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Santa Elena Canyon Trail: Big Bend’s Signature Hike

The Santa Elena Canyon Trail may be one of the most accessible hikes in Big Bend National Park, West Texas; however, that doesn't make it any less stunning.

The Terlingua Fault line formed the canyon, tearing apart an otherwise impenetrable 1,500-foot rock reminiscent of Game of Thrones.

The Rio Grande River flows west through the canyon, allowing kayakers and rafters to explore further than is possible on foot.

The river also acts as the official border between the United States and Mexico, as it does throughout Big Bend National Park.

Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park, Texas
Santa Elena Canyon

Getting There

On our first of two full days in Big Bend, Kel and I drove into the park from Terlingua before sunrise.

We arrived at the Panther Junction Visitor Center at 8:30 a.m., just as it opened. There, we paid the $30 vehicle entrance fee for the park.

Next, we enjoyed incredible views while driving for 30 miles to reach the end of the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive and the Santa Elena Canyon Trail.

The 45-minute scenic drive through the Chihuahuan Desert was spectacular, and as it was early, we had the road to ourselves.

We hoped that by driving straight to Santa Elena Canyon, we'd have one of Big Bend's most popular hikes to ourselves.

It was a bet that paid off, and we didn't miss anything because the only way back from this southwest region of the park was the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive.

Dave at the start of the Santa Elena Canyon Trail
Dave at the start of the Santa Elena Canyon Trail

Santa Elena Canyon Trail

We arrived at the small parking area near the Santa Elena Canyon Trail entrance around 9 a.m. Finding a spot that early wasn't a problem. Picnic tables and a few basic restrooms with flush toilets are available.

While we were the only hikers I saw, local outfitters were unloading kayaks ahead of a tour group's river trip.

Mid-morning is an excellent time for this short trail, as the sun is high enough to illuminate the canyon entrance but not yet directly overhead.

The sheer cliff walls are so tall they afford plenty of shade, keeping temperatures cooler. Remember if you're going in summer, as it can get dangerously hot. We were there in October.

Santa Elena Canyon Trail sign and map
Santa Elena Canyon Trail sign

The Santa Elena Canyon trailhead, like all those in Big Bend National Park, has a sign in English with key information about this popular trail, including:

  • Duration of the hike (1.4 miles round trip)
  • Elevation gain (80 feet)
  • Geography
  • Trail safety tips (watch out for snakes and mountain lions)
  • Trail rules (no pets, bicycles, or camping)
The Rio Grande River passes through the Santa Elena Canyon, separating Mexico (left/south side, from the U.S. on the right/north side).
Rio Grande River (Mexico is on the left side, and the U.S. is on the right)

Hiking in Santa Elena Canyon

The hike into Santa Elena Canyon begins with a short walk on flat ground, parts of which are covered with a wooden boardwalk.

Terlingua Creek feeds into the Rio Grande River at the mouth of the canyon. You'll need to cross the creek to continue on the trail, which extends along the river's northern (U.S.) side.

We were there in mid-October, and while there'd been heavy rains the week before our arrival, enough time had passed for the water levels to go down.

The water was about ankle-deep and easily crossed by hopping on well-placed rocks.

If you arrive and the water level is too high, you can't safely access the canyon. It's also important to be aware of the weather in the region.

While it's a short hike in and out, you wouldn't want to get stranded in the Santa Elena Canyon due to a flash flood blocking your way out.

Kel smiling on the trail
Kel is all smiles.

Once you've crossed the creek, the Santa Elena Canyon Trail features a short but rocky series of switchbacks.

A sign indicates that marine fossils, visible in the rock behind it, suggest that a vast sea covered Big Bend National Park during the Cretaceous Period 100 million years ago.

We were on our own walking into the canyon, but on our way out, we saw parents taking a break from hauling a wheeled stroller up this section of the trail (not something I'd recommend).

Related: Hiking to Big Bend's Hot Springs

Santa Elena Canyon Trail
Santa Elena Canyon Trail
Dave hiking amid 1,500-foot walls (photo: Kelly Lemons)
Dave hiking amid 1,500-foot walls (photo: Kelly Lemons)

The elevation decreased as we continued our hike into the Santa Elena Canyon until we walked on soft, sandy ground, about level with the Rio Grande River.

The sky was a beautiful blue, and a partially white moon was visible above the canyon walls.

We passed several large boulders that must've fallen off the rock walls long ago.

The Santa Elena Canyon Trail ends at the Rio Grande River
The Santa Elena Canyon Trail ends at the Rio Grande River

It only took us about 40 minutes at a casual pace to reach the endpoint of the Santa Elena Canyon Trail.

You'll know you've reached the end of the trail when it comes to an abrupt stop at the banks of the Rio Grande River.

Here, you can get a closer look at the striations in the rock walls, especially on the Mexican side. If it's calm, the water acts as a reflecting pool, making it an excellent photo spot.

Beyond this point, your only option is to cruise further into the canyon on a kayak or raft.

As we hadn't signed up for a tour, due in part to our limited time, we turned around and hiked out the way we came.

Related: 10 Things to Do in Big Bend

View of Big Bend National Park
View of Big Bend National Park
Kayakers prepare to paddle the Rio Grande River through the Santa Elena Canyon
Kayakers prepare to paddle the Rio Grande River through the Santa Elena Canyon.

On our way out, we passed more people on the hiking trail. At least we had it to ourselves for half the time!

We ascended to the high point and saw Big Bend National Park's mountains in the distance.

More kayaks were lined up at the water's edge, and the clientele listened to a safety briefing on their excursion. We were back in our car after about 75 minutes total.

The Santa Elena Canyon Trail was a fun and easy hike to begin our Big Bend National Park adventure.

The national park trail is easy enough for hikers of all ages, including kids, and more experienced hikers with limited time may prefer to skip it for the park's more strenuous options.

Check out the park's website for more info on visiting Big Bend.

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