Today a few young people go the whole 350 miles, as Hill did. With lightweight equipment and the water level sufficiently high, they make it in much less time. But for them, running the canyons is not so much a wilderness experience as a test, an athletic event.
You can also travel a stretch of the river in something close to case, pausing at the best swimming holes, stopping for the night at 3 p.m. if you come to an irresistible campsite. The Rio Grande, whose current moves at two or three miles per hour, will do more of the work for you if you hurry less. There may be an occasional piece of litter in the form of a Spam can or a wrecked canoe, but you can sometimes float for hours and see no sign that anyone has ever been there before you.
With the price of gasoline what it is. public use of the lower canyon region of Big Bend National Park has fallen off It is removed from anywhere—about 600 miles from Houston, 400 from San Antonio. And it is one of the biggest, and least visited, of all our 48 national parks. The number of visitors has declined by one-half since 1976, although the length of the visits has increased. So while the campsites are still well used, there's less traffic on the river than there used to be. Geologically, the canyons keep aging, of course-the river cuts deeper, the rocks erode. But ecologically, so to speak, the canyons are shifting ever so slightly back in time, back toward what they were in 1899 when Hill's intrepid and ill-assorted party ventured forth.