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Explore Santa Elena Canyon Trail and the Rio Grande River
Cross Terlingua Creek and hike up through beautiful Santa Elena Canyon and along the Rio Grande River, with stunning views of Big Bend National Park!
Before we ever left for Big Bend in Texas, I knew I wanted us to hike Santa Elena Canyon Trail, a 1.7 mile roundtrip river hike on the western side of the park. Just from everything I’d read and seen, it looked to be a really beautiful area.
And wow, did it ever live up to its reputation. It was an absolutely beautiful hike, one I’ll remember the rest of my life, much like our experience camping in Big Bend National Park.
While it was late May and really quite hot, it was still a gorgeous hike. Starting out on the banks of the Rio Grande River, looking over into Mexico and up through the canyon, we were in awe of this magnificent place.
Big Bend is a force of nature to be reckoned with. It is so worth every road trip I inevitably see in our future to the far reaches of West Texas.
HOW TO GET TO SANTA ELENA CANYON IN BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK
There are two ways you can get to Santa Elena Canyon Trail:
- Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive from the eastern side of the park
- and Old Maverick Road from the western side of the park
If you’re coming from over Panther Junction way and over toward Boquillas, you can drive Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, taking in the sights as you go.
Along the way, you may want to stop and explore the history of places like Sam Nail Ranch, Homer Wilson Ranch, and Castolon Historic Compound. Enjoy the view at Sotol Vista, Mule Ears Overlook, Tuff Canyon, and Santa Elena Canyon Overlook, which is just before the entrance to the trail.
If you’re coming by way of Terlingua, you can drive Old Maverick Road, a 14 mile “improved” dirt road with views of the Terlingua Creek badlands. The road is usually passable for any vehicle, but keep in mind it can flood after storms; it’s also a very rough, slow going road with a lot of washboard spots that rattled us up pretty good.
THE EVER FORMIDABLE SANTA ELENA CANYON
The Rio Grande makes its way through Santa Elena Canyon, and they say the best way to see the canyon is by floating the river. Sheer limestone walls tower 1500 feet above the river on both sides.
About a mile below the entrance to the canyon, located in Lajitas, is an area known as the Labyrinth, a rock slide that creates a pretty formidable hazard for those who float the river. Moving on past the rockslide, the canyon becomes more narrow, in some places as narrow as 25 feet across.
While it widens up the closer you get to the mouth of the canyon, located near Castolon, it definitely provides an unforgettable experience to those who choose to float this beautiful area of the Rio Grande.
According to the Texas State Historical Association, these features of Santa Elena Canyon made it a thorn in the side of early explorers. Most were so afraid of the repercussions they might face from actually going through the canyon, they chose to detour around it instead, extending the length of their expeditions.
Until October 1899, when Robert T. Hill took on a “scientific exploration of the canyon.” Then in 1937, historian Walter Prescott Webb took a well-known trip through Santa Elena Canyon; he was a part of the work to establish Big Bend as a National Park, and what better way to help that cause along than to show off the magnificent beauty of this formidable force of nature.
By the way, Big Bend National Park opened up in 1944. I think it’s safe to say Mr. Webb’s work paid off.
WHAT IT’S LIKE HIKING SANTA ELENA CANYON TRAIL
Entering Santa Elena Canyon Trail requires hiking in toward the river at first. You can walk right up to the Rio Grande.
The riverbank is actually the perfect spot to stop and grab a photo that captures the magnitude of the sheer walls that climb up and up into the sky.
Of course, if it’s been raining, Terlingua Creek may be up, so you may have to wade across… Unless it’s been raining a lot and the creek is up, and then it may be too dangerous to do so. While we were there, the creek was a mere trickle into the Rio Grande, so we easily stepped right over.
Walk up through a bit of vegetation, and you’ll begin a climb up the canyon walls via paved steps, small switchbacks, and a winding bluff side trail.
You’ll climb 160 feet above the Rio Grande River, giving you spectacular views of Big Bend National Park, the Rio Grande, and the narrow gorge.
As you descend back down to the river, you’ll pass through a very sandy area with bushes and other vegetation, along with huge boulders. Eventually, you’ll come to the end where the trail meets the river. This is where the river moves freely on through the gorge, as you stop to take in the scenery.
Look up and you might get a little dizzy with the sheer magnitude of those limestone walls seemingly reaching to the heavens.
WILDLIFE YOU MAY ENCOUNTER WHILE HIKING IN BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK
There is a LOT of amazing wildlife to be found in Big Bend. In fact, according to the National Park Service, “wide-ranging ecosystems within the Big Bend provide habitat for more than 450 species of birds, 75 species of mammals, 56 species of reptiles, and 11 species of amphibians.”
Big Bend is a bird watcher’s paradise, and little did I know that there are bears in the park. We actually had the opportunity to see both javelinas and jackrabbits up close; and of course, we also saw a scorpion one night.
While hiking Santa Elena Canyon, you may encounter the following animals and reptiles:
- Rock squirrels
- Diamondback rattlesnake
- Rock and black-tailed rattlesnakes
- Mountain patchnose snakes
- Trans-pecos copperheads
- Tree lizards
- Southwestern earless lizard
- Southern prairie lizard
- Crevice spiny lizard
- Checkered whiptail
- and more!
With the closeness of the Rio Grande, you may also see waterfowl, fish, turtles, beavers, and any number of amphibians.
WHAT TO PACK FOR HIKING INTO SANTA ELENA CANYON
Especially if you’re hiking with kids, you’ll want to pack a few things for your trip into the canyon.
- Water – Pack plenty of water for everyone because this can be a very hot hike. There really is not a lot of shade, if any, and there are no places to refill along the trail, so pack plenty of water for everyone to stay well hydrated.
- Sunscreen – The sun will beat down on you, reflecting off both the river and those sheer limestone walls. Protect yourself and your family. If you need a reason why it’s important to protect yourself, read about my friend Lynsey’s experience with basal cell carcinoma.
- Hiking Carrier – This is hands down the BEST thing we could have ever gotten for our baby/now toddler. We’ve used it so many times. Read our review of our favorite baby carrier backpack.
- Shoes – While you’ll be wearing these and not necessarily packing them, I still think it’s worth mentioning wearing the proper footwear for this hike.
SAFETY TIPS AND THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE HIKING IN SANTA ELENA CANYON
Santa Elena Canyon Trail is about 1.7 miles roundtrip. While it’s not a long hike, per sé, it’s still a moderate hike and hiking in Big Bend National Park can be dangerous due to the extreme heat.
While there are bathrooms at the trail head, there are no bathrooms and no water along the trail. Again, pack plenty of water to carry along, so everyone will stay well hydrated.
It’s very hot in Big Bend, so you may want to consider hiking this trail in early morning or evening. We hiked it mid-morning, and we all got a little too hot.
Watch your step and wear good shoes. Watch for insects and snakes, but also watch your step as you climb the steps and pass through several small switchbacks.
It’s always a good idea to let someone know when and where you are going.
If you’re making the hike with kids, watch your kids closely because there are very steep and sheer drop offs, not to mention the river, on this trail. Keep little ones closer, maybe even using a hiking carrier like the one we mentioned above.
The weather at Big Bend National Park can change on a dime; if the weather looks stormy, maybe postpone your hike until later. Thunderstorms can be extremely dangerous in the desert, and if Terlingua Creek is really flowing, it may be too dangerous to cross.
Finally, leave no trace. Pack out what you pack in. The more you practice this, the safer and more enjoyable hiking will be for everyone, including hikers who come after you.
Hiking Santa Elena Canyon is definitely one of our most memorable adventures from Big Bend National Park. While it was extremely hot and the climb up the steps of that canyon wall were quite steep, the views were amazing and worth every step we took. I’d recommend this hike to anyone planning a visit to Big Bend National Park.