could trying to stay in the middle of the split water flow, and then hopped in the boat and paddled as hard as we could to break free into calmer waters. The current was strong and the head winds turned the boat around twice and sent us back down one of the riffles. Strong winds and inflatables aren't a good combination - along with our inexperience as paddlers. We were almost ready to give it up, but decided to give it one more shot - and we made it! I think if Cindy hears "paddle, paddle, PADDLE!!" one more time, there will be a paddle deposited somewhere the sun doesn't shine 😬

We got to Fern Canyon early afternoon. At least we figured it was Fern Canyon (we confirmed later that it was). It's not like there are any signs or anything. The only thing we knew was the canyon was on the Mexican side - and this one was. We pulled up on the American side a little past the canyon and explored the area a bit, trying to see what was around the next bend. I crossed the river and went back to Fern Canyon to see if it could be explored. (I know, the ranger said not to go on the Mexico side and I'm sorry - I'll try to do better next time.) A larger boulder kind of blocked the mouth of the canyon. I could have climbed over it to continue, but figured our time might be better spent enjoying the rest of the river. The next photo is looking back towards Fern Canyon.

From the same spot as I took that shot, looking to my right is what's called Arch Canyon. I didn't know that until we got back.

Arch Canyon

I also took some video both while we were stopped and while we were floating back down river. I haven't processed that yet, but will post it to my YouTube Channel when I do. We hung around this area for quite a while before deciding that we should head back. Floating back down was obviously much easier and quicker than paddling up. We stopped on the way back down also to take advantage of the afternoon light and to extend the experience as long as we could. These next photos are our last stop which is just beyond the point in the canyon you can get to by hiking the trail.

looking down river
looking down river
looking up river

looking up river
We still had a lot to see in the park over the next week, but looking back, this was definitely the highlight of the trip! Do it if you get the chance.

1 comment:

  1. How amazing to have the river and canyon to yourself for much of the day! What a beautiful place. Those last shots looking back up river with the afternoon light are so pretty.