Just could not commit to a three week trip planned for next year without an exploratory float. Knowing that current flows would support a cataraft while late winter flows would likely exclude larger craft triggered the short notice trip. Mark, a Gila River paddling partner, amazingly was in with less than a week to prepare. Used both the NPS and Louis Albach's Upper Canyon River Guides for support. Rancherias RAP served as the launch and the Santa Elena Canyon exit was the take-out. Trip length was 43 miles and covered both Colorado and Santa Elena Canyons. Santa Elena is truly world class.
Flows from the Rio Conchos in Chihuahua determine water level. The consensus is that 4 to 4.5 feet is optimum with the launch at roughly 5.5 feet. We thought it an excellent level with not much desire to see anything lower. River authorities were the Big Bend State Park for the Colorado Canyon section and Big Bend National Park managing Santa Elena. The Big Bend Daily provided a quick link for weather and water levels. For whatever reason, perhaps being an international border, the USGS gauges and interface were not to be found. Backcountry permits are required but readily available to float both sections and have a nominal fee of $10.
The water level fluctuated by more than a foot by our estimates. This river will teach you to secure boats or risk losing them quicker than most other waterways. The rapids were a non-issue with our flows and craft. The only rapid scouted was Rockslide which was not technical nor difficult but it is not hard to imagine the troubles to be had there. Due to the decreasing flows, there were many muddy spots on the river with access much more difficult than I expected. The cane/tammies are more entrenched here than on any other river I run.
Far Flung Adventures provided shuttle services which ran $75 for each of the two access points. Driving time is roughly one hour from both locations to Terlingua. Other outfitters (all appear to offer shuttles) include Big Bend River Tours, and Desert Sports.