Santa Elena Canyon, The Top Spot in Big Bend National Park

Santa Elena Canyon Trail

Santa Elena Canyon is one of the most breathtaking sights in Big Bend National Park.  The impressive canyon is visible for miles across the desert while driving to the entrance.  The canyon walls are formed of sheer cliffs that rise 1,500′ straight up from the river below.  Santa Elena Canyon was formed from the Rio Grande River cutting through the limestone bedrock over millions of years.  Check out the video we put together of the hike!

The Rio Grande River carries a significant amount of sediment which acts as an abrasive and cuts through the rock walls of the canyon.  You can hear the sand rubbing along a canoe during float trips down the river.  Multi-day float trips are a very popular way to see the entire canyon,  If you can’t dedicate the time to doing a float trip though, there is a quick hike in Big Bend that will take you into the narrow canyon.

Santa Elena Canyon, Big Bend National Park, Rio Grande River
The Rio Grande River running through Santa Elena Canyon. The canyon walls here are 1,500 feet high!

The Rio Grande River here also forms a section of the border between the U.S. and Mexico.  Crossing the deepest channel of the river here will put you in Mexico.  However, other than the sign in the parking lot, you would never know you were entering another country by crossing the river.  The Rio Grande River defines the border between the U.S. and Mexico for over 1,000 miles.  118 of those miles are located within Big Bend.  If you plan a float trip down the river, make sure you bring a passport with you!

Rio Grande River, border, Big Bend, cliffs
The Rio Grande River flows along the border between the U.S. and Mexico

There is a hiking trail at the entrance to the canyon that will take you about a mile into the canyon.  Other than doing a float trip down the Rio Grande, this is the best way to see the inside of the Canyon.

Santa Elena Canyon Entrance, Rio Grande River, Realest Nature
Standing at the entrance to the canyon

After leaving the parking lot, you will cross Terlingua Creek.  The creek will most likely be dried up if it hasn’t rained recently.  You’ll then arrive at the base of a steep climb.  The trail here is a paved cement path and has hand rails to help guide you up the switchbacks during the ascent.  Walking to the mouth of the canyon makes you appreciate just how massive it really is.  After you finish the initial climb, you’ll be rewarded with sweeping views of the Rio Grande river floodplain and the Chisos Mountains in the distance.

Rio Grande, Santa Elena Canyon, View
View of the park after you finish the climb

The trail then takes you further into the canyon.  This is when you really start to appreciate just how high the canyon walls are.  Make sure you keep an eye out for wildlife throughout this part of the hike.  The river is one of the few water sources in Big Bend so it attracts a variety of wildlife.  Don’t forget to look up either, the cliff walls are home to rarely seen Golden Eagles and Peregrine Falcons.

Santa Elena Canyon Cliff Trail
The trail follows along a cliff edge here
Santa Elena Canyon cliff cactus, Big Bend National Park
Check out this cactus growing straight out of the Santa Elena cliffs

After completing the initial climb, the trail begins descending into the canyon.  You’ll follow the trail all the way down to the river level as the path hugs the canyon walls.  The steep canyon walls keep this section of the trail in the shade unless you hike it when the sun is directly above.

Santa Elena Canyon, Rio Grande River, Plants
You’ll see more green along the river than anywhere else in Big Bend

It’s nice to see all of the lush plants along the river in the Canyon bed, not a normal sight in Southwest Texas.

Santa Elena Canyon, Big Bend, Rio Grand River, Cliff Walls
Walking along the river on the inside of Santa Elena Canyon

The whole hike through the Canyon reminded me a lot of the Narrows hike inside Zion National Park.  The limestone rock formations here are also full of fossils.

Santa Elena Canyon, Big Bend National Park, Rio Grande River
The trail weaves through some large boulders inside the canyon

It must have taken some pretty heavy flash floods to move these boulders over the past couple million years.

Santa Elena Canyon Trail, Big Bend National Park
Santa Elena Canyon gets even narrower once you reach the end of the trail

You’ll know you’ve reached the end of the trail because it will come to a dead-end at the water’s edge.  From here on out the Rio Grande River covers the canyon floor from wall to wall.  So unless you packed a raft you’ll have to turn back here. There is some good lighting here throughout the day that you can use to take some pretty cool shots if you like photography.  Time to start the hike back out.

Santa Elena Canyon, Realest Nature, Big Bend National Park
Next Realest Nature production in the making

Even though this is a relatively quick in and out hike, you’ll definitely still want to pack some water.  It can be extremely hot and dry inside the canyon, especially during the summer months.  Do not try to cross Terlingua Creek or hike into the canyon if there has been recent heavy rains.  Both of these areas are subject to flash flooding that can occur on a moment’s notice.  Make sure you don’t forget your camera!  Let us know how your trip to Santa Elena Canyon and Big Bend National Park goes in the comments below!

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