Santa Elena Canyon is my favorite place in Big Bend. It speaks "Big Bend" in its layout, its ruggedness and its isolation. Every time I come to the park, I make sure to visit here.
The trail is not much. You cross a wash (this can sometimes be flooded) and meander up and down along the river until the trail abruptly ends. In that time though, you're met with a quite a bit of diversity: the hot sandy wash, the humid riparian zone and the rocky cliffs that define the canyon.
There is a beach of sorts along the river, but the Rio Grande isn't exactly a wading river. It's notoriously dirty and is always an unappealing greenish-brown. Crossing the Rio Grande is a big no-no. If you're caught by the Border Patrol, you'll be arrested. No, seriously... But it's nice to sit on the banks of the river, cursing the heat and swatting away the flies, and ponder its journey from southern Colorado to the Gulf, with your spot right in the middle.
I think it's also nice to peer up at the cliffs on the other side and the canyon's mouth in front of you, imagining the explorers in centuries past who were daunted and dismayed by its sight. Most detoured around it.
The walls of the Santa Elena Canyon rise over 1500 feet straight above the river. Shadows abound even at midday. The silence and drama deep in the canyon make this a highlight of any Big Bend adventure.
The rafting is not difficult with only minor rapids encountered. There is a narrow fit involved in one area called the Rock Slide which at high water can be more challenging. Normal times, it is more a matter of not getting stuck in the rocks in the narrow passage.
Huge car-sized boulders have fallen off the vertical walls of the Santa Elena Canyon at one point forming the Rock Slide. In the heavier waters of July-October, hydraulics can become much more intense. Here, in January, we are more concerned about not getting stuck between the rocks in the placid river.
Santa Elena Canyon is shared by the US and Mexico. With modern equipment and boats (and proper planning) you can traverse the canyon safely; but in older times this passage was dangerous. Santa Elena Canyon is composed of a hard form of limestone so it is very deep (about 1500 feet) but not very wide (as little as 30 feet in some places). The trail to the canyon is short but with soft footing which makes it seem further.
This 1.7 mile medium difficulty trail into Santa Elena Canyon is one of the more popular hikes. You have to cross a small creek, which at times can mean getting your feet wet. It was a hop across when we are there, but during the rainy season it can be too deep and swift to make a safe crossing. The trail climbs a series of concrete stairs, which is the section that I believe gives the trail the medium difficulty rating. From the top of the stairs you follow a switch back trail to the bottom of the canyon and parallel to the Rio Grande River until you hit an area where the river comes to the canyon walls, so that you can no longer continue on. This is one of the narrowest places in the seven mile long limestone Santa Elena Canyon. The canyon is quite striking with 1,500 foot sheer vertical walls rising above you.
Walk the narrow path inside the great Santa Elena Canyon surrounded by its tall walls.
Fight the wild foliage and extreme heat and you will be rewarded by great views and even a chance for a quick trip to Mexico (just wade few yards across the shallow Rio Grande)
To your left, Mexico; to your right, the US; in the middle, the Rio Grande! What a wonderful easy hike through an impressive canyon! I am not sure how long the trail is because I did not go all the way to the end. First, you have to cross a river, a tributary to the Rio Grande. When I went, a little up stream was where you got your feet less wet. Than it is a very nice well-marked trail (see picture) going up and down on the US riverbank.
There are possibilities to organize water rafting trips on the river from local companies at Study Butte and Terlingua. Go see VT member mtncorg's Big Bend page for more info on river rafting.
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