“You couldn’t pick a much harder place to get to,” said Zach Hubbard, the guide who was helping me navigate a two-day paddle down Mariscal Canyon. Simply getting to the river had been a challenge: we’d met early in Terlingua, then headed across the park until we reached a backcountry stretch that took two more hours to cover before reaching the put-in at Talley Camp. After a quick lunch at the base of Mariscal Mountain, where dusky rocks glinted with fool’s gold, Hubbard piled supplies (including a fire pan and a portable privy) into a twenty-foot canoe. Happily, as we slipped the boat into the lapping current, the rigors of the road were quickly forgotten.
It took just a few strokes before limestone cliffs more than a thousand feet tall crowded out the horizon, leaving a mere ribbon of blue overhead. I scanned the walls, pocked with dark caves, and listened to the canyon wrens. Located near the 45-mile stretch of river known as the Great Unknown, Mariscal is the most remote of the Rio Grande’s gorges; our ten-mile float followed the park’s namesake bend. We had only birds and belly-flopping beavers for company.
Breaking the quiet, Hubbard instructed me to paddle as we neared the canyon’s handful of rapids, the most dramatic being the Rock Pile, where boulders force the current to split and boil, a reminder that the tectonics of West Texas are a work in progress. Out of the danger zone, we then beached the canoe to explore Hermit’s Cave, scrambling up to a series of stone alcoves where, the story goes, a Vietnam draft dodger lived long ago. We looked back up the river. Riffles caught the fading sunlight, red dust coated the canyon walls, and the mountains appeared to kneel at the water’s edge.
That night we camped on the banks of Cross Canyon, a notch that runs perpendicular to Mariscal. The stars glowed like sequins, and in the morning, rufous hummingbirds buzzed us awake. The takeout at Solis was only five miles from our camp, but in the end, our journey felt monumental.