River Use Regulations for Big Bend National Park

For protection of the river environment and your safety, observe these regulations when floating the river and on private land along the Rio Grande Wild & Scenic River.

Backcountry Use Permit
All river users must obtain a National Park Service backcountry use permit before watercraft is placed or operated on the Rio Grande within Big Bend National Park and for overnight trips on the Rio Grande Wild & Scenic River downstream from the park. Day-use inner tubes are exempt.

Personal Flotation Device (PDFs)
Each person shall have a wearable U.S. Coast Guard approved personal flotation device (PFD) which is properly fitted, in serviceable condition, and immediately accessible while on the river. Each group shall carry an extra type I, III, or V PFD (lifejacket). Type I, III, or V PFDs are required for Santa Elena, Mariscal, and the Lower Canyons. PFDs must be worn in Class II or greater difficulty whitewater. PFDs are recommended but are not required for people floating the river on inner tubes.

Extra Paddle
Each vessel shall carry an extra paddle or oar; kayaks shall have an extra paddle per party.

Safe Load
No vessels shall carry more than a safe load (in persons or total weight) considering type of craft, intended use area, and water and weather conditions.

Human Waste Disposal
All human waste will be carried out with a dump-station compatible waste system or an NPS-approved personal waste system. The approved personal waste systems are the Restop, Wag Bag, or a commercially produced "blue bag" waste system. Day trip users are encouraged to bring a personal waste system.

Deposit refuse, including cigarette butts and toilet paper, only in facilities designed for that purpose at take-outs or subsequent points. Strain liquids, including dishwater, and deposit them in the river. Carry out strained materials.

Firepans, with sides at least 2 inches high, are required on all overnight trips. Fires must be contained in firepans. Burn only charcoal or use down and dead wood; all unburned charcoal will be carried out. Carry out all floatable remnants of the fire; non-floatable debris should be carried out, or may be disposed of in the main current of the river. Reduce impacts by using only charcoal or self-contained stoves.

Use or discharge of firearms is prohibited. All wildlife is protected by federal law. Possession of other weapons, traps, or explosives is prohibited. Possession of firearms or ammunition is a felony in Mexico. This includes Mexican waters.

Pets are not permitted on the river or in any other part of the backcountry.

Camping is not permitted in the following areas: from the upstream end of the Santa Elena Canyon Nature Trail to 0.75 mile downstream from Castolon; within 0.5 mile of the San Vicente Crossing; and from La Clocha to the Boquillas Canyon Trail terminus.

Resource Protection
The destruction, injury, defacement, removal, or disturbance of any natural or cultural feature is prohibited.

Private Property
Respect property rights and do not trespass on posted land.

Jug fishing is not permitted within Big Bend National Park. Trot lines may not span the river.

Consumption of alcoholic beverages in the Langford Hot Springs area is prohibited.

Report any accident with an injury or property damage of $100 or more to the NPS.

Each group using inflatable vessels, except air mattresses or inner tubes traveling with a support vessel through the major canyons, will carry an operable pump and a patch kit capable of making major repairs.

Inner tubes are not allowed in Mariscal Canyon, Santa Elena Canyon, and Lower Canyons.

Motorized Watercraft
Motorized watercraft used within the park is limited to conventional boats with up to 60 horsepower inboard or outboard motors. Water-skiing, or the towing of persons by motorized vessels, is prohibited. Jet skis are not allowed in the park.

All motorboats must be numbered and have a certificate of number in full force and effect. Numbers shall be three inches in height or greater, and be placed on each side of the bow along with a validation decal.

Gas-powered motorized watercraft is prohibited on the following sections of the Rio Grande River:

  • Santa Elena Canyon, from the western park boundary to the Santa Elena Canyon take-out
  • Boquillas Canyon, from the entrance of Boquillas Canyon to the eastern boundary of the park.

Gas-powered motorized watercraft is prohibited on the following section of the Rio Grande River except for the month of October:

  • Mariscal Canyon, from Talley to Solis.

Starts and Group Size
No more than three parties per day may be started by any group, organization, or commercial operator. River parties must start at least 2 hours apart.

Individual river groups must travel, camp, and eat lunch separate from other groups.

Within Big Bend National Park the group size limit is 30 people for private groups, except for the following segments: Talley to Solis, and Boquillas Canyon Entrance to La Linda (East Boundary), where the limit is 20 people.

Within the Rio Grande Wild & Scenic River, downstream of the eastern boundary of Big Bend National Park, a group, organization, or commercial operator may start no more than 20 persons per day, not including guides.

A start is defined as a launch or an entry from another river segment. River segments are defined as follows:

Lajitas (West Boundary) to Santa Elena Canyon take-out
Santa Elena Canyon take-out to Cottonwood Campground
Cottonwood Campground to Reed Camp
Reed Camp to Talley
Talley to Solis
Solis to La Clocha
La Clocha to Boquillas Canyon Entrance
Boquillas Canyon Entrance to La Linda (East Boundary)
La Linda to Foster Ranch

The NPS recommends the following for your safety and the protection of the river environment:

  • When the river exceeds 2,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) on the Johnson's Ranch gauge, permits should be limited to the following boats in Santa Elena, Mariscal, and Lower Canyons: inflatable rafts with a minimum of three air chambers (excluding thwarts) and minimum dimensions of 6 by 12 feet; rigid, decked canoes and kayaks that exclude water when used with a spray skirt; open canoes 50 percent filled with flotation; dories; and sport kayaks. This suggestion also applies when an upstream rise causes any such section to exceed 2,000 cfs.
  • Wear PFDs at all times; carry one extra per trip. Type II PFDs (horsecollar) are not allowed in Santa Elena, Mariscal, or the Lower Canyons and not recommended in the other sections.
  • Each river party should carry a suitable amount of survival gear, including a first aid kit, extra water, sun protection, rain gear, a throwline, and an extra rope at least 50 feet long and 3/8 inch in diameter.
  • The safe capacity for inflatable craft should be considered 1/2 the manufacturer's rated load. If no such rating can be found, the mid-line of the boat should be at least 2 inches above the water line. The safe capacity for canoes is no more than 2 persons and 100 pounds of gear in Class III or greater whitewater.
  • All major rapids should be scouted. Consider portaging.
  • Springs may be contaminated. Treat water from a natural source before drinking.
  • Because sudden river rises occur, camp well above the high water mark and out of any side canyon or arroyo. Secure boats with ropes and tie each craft separately.
  • Theft of property from unoccupied vehicles and campsites is a problem in remote areas. Leave no valuables in vehicles.
  • In the event of an emergency, an "X" marked on the ground by any means visible from the air signifies that help is needed. Carry two 3-by-10-foot strips of international orange colored material and a signal mirror. Flights over the river are limited; do not count on being spotted quickly.

Last updated: June 1, 2020

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PO Box 129
Big Bend National Park, TX 79834-0129



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