Photograph by Crystal Allbright

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Paddlers pass through Santa Elena Canyon on the Big Bend of Texas's Rio Grande.

Photograph by Crystal Allbright

AdventureBest American Adventures

Float the Big Bend of the Rio Grande, Texas

See trip details for floating the Big Bend of the Rio Grande in Texas, one of 100 best American adventure trips from National Geographic.

Deep in the southwestern corner of Texas, the Rio Grande enters an arid, no-man’s-land of deserts and canyons that for centuries has been considered godforsaken. For rafters, however, there’s liquid gold in these hills. For 231 miles (372 kilometers), between Big Bend Ranch State Park, Big Bend National Park, and the town of Dryden, the river winds through canyons as deep as 1,500 feet (457 meters) and wide-open rangeland with views of faraway mountains, offering one of the country’s top river trips.

Desert Sports, an outfitter based in Terlingua, Texas, offers full-day and multiday trips along different sections of the river, from calm, grandma-friendly floats to stretches with roller coaster rapids. But the mother of all is the Lower Canyons, a wild, 83-mile (135-kilometer) stretch where civilization and any sort of help are days away. Fewer than 1,300 hardy river rats attempt it every year (by comparison, 24,000 float the Grand Canyon), and getting away from it all takes on an entirely new meaning here.

For seven to 12 days, paddlers negotiate up to Class V rapids that rumble like 747s against the canyon walls, soak in wilderness springs, and witness signs of cowboys and Native Americans—some of the few humans to attempt to eke out a living here. Even more than the thrill of the rapids, what rafters love most is the stillness. It’s on those cloudless star-sprinkled nights that they begin to understand the true meaning of utter, mind-clearing silence.

Need to Know: Desert Sports ( offers seven-day trips on the Lower Canyons for $1,200 to $1,450 per person.