It’s late afternoon in Santa Elena Canyon — a 19-mile gorge that separates Big Bend National Park in West Texas and three national parks in Mexico — and we’re setting up camp along a remote stretch of the Rio Grande.
We came across two other canoe groups this morning, but they were day trippers. The only ones staying over on this night in early 2021 are myself, my daughter Shannon, and river guide Mike Gamboni. Call it extreme social distancing.
As we sit around the campfire that night, another thought occurs. Despite all the talk over the past few years about blocking off the Mexican border, here’s a stretch that will likely never see a wall, fence, barbed wire or any other kind of man-made barrier.
Not because of the river. Heck, the Rio Grande is shallow enough to walk across, especially during the low-water winter season.
What makes Santa Elena so formidable are natural walls that tower around 1,500 feet on both sides of the river, rising straight up to a height greater than the roof of One World Trade Center in New York City.
A person would have to be an El Capitan-level rock climber to scale these walls. “If you could actually climb them,” says Gamboni. “These walls are limestone, not granite like Yosemite. Soft, unstable, too risky for climbing.”
Unless evolution has blessed you with certain adaptations. Back on the river the next morning, we come across a herd of aoudad sheep gingerly scampering across a cliff on the Texas side. Natural climbers, they don’t seem to have the slightest problem navigating the steep terrain, not even the youngest ones.
Unlike the aoudad, most creatures aren’t equipped to master or even overcome the canyon’s vertical reaches. That’s not to say that Santa Elena is void of other wildlife. Our canoes drifted beneath peregrine falcons riding thermals high above the canyon and past Big Bend slider turtles on half-submerged stones and driftwood.
More natural boundaries
Downstream from Santa Elena, the Rio Grande has carved additional dramatic boundaries: Mariscal Canyon (10 miles long), Boquillas Canyon (33 miles) and the Lower Canyons (83 miles).
Their walls aren’t quite as tall as Santa Elena — Mariscal tops out at 1,400 feet, Boquillas at 1,200 feet — but they’re equally sheer and just as formidable. Massive gaps that separate the US from Mexico as surely as any man-made wall ever could.
River trips along the Rio Grande in Big Bend can last anywhere from half a day to three weeks depending on how much you want to pay and how far you want to travel.
Complementing the cool water, the soaring canyon walls mean that most of the time you’ll be paddling in the shade rather than the triple digit temperatures that descend upon the region each summer.
The best time for through trips is spring or early summer, when the river is running at its highest and portaging sandbars becomes far less frequent. Even then, the Rio Grande rarely whips itself into serious whitewater — a factor that translates into plenty of smooth water and time to simply admire a landscape that hasn’t changed in thousands of years.
Experienced paddlers can easily navigate the river on their own. But going with a local guide — like the two-day trip that Shannon and I undertook — adds local knowledge and amusing tales to the adventure.
Separating the canyons are patches of relatively flat terrain that once fostered ranches, mines and villages. After Big Bend became a national park in 1944, private property, prospecting and grazing were gradually phased out on the Texas side.
At least that was the plan. The rangers didn’t figure on livestock disregarding the international boundary.
Downstream from Santa Elena Canyon we find cattle munching riverside fodder on the Texas side. “Mexican cows,” says Gamboni. “They swim or walk across the river from ranches around Santa Elena village. You see them all the time.”
The bovines either wander back on their own or wait for vaqueros to ride over and round them up — like they have for hundreds of years along the US-Mexico frontier.
As far as humans go, paddlers are likely to cross the international boundary on the river itself — no passports required. However, “landing on the Mexican bank of the river is considered an illegal crossing and could result in fines and jail time,” according to the National Park Service website. Although there are some safety exceptions.
The Fox of Ojinaga
Once upon a time, you could legally cross the border between Texas and Mexico along this stretch of the Rio Grande. That ended with the rise of drug lord Pablo Acosta, called El Zorro de Ojinaga (“The Fox of Ojinaga”) because of his sly manner.
For much of the 1980s, Acosta used the Santa Elena river crossing as a conduit for smuggling millions of dollars’ worth of cocaine, heroin and marijuana into the United States.
In the end, he was outfoxed by the FBI and Mexican federal police. In 1987, helicopters carrying heavily armed federales crossed the river from the American side to launch a surprise attack on the drug lord’s compound. Refusing to surrender, Acosta was killed during a one-hour gun battle.
Paddling down that stretch of river today, with cornfields and adobe homes on the Mexico side, it’s hard to imagine the bloodshed that unfolded that day or the era when such an unassuming village was the hub of a giant narcotics operation.
Gamboni shows us a road on the Texas side that once led away from the river crossing for Santa Elena. After Acosta’s fall, the Park Service blocked it off to public access and is trying to return this onetime drug smuggling “superhighway” to its natural state.
Still, Acosta’s legend endures — in Mexican folk songs, movies such as “No Country for Old Men,” and as one of the main characters in the television series “Narcos: Mexico.”
Yet the Big Bend frontier isn’t totally closed. You can pass through the border legally at Boquillas Crossing in the southeast corner of the national park. Or at least you could until Covid-19 arrived and the border went into lockdown. The border is set to remain closed to nonessential travel through at least June 21.
Before the pandemic, visitors from the American side could walk across at low water or hail a Mexican ferryman to row them across in a wooden boat. On the other side, burros, horses and trucks waited to take visitors the rest of the way into Boquillas del Carmen village for handicraft shopping, Mexican cuisine and margaritas at the town’s cantinas.
“We hope the crossing opens soon,” says Tom VandenBerg, chief of interpretation and visitor services at Big Bend National Park. “It’s been a long year for all of us, but those who live in the remote Mexican villages have had a really hard time making ends meet.”
Following the river trip, Shannon and I while away a few days exploring the terrestrial side of Big Bend while staying in Terlingua ghost town and the park’s Chisos Mountains.
Even away from the river, it never felt crowded. Despite being larger than most national parks in the Lower 48 states, Big Bend hosted less than 400,000 visitors in 2020, slightly down from its all-time high the previous year (463,000). Even Death Valley got twice that many during the pandemic.
The low visitation is mostly because of distance. The nearest big cities (El Paso and San Antonio) are a five-to-six-hour drive from the park; Dallas and Albuquerque are about eight hours away.
“My unofficial observations tell me that it’s absolutely the quietest national park,” says VandenBerg, who spent 15 years rangering in Alaska parks before his posting to Big Bend. “Another highlight are the endless opportunities for discovery that this remote park provides. I realized a few years ago that I would never see all of it, but I’m still trying!”
Located right outside the park’s western entrance, Terlingua is home base to most of the river-running companies and other outfitters that guide visitors through Big Bend.
It started life in the 1880s as a thriving cinnabar (quicksilver) mining camp, a boom that lasted roughly half a century before things went south.
Bill Ivey and his family have owned the entire town since the 1980s, gradually converting the old adobe structures into modern uses such as a general store, museum, restaurant and the 100-year-old hilltop casita where Shannon and I are bunking.
“Two thousand people used to live here,” Ivey tells me as we gaze across the ghost town ruins from the patio outside the casita. “The quicksilver was mainly used to ignite bombs. But it all went bust during World War II when they invented electric detonators.”
Terlingua was well on its way to disappearing completely until the 1960s when racecar icon Carroll Shelby (of “Ford vs. Ferrari” fame) and some of his buddies decided the ghost town would make a cool place for a Texas-style culinary fest. The International Chili Championship still takes place every winter with the 2021 version scheduled for November 3-6.
Driving back into the park we check into the Roosevelt Stone Cottage in the Chisos Mountains. Like the massive canyons along the Rio Grande, the mountains are a geographic marvel, a 40-square-mile highland created by volcanic eruptions during the age of dinosaurs. Rising high above the surrounding desert, the trees and other lush vegetation nurture a rich and diverse animal population including black bears and mountain lions.
From our cottage we can gaze through The Window — a V-shaped gap in the mountains with a bird’s-eye view of the Chihuahuan Desert and far-off Terlingua. Following a winter storm, the sky is clear enough to see 20 to 30 miles.
But that hasn’t always been the case. By the end of the 1990s, smog generated by industrial activity along the Texas Gulf Coast and northern Mexico often shrouded Big Bend. While visibility and ozone levels have improved over the past decade, poor air quality remains a concern.
Mining and ranching have also impacted the landscape. By the time the park was established, Big Bend had endured years of extreme grazing that stripped away the ancient topsoil and transformed what had once been rich grassland into cactus-and-sagebrush desert.
The Park Service is working to regenerate the natural landscape, but it’s a long-haul rather than quick fix, says VandenBerg.
Water flow is another ongoing issue. Because so much is extracted for agriculture and urban uses in Colorado and New Mexico, the river is a trickle by the time it reaches El Paso. If not for regular inflow from the Rio Conchos in Mexico, the Rio Grande would practically be waterless on its journey through Big Bend.
The water ran cool and clear during our canoe camping trip. Maybe not pure enough to drink straight from the river, but certainly clean enough to spend a good part of the day walking, wading and rinsing in the Rio Grande.
National Park staff have regular contact with their counterparts at three protected areas on the Mexican side of the river to tackle these and other environmental issues.
“We share information, research findings, ecotourism opportunities and conservation projects to care for the river we share,” VandenBerg explains.
Among the ongoing topics of discussion are those trespassing cattle. “The Mexican farmers really work hard at keeping their animals in check because they don’t want to lose them. But it’s a never-ending job.”
Without that transborder goodwill, much of Big Bend’s flora and fauna would struggle to survive and wilderness-seeking souls like myself wouldn’t be able to explore a stretch of the southern frontier where nature’s walls will likely always be the biggest impediment.
If you go
Mild temperatures make November to April the high season in Big Bend National Park. However, campgrounds, lodges and hotel rooms are likely to be booked well ahead no matter what time of year you’re visiting. Reservations can be made up to six months in advance by visiting recreation.gov.
More information on floating along the international border can be found on the park’s website.
Far Flung Outdoor Center is one outfitter that organizes daytime and overnight canoe trips in Santa Elena Canyon, as well as multiday trips through Mariscal, Boquillas and the Lower canyons.
Chisos Mountains Lodge features historic stone cabins and hotel rooms in the Chisos Basin of Big Bend National Park.