Returning to the Lowers on the Rio Grande


For nearly a decade, I lived in Terlingua, Texas, a town of roughly 500 to 1,000 people, depending on the season. I spent my twenties out there in the deserts of Far West Texas, traversing the Big Bend Region by boots and boat. I traveled the entirety of the Rio Grande along the Texas-Mexico border, oftentimes guiding, many times with friends and just as much by myself. In those days, true to the dirtbag lifestyle, I didn’t worry too much about the prospects of a career, how much was in my bank account, or if I smelled of the backcountry as I walked into a bar.

The little town I called home was—and still is—the type of place where a good adventure story can get you just as far as hard cash. I spent many hours sitting on the porch of the local watering hole listening to tales of long-lost camps, of floods that rose 50 feet, of unmarked hot springs that gushed water and everything in between. Those conversations introduced me to a specific section of the Rio that old-timers and boating legends talked about with a unique reverence—the Lower Canyons.

Miles past pavement, past any man-made noise and the stigmas of the border, there’s a piece of designated Wild and Scenic stretch of the Rio Grande that few people know exists. This part of the river, the “Lowers,” is arguably one of the most isolated backcountry experiences you can have in Texas.

There’s no lottery system for this section, yet, it isn’t a highly frequented trip. Most times you’re hard-pressed to come across anyone at all. The logistics of the Lowers discourage most tourists and experienced paddlers alike from taking it on.

Downstream of Big Bend National Park and upstream of Lake Amistad, the 83 miles of the Lowers is an incredible example of what access to the natural world can look like in a state with minimal public land. The Texas side of the Rio Grande is majority privately-owned land, the opposite bank is Mexico. While the river is monitored by the National Park System, it’s the partnership of landowners and two countries that make nearly untouched wilderness like this accessible to the public.

Complicated logistics aside, the technicality of the river, the ruggedness of the landscape and the lack of civilization deter most people from the Lowers.

This past winter, after moving away from Terlingua and abandoning my dirtbag lifestyle, I planned a trip to revisit my home waters. I wanted to escape the city life for a full week and find refuge in the far-flung throws of the desert like I used to. I recruited a handful of friends who would appreciate the famed canyons of the Lowers and readily find joy in all the challenges this section of the river would inevitably throw our way. From different corners of the state, we converged in Marathon, Texas, ready and eager to start the journey.

Before we even had a chance to put boats in the water, we nearly had to abandon our long-planned trip.

Long ago, the Rio Grande in the Big Bend broke away from what was once the continuous stream from Colorado through New Mexico to the Texas-Mexico border. Due to allocation and dams, it’s rare for any significant amount of water to make it from Colorado to the Big Bend. Instead, the riparian zones and water levels of the Rio Grande in the West Texas region depend on a tributary called the Rio Conchos, which enters from the state of Chihuahua in Northern Mexico. Every monsoon season—late summer to early fall—the reservoirs on the Rio Conchos are replenished. To what degree determines if the Big Bend region will have a high-water season or a season at all.

2023 was an historic drought year. Not only was the water so low that our original plans of boating in rafts were scrapped, but it was seemingly too low to even navigate the Lower Canyons in canoes. We talked it over as a group. We made the decision quickly. Even if it became a canoe-assisted hike, we were going.

The transition from rafting to canoeing brought a new set of logistical challenges. Packing for a canoe trip requires a certain level of finesse and forward planning. You must evaluate and prioritize every item. Successfully pivoting to account for the added complexity gave our entire group confidence, priming each person for the unexpected. We were not yet in the river, but we knew we were already navigating the complexity of the Lowers.

Finally, we loaded up boats and headed to the rio. We pushed off the shore into freezing temps and immediately paddled into a blustering headwind. To make matters worse, the shallow waters required quite a bit of dragging the canoes. The magic of a river trip was already set upon us though. Where the conditions might have soured the mood of our group, the rio already had us spellbound. We celebrated the kick-off of our voyage with wigs and costumes.

We pulled over to camp as the sun waned. By the evening, a crackling fire warmed us and the sound of laughter filled the air. A hearty dinner and a few drinks down, we settled in for the night, eager to rise for another day of good company, better weather and some of the best views Texas has to offer.

By the second day, springs flanking us on both sides of the river helped the water levels to rise. We could hear trickling down from rocks, a lovely sound that signified deeper waters and taller walls ahead. The river further narrowed with each curve in the bend until we were hugged between 2,000-foot towering cliffs—a conglomerate of geology stacked on top of each other like massive slabs majestically rising from the riverbanks.

Centuries of wind and water had weathered the walls into rugged faces, but they still breathed life. Desert flora sprung defiantly from the rocky terrain in vibrant hues of green, red, yellow and orange. In this part of Big Bend, it’s hard to comprehend the cliffs’ height, but the stark contrast of vegetation and large raptors flying above provide a small bit of relativity to the vast yellow and brown walls.

In the tranquility of the canyons, I was once again captivated by the raw beauty of the river and the land that cradles it. Paddling with my friends in this homecoming to the Lowers, I found myself navigating its waters as a visitor, humbled and surprised by the same scenery I intimately knew as a guide in my twenties. The group paddled quietly through the first miles of the canyons. It felt as if we were traveling further into the belly of the beast with its absolutely untamed nature, but we welcomed the chaos confidently.

As if calculated perfectly to disrupt any sense of calm and remind us all of its power, the river presented its first rapids. We approached the whitewater, the adrenaline of all nine people pumping like a unified pulse. Wide-eyed and rosy-cheeked, we navigated the swirling currents, our canoes dancing through the frothy waves. Flushed with exhilaration, we exchanged triumphant smiles, loudly whooping our way down river.

There’s a unique bond formed between river companions and every trip creates a different kind of bond. Watching each person pass through the jagged rocks and churning water felt like a kind of indoctrination into our Lower Canyons club. The truth of it though is that whether someone’s boat had reached the other side afloat or overturned, the connection to the river and to each other would be the same–strong.

As the days passed, we paddled away the stresses of daily life, sinking deeper into a profound sense of peace and contentment. This feeling reminded me of the reverence the old timers at the bar spoke with when they reminisced on these same river miles. In the rhythm of the river and steadfastness of the canyons, we found solace and renewal, our spirits uplifted by the raw beauty of the natural world.

On our second-to-last day on the river, we meandered along slowly, letting the current drift us toward our final campsite. We noticed a large, pebbled beach on the left which stretched back into an alcove within the canyon. The massive opening was quiet and inviting like a doorway into another time. We hauled gear up for about an hour and set about making camp. Amidst the ancient rock formations we created a makeshift home.

Fading light cast long shadows across the canyon walls so we lit a fire to keep the evening long. The flames warmly illuminated our rocky fortress as we shared stories and laughter beneath the vast desert sky. We slept that last night in the embrace of the dry slot canyon.

The next morning, after six days immersed in the beauty of the desert, we left the rio. As with most river trips, once it was over, we carried that river-running high for a while. Recharged for some time, but once you’ve felt the freedom of true disconnection in the wilderness, it’s never long before the yearning to be back on the water emerges.

Growing older, buying a home in the city and my career have all taken me away from the river. I realize my time spent guiding on the Rio Grande was a luxury and I can keenly understand now how lucky I am to have had so many years soaking up the magic of the West Texas waters. Now, more than ever, the rio calls to me, urging me to return and rediscover the joy of exploration. I may not be able to get back as much as I once did, but I will always make it back to my home river.


Guest contributor Austin Alvarado is a wildlife cinematographer and director based in San Antonio, Texas.