Situated in the southern part of Big Bend National Park, Santa Elena Canyon is formed by the meandering Rio Grande, which serves as the border between the United States and Mexico. The canyon walls rise steeply and dramatically, reaching heights of over 1,500 feet (457 meters) above the river, creating a truly breathtaking sight.
Santa Elena is the largest, most accessible, and most dramatic of the canyons inside Big Bend. The cliffs rising from the river’s edge are the tallest in the park.
The rock formations that make up the canyon are predominantly composed of limestone, and they display fascinating layers of sedimentary deposits that provide a glimpse into the area’s geological history. The action of the Rio Grande over millions of years has carved and sculpted the canyon, resulting in its current awe-inspiring form.
Getting to Santa Elena Canyon by Trail
Big Bend National Park is a very remote park. The Santa Elena Canyon Trail is even more remote, as the trailhead is about an hour away from both main visitor centers in the park. Luckily for you, the 40+ mile drive from the visitor centers to the trailhead is the hard part.
About a mile before reaching the parking lot is the Santa Elena Canyon Overlook. The overlook is surprisingly level with the river. The canyon walls are so tall and dramatic from this position, it’s worth a quick stop to view.
The trailhead parking area is not paved, but is flat and has room for about a dozen or so vehicles. There are restrooms there as well.
From the trailhead parking area, the trail to the Rio Grande riverside, and the start of the Santa Elena Canyon is only about 520 feet long. The entire path down to the river is flat, and the beginning section has a sort of wooden plank boardwalk, while the very end of it is entirely sand.
However, the trail does not end there. While at this point you’re standing in the mouth of the canyon, the trail actually continues into the canyon for at least another mile or so.
After reaching the Rio Grande, the Santa Elena Trail follows the edge of the canyon walls along the shoreline. The trail becomes a bit hard to follow before you just walk along the river as far as you can.
Getting to Santa Elena Canyon by Boat
You can float through the Santa Elena canyon via paid river tour operators, or via yourself.
Option #1: By Yourself
The best way to float through the canyon yourself is via a kayak launched from the Santa Elena Trail. Since the path to the river’s edge is only about 500 feet and flat, carrying a kayak is doable for most people. After launching from the trail, most people kayak upstream into the canyon a few miles into the canyon before turning around and floating back down to the original launch area. Locals call this a “boomerang” trip.
A few tips for this type of river float:
- The river’s flow rates must be under 200 cfs, with 100 cfs being ideal. If the flow rate is less than that, your kayak will probably require some dragging along the shallow areas.
- A backcountry permit is required, even for short trips like this. Day-use (i.e. not overnight) permits are free, and can be picked up in person at both the Chisos Basin and Panther Junction Visitor Centers.
- Kayaks and canoes can be rented from just about every river tour company listed in the next section below. The prices for a kayak or canoe rental are around $50-$80 a day.
Option #2: Rio Grande River Tours
If transporting kayaks is not for you, or if you simply want a longer, more in-depth river tour, you have a few options.
River tour companies sometimes do not allow you to decide which canyon you’ll get to visit. For example, one specifically states “The water level determines which canyon we float through and whether we will be rafting, kayaking, or canoeing.” on their website.
Prices range anywhere from $75-$200 per person. Tours can range anywhere from a couple of hours to multiple days.
The tour operators in Big Bend are listed here. They are all located in the town of Terlingua, which is about an hour away from the Santa Elena Canyon.
|Big Bend Boating and Hiking Company||53570 Hwy 118, Terlingua, TX 79852||469-607-9869|
|Big Bend River Tours||23331 FM 170, Terlingua, TX 79852||800-545-4240|
|Desert Sports||22937 FM 170, Terlingua, TX 79852||432-371-2727|
|Far Flung Outdoor Center||23310 FM 170, Terlingua, TX 79852||432-371-2633|
|Wild Adventure Outfitters||Terlingua, TX 79852||432-247-3262|