Outbound Collective logo

Raft through Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend

Terlingua, Texas



21 miles

Route Type



Added by Sara Beirne

Raft through Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park- a 21 mile stretch of the most beautiful part of the world. Easy when water levels are high, canoeing is recommended when water is lower.

Five days prior to Labor Day weekend of 2017 we were the crazy ones who decided to raft on the Rio Grande when we heard it jumped up to a flow of 10,000 cubic feet per second. This was one of the first times in 10 years that the water had ever been this high. 

The 3 of us had canoed this stretch before- some of us multiple times. Usually the water is slow and low and the boats drag through some sections. Typically this 21 mile stretch is spread over a 3-4 night/day trip. This time it was to a be a one night trip. 

First, we ran shuttle. One must either have a four wheel drive car or an SUV that can handle dirt roads as the road between our put-in and take out areas is River Road. The drive down River Road is pretty slow moving (relative to the highway) and took us close to an hour to drop the car off and drive back to the put-in. Then "rigging the raft" also took about an hour. We used a device called an ore rig for this trip, where the person steering sits on an elevated seat and steers the ores and the other person/people sit in the front of the raft and paddle with canoe paddles. 

We finally took off on the much-anticipated adventure. I would never have agreed to this trip had our friend who's guided on multiple rivers not come with us. However, when the water is so high the rapids can be much smaller since it just flows right over most obstacles therefore making this the least intimidating raft trip I've done. We arrived at our camp in a quick 2 hours. The water was flowing so quick that we barely paddled at all- giving us a nice, relaxed ride to enjoy the horses and other wildlife along the banks. 

Little did I know that the trip was for ulterior motives. Upon arrival at Entrance Camp we set camp and took off on a hike to an overlook of the canyon (photo 3). My lovely boyfriend of the time popped a very important question while on top of the overlook and now he is my fiance! I won't stray away from the adventure anymore but this made the trip incredibly more special (boys get yo girlfriends to Big Bend NP!). 

That night we sipped on an IPA from one of our favorite bars that we brought along in our HydroFlask Growler as we ate delicious backpacker's meals and slept under the stars with no tent. 

The following day we made small adjustments to the raft rig (photo 5) and set off early in the morning. This would be a monumental day as we still had yet to experience the biggest rapid of this stretch- Rockslide. Rockslide is usually a boulder garden, making it a super technical rapid with many sharp turns and eddies that can suck you in quick. When we arrived there were no signs of any boulders. We scouted it beforehand (photo 1 and photo 7) despite how smooth it looked like from the boat, but realized that this would probably be the easiest run through Rockslide we've ever done. We flew through the "rapid" and hit every wave head on. 

After Rockslide the river is smooth until the end of the stretch. We stopped for a beer break and hung out in a small cave/overhang on the bank. The rest of the stretch was relaxed and allowed us to enjoy the views and wildlife. It also allowed for me to take a stab at steering the raft. This was much harder than it looked and I totally have way more respect for my raft-guide-amazon-woman-friend now. 

We took out of the river, made our way down River Road and threw on the always-much-anticipated clean dry car clothes. The adventure part is over but I highly recommend the campground Rancho Topanga in Terlingua - it has open spaces and new, nice bathrooms (including showers!). It is a great place to car camp after the river or if you're just not feeling as adventurous. Rancho Topanga also pairs well with dinner at the Starlight Theater. Catch a local Terlingua-n putting on a show and enjoy a Big Bend Brewing Company beer while you're at it! 

Read More

Download the Outbound mobile app

Find adventures and camping on the go, share photos, use GPX tracks, and download maps for offline use.

Get the app



Raft through Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend Reviews

Have you done this adventure? Be the first to leave a review!

Leave No Trace

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!


Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend

Boomerang Float in Santa Elena Canyon

Closed Canyon Trail in Big Bend Ranch SP

Hike to the Upper Guale Mesa in Big Bend Ranch State Park

Upper Burro Mesa Pouroff