The Santa Elena Canyon Trail At Big Bend National Park

Santa Elena Canyon at the Terlingua Creek and Rio Grande

After stopping at the Santa Elena Canyon Overlook to take in amazing views of the limestone cliffs bordering the Rio Grande River and Big Bend National Park, we drove out to the Santa Elena Canyon Trailhead so we could hike the Santa Elena Canyon Trail.

Unfortunately, when we made it down to river banks, instead of finding a dry or muddy creek bed we could cross, we found a deep rushing creek full of water and that completely changed our plans.

The Santa Elena Canyon Trail is a moderate, 1.7 mile, round trip hike along the bend of the Rio Grande River into the Santa Elena Canyon. It is one of the best-known natural features of Big Bend National Park and one of the most popular and crowded places in the entire national park.

Like liquid sandpaper, the sand and silt in swift current of the Rio Grande file away at Santa Elena’s hard limestone, cutting it deeper and deeper. In a raft or canoe, you can actually hear the grit hissing along the hull.

The Santa Elena Canyon Trail begins on the south side of the parking area. It follows a narrow wooden board path through to the sandy banks of Terlingua Creek and the Rio Grande River. The sandy beach is a great place for a picnic and to check out the magnificent canyon entrance up close. It’s also the perfect spot to let your kids run and play and throw rocks into the creek and river. We had fun trying to throw rocks all the way across to land in Mexico!

From here, the trail crosses Terlingua Creek, a minor Rio Grande tributary that is mostly dry, but swells to several feet deep during rainy periods.

  • During dry times, you can walk through the muddy creek bed to the other side of Terlingua Creek with no problems.
  • During wet times, the creek waters swell and rise. When we visited the park at Thanksgiving, the water was freezing and all the way up to our thighs!

On the opposite side of the creek, there is a rope hanging down a low rock cliff that you have to use to pull yourself out of the creek bed. After that, you have to make a steep ascent up a series of concrete switchbacks made of ramps and stairs.

At the top, the trail descend back to the banks of the Rio Grande and levels out as it takes you to one of the narrowest points in the gorge where the limestone canyon walls tower 1,500 feet above the river.

Because the creek was so deep (especially for us shorties), and we were wearing pants and layers, and shoes and socks due to the cold weather, we didn’t end up hiking into Santa Elena Canyon.

While I did quite a bit of research before our trip, all the information I found about the Santa Elena Canyon Trail referenced dry or muddy creek beds. If I had known about the fluctuating water levels and possibly having to wade through it, we would have worn different shoes and clothes.

Luckily, the view from the beach was still amazing and well worth the drive!

Know Before You Go

Santa Elena Canyon is at the end of the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive:

  • The Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is a 30 mile adventure through the Chihuahuan Desert landscape of Big Bend National Park to the banks of the Rio Grande. It is an out and back road that begins near the park’s Maverick Entrance and has many vista points, scenic pullouts, educational displays, and short hikes.
  • You can also reach Santa Elena Canyon via Old Maverick Road that runs between Maverick Junction and Santa Elena Canyon. It is a 14 mile improved dirt road that passes along the Terlingua Creek badlands on the west side of the park. Old Maverick Road tends to be rough and washboarded — it takes around an hour to drive the 14 miles. It is also subject to high water and flooding following rainstorms.
  • There are vault toilets and picnic tables at the trailhead for the Santa Elena Canyon Trail.
  • Santa Elena Canyon is one of the most popular places in Big Bend National Park, and as a result, it is also one of the most crowded places in the park. If you don’t arrive early, chances are the entire parking lot will be full.
  • If Terlingua Creek gets too deep or the conditions become dangerous, Santa Elena Canyon Trail will close. Check with Park Rangers for current conditions.

About Big Bend National Park:

  • Big Bend National Park is located in Brewster County, southwest Texas. The name Big Bend refers to the great U-turn the Rio Grande makes in Southwest Texas.
  • Park entrances are open 24 hours daily, all year. Entrance fee stations have variable seasons and hours.
  • Admission fees are valid for seven days and are $30/vehicle, $25/motorcycle, $15/individual/bicyclist/pedestrian.
  • There are five Visitor Centers in Big Bend National Park: Panther Junction, Chisos Basin, Castolon, Persimmon Gap, and Rio Grande Village.
  • Download the Big Bend National Park maps.
  • Big Bend National Park has more than 150 miles of hiking trails, including desert hikes in the Chihuahuan Desert, mountain hikes in the Chisos Mountains, and river hikes along the Rio Grande.
  • Convenience stores are available and open year-round at Rio Grande Village, the Chisos Basin, and in the historic La Harmonia store at Castolon.
  • Gas stations are located at Panther Junction and Rio Grande Village, and outside the park in Study Butte and Stillwell’s Ranch. Diesel is available at Panther Junction and outside the park in Study Butte.
  • Pets are not allowed on trails, off roads, or on the river. Your pet can only go where your car can go and must be on a leash no longer than six feet in length or in a cage at all times. Pet etiquette and park regulations require that you always clean up after your pet and dispose of waste in trash receptacles.

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