Rio Grande - 2. Colorado Canyon: Rancherias Canyon to Lajitas (21 miles)

Rio Grande, Texas, US


2. Colorado Canyon: Rancherias Canyon to Lajitas (21 miles)

Usual Difficulty II+ (varies with level)
Length 20.8 Miles
Avg. Gradient 6 fpm

Gauge Information

Name Range Difficulty Updated Level
Rio Grande nr Castolon, TX
usgs-08374550 200 - 10000 cfs I-II 00h29m 151 cfs (too low)
Level is generally too low for rafting but still navigable in hard boats. Gauge is many miles downstream, but it should be more or less accurate as long as Terlingua Creek isn't running.

River Description

Like all of the canyons of the Rio Grande, Colorado Canyon and Dark Canyon are incredibly scenic.  Because this section of the river has good access (via FM 170, which follows the river for most of the route), it is popular for day trips.  This section is beginner-friendly at low levels (< 1000 cfs), and rafts can run it down to about 200 cfs without much difficulty.  Lower levels than that require a hard boat.  This section gets pushy at high levels (thousands of cfs) but doesn't really get any more technically difficult, and many of the named rapids wash out at high levels.  It is not generally runnable below 100 cfs.

Many of the named rapids may require some maneuvering by canoeists, particularly when the river is relatively low and channelized.  However, whitewater paddlers will probably find them to be straightforward.

All of the river access points are on river left (Texas side.)

This section is entirely within Big Bend Ranch State Park and requires a permit obtainable in Lajitas or at Fort Leaton.  The state and national parks require anyone on a river trip to wear their PFD's through named rapids.

NOTE:  There is a high incidence of vehicle theft along the Mexican border.  For this reason, and simply because it makes the trip logistics much easier, many paddlers choose to pay one of the river outfitters in Terlingua to run shuttle for them.

Distances and gradient measured using GIS tools in 2015.


StreamTeam Status: Not Verified
Last Updated: 2018-01-02 21:35:59


Rapid Summary

Mile Rapid Name Class Features (Legend)
0.0Rancherias RapidII
0.0Colorado Canyon River AccessN/APutin
1.7Closed Canyon RapidII
2.4Thread the Needle RapidII
3.0Quarter Mile RapidII
6.2End of Colorado CanyonN/A
6.6Panther Creek RapidII
7.4La Cuesta River AccessN/AAccess
7.6Dark Canyon EntranceN/A
8.2Dom RockN/A
9.0End of Dark CanyonN/A
9.2Tee Pee Picnic AreaN/A
9.3Madera Canyon River AccessN/AAccess
10.0Ledge Rock RapidII
12.6Grassy Banks River AccessN/AAccess
14.9Fresno Creek RapidII
15.7Contrabando Creek RapidII
15.8Contrabando Movie SetN/A
20.8Lajitas River AccessN/ATakeout

Rapid Descriptions

Rancherias Rapid (Class II)

At low levels, run right to avoid some boulders.  Straightforward at medium to high levels.

Colorado Canyon River Access (Class N/A)

No facilities

Closed Canyon Rapid (Class II, Mile 1.7)

Most of the flow channels to river right at low levels, forming a wave train.  Washes out at higher levels.

While you're here, take a moment to hike up into the mouth of Closed Canyon.

Thread the Needle Rapid (Class II, Mile 2.4)

At low levels, stay to the right and pick one of the two channels at the bottom between large boulders.  Straightforward at medium to high levels.

Quarter Mile Rapid (Class II, Mile 3.0)

Requires some light maneuvering at low levels to avoid boulders and a a wall shot near the bottom.  Straightforward at medium to high levels.

End of Colorado Canyon (Class N/A, Mile 6.2)

Reference point

Panther Creek Rapid (Class II, Mile 6.6)

Nice wave train at the center of the river.

La Cuesta River Access (Class N/A, Mile 7.4)

No facilities

Dark Canyon Entrance (Class N/A, Mile 7.6)

Reference point

Dom Rock (Class N/A, Mile 8.2)

The large rock outcropping at river left is where the iconic champagne scene in "Fandango" was filmed (thus giving the rock its name.)  The section of FM 170 leading up to the overlook at the top of the rock is supposedly the steepest highway in Texas.  Look for a rusted-out tanker truck and car alongside the river underneath the rock

End of Dark Canyon (Class N/A, Mile 9.0)

Reference point

Tee Pee Picnic Area (Class N/A, Mile 9.2)

Reference point (no camping or access here)

Madera Canyon River Access (Class N/A, Mile 9.3)

Composting toilet and picnic shelters at river left.  Camping allowed (permit required.)

Ledge Rock Rapid (Class II, Mile 10.0)

Can be run either right or left, but right is the typical line.  At the right level (recommended 1000-3500 cfs), this is a great surf rapid with two or three medium holes, and it is fairly easy to paddle back upstream to the Madera Canyon access point.

Grassy Banks River Access (Class N/A, Mile 12.6)

Composting toilet and picnic shelters at river left.  Camping allowed (permit required.)

Fresno Creek Rapid (Class II, Mile 14.9)

Wall shot at lower levels.  Straightforward wave train at river right at medium to high levels.


Contrabando Creek Rapid (Class II, Mile 15.7)

Run left.

Contrabando Movie Set (Class N/A, Mile 15.8)

Reference point.  This set was originally constructed in 1985 for "Uphill All the Way" starring Roy Clark but was also used for the "Lonesome Dove" miniseries in the 90's.

Lajitas River Access (Class N/A, Mile 20.8)

Large dirt parking lot and boat launch at river left

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