An Analysis of Texas Waterways

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A Report on the Physical Characteristics of Rivers, Streams, and Bayous in Texas


Major Waterways of West Texas

Rio Grande (Part One)

The Rio Grande rises in the State of Colorado, flows southward through New Mexico, then forms the International Boundary between the Mexican States of Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas, and the State of Texas. Its total length is approximately 1,896 miles, with approximately 1,248 miles being located along the southern border of Texas. The remoteness and scenic beauty of the lands through which it flows mark sections of the Rio Grande as possibly the only river in Texas which has potential for inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.


Texas-New Mexico Border to Presidio
(Not mapped)
258 miles

The Rio Grande, from El Paso downstream to Presidio, is virtually a dry riverbed because of extensive irrigation in New Mexico. However, the river becomes a permanent stream once again when the Rio Concho enters the streambed from Mexico, just upstream from Presidio-Ojinaga.

The stretch from El Paso to Presidio contains insufficient water for recreational use. The river bordering Hudspeth and Presidio Counties, particularly in the vicinity of the Quitman Mountains, is very scenic. From Presidio downstream for approximately 300 miles, the river flows through a series of some of the most rugged and spectacular canyons in the United States.


Map of Rio Grande River from Presidio to Lajitas Including Colorado Canyon.

Rio Grande River
Presidio to Lajitas (Including Colorado Canyon)
50 Miles

Presidio to Lajitas (Including Colorado Canyon)
50 miles

Located in Presidio County, this section of the Rio Grande always contains sufficient water levels for recreational use. The Rio Concho joins the Rio Grande above Presidio and a healthy flow of water enters the riverbed. The river along this section follows a chain of mountains on the Mexican side. However, the Texas side between Presidio and Redford is currently being irrigated for crops. The scenery becomes increasingly rugged as the river moves downstream. This entire 50-mile section is closely paralleled by the river road, or El Camino del Rio (FM 170).

In the vicinity of and below Redford, the Rio Grande flows through rugged terrain and a series of large rapids exist. These rapids are some of the better rapids on the Rio Grande. In addition, Colorado Canyon is a short, but extremely scenic canyon which is also noted for its exciting rapids. The canyon is formed as the river flows around the bulk of Colorado Mountain. Below Colorado Canyon, the river flows through relatively flat desert terrain enroute to its rendezvous with the Mesa de Anguila and Santa Elena Canyon. Waterway features and distance between each are as follows:

US Border Port of Entry - on US 67 between Presidio and Ojinaga.
Fort Leaton State Park - The ruins of an old fortress are located adjacent to the river. The site is now a State Historical Park. (5 miles)
Alamito Creek - enters on the left. Alamito Creek is one of the major drainages of the Rio Grande on the United States side. (3 miles)
Torneros Creek - enters on the left. (2 miles)
Bofecillos Canyon - enters on the left. (5 miles)
Village of Redford - This small village is located along the banks of the river. (1 mile)
Tapado Canyon - enters on the left. (10 miles)
Anvil and Davit Rocks - two distinct rock formations located along the river. The old river road (FM 170) passes close to the formations. (2 miles)
Colorado Canyon - The canyon actually is formed by Colorado Mountain and a Mountain chain on the Mexican side of the river. The canyon itself is approximately 8 miles long. (2 miles)
Roadside park - located on FM 170 adjacent to the river at the downstream end of Colorado Canyon. (8 miles)
Fresno Creek - enters on the left. (6 miles)
Contrabando Creek - enters on the left. (1 mile)
Lajitas - a small village located outside of the western boundary of Big Bend National Park. A road behind the trading post leads down to a side slough of the river. This slough is not the main channel, but usually contains sufficient water for recreational use. (5 miles)



Map of Rio Grande River from Lajitas to Castolon Including Santa Elena Canyon.

Rio Grande River
Lajitas to Castolon (Including Santa Elena Canyon)
26 Miles

Lajitas to Castolon (Including Santa Elena Canyon)
26 miles

This 26-mile section of the Rio Grande containing Santa Elena Canyon is one of the most famous and popular segments of the river. The National Park Service requires that a permit (primarily for safety purposes) be obtained before recreational use is allowed. The entire section is extremely scenic with the main feature being spectacular Santa Elena Canyon, which has been formed by the river cutting down through the Mesa de Anguila.

Recreational use of this section is possible at almost any time. However, the best conditions exist at normal or slightly above normal water levels. This section and particularly the area of the rockslide are considered extremely dangerous at high water levels. Water levels above 5 feet are considered hazardous.

The section from Lajitas to the canyon entrance flows through progressively rugged country, and many fine rapids exist. Santa Elena Canyon is extremely scenic, rising above the river approximately 1500 feet. Although the walls of the canyon rise straight up, several tall grassy banks are available for camping and day use. Most of these banks afford adequate protection from subsequent rises in water level. Below the exit of the canyon the Mesa de Anguila exists on the Mexican side, while open desert terrain is backdropped by the Chisos Mountains on the Texas side. Waterway features and distance between each are as follows:

Lajitas - a small village located outside of the western boundary of Big Bend National Park. A road behind the trading post leads down to a side slough of the river. This slough is not the main channel, but usually contains sufficient water for recreational use.
Conical Peak - A conical peak composed of brown igneous and white limestone rocks is found. (6 miles)
Sentinel Peak - a second conical peak composed entirely of limestone seems to guard the canyon entrance. Hence, the name Sentinel Peak. (5 miles)
Santa Elena Canyon Entrance - the river flows through a massive crack in the Mesa de Anguila. (1 mile)
Mirror Canyons - two side canyons on either side of the river appear to be identical. These side canyons are located just inside the entrance to Santa Elena Canyon. (0.0 mile)
Rockslide - The rockslide is formed where the sheer vertical wall on the Mexican side has broken off and fallen into the river. Large boulders virtually choke off the river. This slide area is dangerous even at normal water levels and it is recommended that only experts with experience in fast water ever attempt to run it. Two alternatives are available to by-pass the rockslide. One is to line and portage down the Texas side at normal water levels. The other alternative for periods of high water is to portage over the top of the slide along the Mexican wall of the canyon. This portage is safer but very strenuous. (0.25 mile)
Fern Canyon - A unique side canyon on the Mexican side containing spring-fed pools, ferns, and crystal clear water. (4 miles)
Cow or Sheep Cave - A large cave located high above the river on the Mexican side. (2 miles)
Santa Elena Canyon Exit - the canyon abruptly ends as the river issues from the Mesa de Anguila. (1 mile)
Terlingua Creek - located immediately below the canyon exit. A National Park Service campground is located at the mouth of the creek. (0.0 mile)
Castolon - a small village located along the river. Good access is available. (7 miles)



Castolon to Talley
(Not mapped)
40 miles

Although this section is located between two extremely scenic desert canyons, it is also a good recreational waterway. The river below Santa Elena Canyon follows the Mesa de Anguila in Mexico for several miles, then flows through relatively flat desert terrain enroute to Mariscal Canyon. Small bluffs and outcroppings of rocks prevail, and giant reeds along with typical desert plants, dominate the landscape. Here, occasional glimpses of the scenic Chisos Mountains and the mountains in Mexico can be seen. Water levels are adequate and safe at most times for recreational use. This section of the Rio Grande is an excellent recreational waterway, but the popularity of the major canyons greatly reduces the amount of usage this segment receives.


Map of Rio Grande River from Talley to Solis Including Mariscal Canyon.

Rio Grande River
Talley to Solis (Including Mariscal Canyon)
12 Miles

Talley to Solis (Including Mariscal Canyon)
12 miles

Mariscal Canyon is a scenic desert canyon located in the southernmost part of Big Bend National Park. The canyon is formed where the Rio Grande cuts through Mariscal Mountain. With canyon walls rising to a maximum of 1800 feet in height, Mariscal Canyon is given the distinction of having the sheerest walls of any canyon on the river. This section is approximately 12 miles in length and the best water level for recreational use has been reported to be 3 feet.

Access to the river is relatively difficult, since the only road going to the canyon is an unimproved park road. Unless there have been recent heavy rains, the road is passable to passenger vehicles. Access to Mariscal Canyon is available at either Panterra or Talley upstream from the canyon and at Solis downstream. A National Park Service permit for travel over primitive roads and a campfire/boat permit is required before recreational use is possible.

The first part of this section flows through increasingly rugged desert country, and a few small rapids exist. The entrance to the canyon appears as a crack in Mariscal Mountain. Of the only two potentially hazardous places in the canyon, the first hazard is located within 100 yards of the entrance to the canyon. This is the Rockpile, a miniature version of Santa Elena Canyon's famous Rockslide. However, the Rockpile is considered passable. The second obstacle, located about one-half mile below the Rockpile, is known as the "tight squeeze". Here, a large boulder fills up the river leaving only two chutes, one about five feet wide on the left and the other about ten feet wide with a tight turn on the right. The "tight squeeze" is passable on the right.

Below the "tight squeeze" several miles of scenic canyon exists. There is a break in the middle of the canyon where the walls recede from the river for about a quarter of a mile. A dry creek enters at this point.
At one point on the Mexican side, Indian petroglyphs are etched on a boulder near the creek's mouth. An old Indian trail and some old dugouts where Mexicans often live are other points of interest. Several miles of open desert country are between the canyon exit and Solis. Waterway features and distance between each are as follows:

Talley - The road leading to Talley is a primitive park road. A few miles before the river is reached, the road branches. The left road leads to Talley, the right to Panterra.
Mariscal Canyon Entrance - The entrance appears as a crack in Mariscal Mountain. (1.5 miles)
Rockpile - A miniature version of Santa Elena Canyon's Rockslide. The Rockpile is passable but is considered angerous. It is located just inside the entrance to the canyon.
Tight Squeeze - Here a large boulder fills up the river forming two constricted channels. The right channel is passable. (1 mile)
The Break - At this point the canyon walls recede from the river for approximately one-fourth mile. A dry creek enters from Mexico, and an old Indian trail, Indian petroglyphs and some Mexican dugouts exist. (2.5 miles)
Mariscal Canyon Exit - The river issues from the crack in Mariscal Mountain. (4.5 miles)
Solis - The only identifying structure is a small cabin on the Mexican side. Typical desert scenery is found from the canyon exit to Solis. (2.5 miles)




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