Once you’ve mastered the scenic drives  and hiking trails , you may want to experience Big Bend National Park  from a different perspective—by boat. Seeing the canyon walls from the source is imminently rewarding, and many options are available depending on your skill level and spirit of adventure, from class IV rapids (on a I–V scale) to quiet canoe trips. For a comprehensive list of choices, consult Big Bend’s website: www.nps.gov/bibe .
One of the most popular options is Santa Elena Canyon  (downstream from Lajitas ), a 13-mile adventure featuring easy desert paddling and severe rapid navigating. This stretch of the river is considered the most dramatic, with enormous 1,500-foot tall cliffs towering overhead and the largest rapid, a class IV run known as Rock Slide. For an easier day trip, consider the “boomerang” jaunt upstream and back to the canyon.
A portion of the park known as Rio Grande Wild & Scenic River features several other trips appealing to beginner and intermediate boaters. The 10-mile-long Mariscal Canyon trek provides stunning scenery with 1,400-foot-tall limestone cliffs and some moderately exciting Class II–III rapids.
For a longer excursion (two to three days), consider the 33-mile trip through Boquillas Canyon, an ideal choice for beginners, since there aren’t any rapids higher than class II. Even longer (up to 10 days) is a trek through the lower canyons, where floaters can experience true solitude in the wilderness since they often won’t encounter another human being for days at a time.
To find out more about shuttles, equipment rental, and guided trips, contact Big Bend River Tours (800/545-4240, www.bigbendrivertours.com ), Desert Sports (888/989-6900, www.desertsportstx.com ), or Far Flung Outdoor Center (800/839-7238, www.farflungoutdoorcenter.com ).