For all the vastness of Big Bend National Park, one of the most recognized and iconic destinations in the park has to be Santa Elena Canyon, the enormous gorge that cuts through the heart of the region, and also provides the channel for the mighty Rio Grande River. Many have stood on the shores of this river and gazed upon the enormous chasm, but how many have hiked the trail on this chasm’s edge, or participated in a Santa Elena Canyon rafting experience by rafting the Rio Grande in order to venture even further into this architectural wonder? When visiting Big Bend, Santa Elena Canyon is absolutely a must, but don’t settle for just a quick glimpse and a picture, explore this canyon to its fullest in two stellar ways: hike the Santa Elena Canyon Trail, and take on some Santa Elena Canyon kayaking and rafting!
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Background on Santa Elena Canyon and the Rio Grande
Santa Elena Canyon is the poster child for unique Texas topography. This natural wonder is a multi-layered limestone feat, created from continuous erosion from the Rio Grande River. Its walls tower at 1,500 feet at their highest, and at their narrowest are only 25 feet in width. Whether you plan to explore Santa Elena Canyon by land or by water, it is a fascinating tribute to one of Texas’s most impressive feats, in one of its most stunning surroundings.
Location of Big Bend’s Best Canyon
Santa Elena Canyon is located in far southern Texas, within Big Bend National Park. It resides within the western portion of the park, closest to the West Entrance of Big Bend National Park, and in close proximity to the Cottonwood Campground. After entering the park from the West Entrance, it is approximately a one hour drive on the 30 mile long Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive road before reaching the parking area for the Santa Elena Canyon Trail and Rio Grande river access.
How to get to Santa Elena Canyon
Whereas some areas of Big Bend are slightly more high desert or forest topography, such as what can be found in the centrally located high elevation Chisos Basin, Santa Elena Canyon is surrounded by a mostly Chihuahuan desert ecosystem. That is what makes these enormous canyon ledges all the more striking, as they sprout unexpectedly from a mostly flat and brushy landscape.
The area surrounding Santa Elena Canyon
Hiking the Santa Elena Canyon Trail
Hiking the Santa Elena Canyon Trail is the best way to experience the Rio Grande River and the Santa Elena Canyon on land and by foot. There is ample parking and restroom facilities located at the trailhead, which is clearly marked with signage. There are also designated parking areas for unloading and loading of kayaks and other boating equipment.
Quick Facts on the Santa Elena Canyon Trail
Length: 1.5 miles out and back
Elevation Gain: 213 feet
The entirety of the Santa Elena Canyon Trail is only a 1.5 mile roundtrip, out and back trek, but do not be fooled into thinking that the trail ends at the river’s edge. It is possible to take the Santa Elena Canyon Trail only a few tenths of a mile to the banks of the Rio Grande for a viewpoint, but it veers off the left just before the banks, crossing the small inlet of the Terlingua Creek to proceed up into the shadows of the canyon walls. This is where the elevation gain occurs as hikers climb up the stairs and ramps along the ledges of trail that overlook the Rio Grande.
Insider Tip: there are occasions when Terlingua Creek is flooded, affecting access to the remaining portion of the Santa Elena Canyon Trail. If in doubt regarding the current conditions, it is always advisable to check with a ranger before departing.
The Santa Elena Canyon Trail traces along the base of the canyon walls, before slowly descending to merge with the banks of the Rio Grande once again at the termination of the trail. The trail ends in a small level section at the base of the canyon walls, surrounded by clumps of tall river grasses and reeds, forming a small, intimate canyon beach. From here, hikers are completely enveloped in the shadows of the Santa Elena Canyon walls, and may even have a chance from this vantage point to wave on some passing boaters or kayakers who are rafting the Rio Grande.
Santa Elena Canyon Rafting Trip
The second way to enjoy this natural wonder, and perhaps a more intimate, unique, and physically challenging way, is to go on a Santa Elena Canyon rafting trip. The term “rafting” here applies to multiple forms of boating, including canoes and kayaks. I personally enjoy the responsiveness and agility of kayaks, so my preferred type of river trip is a Santa Elena Canyon kayaking trip.
A Boomerang Trip Rafting the Rio Grande River
There are multiple tour companies that can operate a day use Santa Elena Canyon rafting trip, often referred to as a “boomerang” trip. A “boomerang” trip refers to launching from the Santa Elena Canyon River Access point, boating several miles into the canyon going upstream, then turning around and returning to the mouth of Santa Elena Canyon.
I found that the average cost of a full day guided river tour was approximately $150 a person, and that typically included transportation from a designated location outside the park, like the small town of Terlingua, park entrance fees, required permits, and all necessary equipment.
Looking for a recommendation on which boating company to use? I recommend Big Bend Boating and Hiking Company!
Or you can use your own personal boating and kayaking equipment for rafting the Rio Grande. There is ample parking available and designated spots for loading and unloading at the trailhead of the Santa Elena Canyon Trail. Since the walk from the trailhead down to the bank of the Rio Grande is just over a tenth of a mile along the trail, it is not a long haul to carry out a kayak or two. Just know that you will have to transport your capsule to the launch point from the parking lot.
What About Permits?
A backcountry permit is required for all day trip and overnight river trips. These permits are available at Panther Junction and the Chisos Basin Visitor Center, up to 7 days in advance. If you are using a guide, they will take care of procuring your permit for you.
You can find more information on River Regulations in Big Bend National Park on the NPS website.
Are Pets Allowed on a Santa Elena Canyon Rafting Trip?
How Can I Gauge If the Water Levels Are Safe?
Departing upstream from Santa Elena Canyon, you should look for cfs levels (cubic feet per second – referring to flowing water) to be under 200, with closer to 100 considered to be the sweet spot. Around 100 cfs will mean less fighting the river going upstream. Less than 100 cfs will require you to drag your boating capsule.
What to Expect on a Santa Elena Canyon Rafting Day Trip
- Plan on rafting 3-4 miles one way (6-8 miles roundtrip)
- You will boat upstream from Santa Elena Canyon until your turn around point
- There are limited places to stop and pull over on the banks for breaks
- Be aware of current CFS levels
- Watch for low water levels and protruding rocks
- Know what gear is required if boating independently (check NPS website)
The banks of the Rio Grande are calm and make for an easy put in spot from which to set off on your rafting or kayaking day trip. A recommended day itinerary is to boat several miles into the Santa Elena Canyon and back out in that same day, but plan on some time to stop for breaks and a meal on one of the small level banks that are sporadically located along the otherwise sheer cliff faces of Santa Elena Canyon. For an ideal day river trip, I would recommend a distance of 3-4 miles of boating in, with a return trip of equal mileage, totaling between 6-8 miles roundtrip. This is a reasonable feat that should be doable in the span of a day.
Insider Tip: when determining how far to go on a day trip, take into account your ability level, and the current conditions of the river while rafting the Rio Grande. On my most recent day kayaking trip, we encountered a slightly stronger current and some faster moving rapids about 3.5 miles into the canyon, and determined that we should heed that condition as our own sign to turn back around.
The initial departure from the bank of the Rio Grande starts calm, and traces along the same parallel land route as the Santa Elena Canyon Trail. You will likely see hikers standing on the ledges above the river as they hike the Santa Elena Canyon Trail themselves, as you take off on your Santa Elena Canyon kayaking trip! At this point, you will be paddling upstream against the current until you reach your halfway/turn around spot.
If the currents are mild and the CFS (cubic feet per second) is under 200, it should be manageable for both novices and beginners at this point. That being said, it is a good idea to practice some basic kayaking skills in a controlled water environment, such as a calm lake or gentle stream, before arriving to Santa Elena Canyon, if possible.
Insider Tip: if possible, get to know a kayak in a controlled environment before exploring Santa Elena Canyon by rafting the Rio Grande. Each kayak or other form of boat is responsive in its own unique way, and it is good to get to know your own groove (or the groove of you and your partner if tandem) when it comes to paddling and steering. And if you are tandem kayaking, be sure to note that the person sitting in back bears the responsibility of being the primary steer-er of your vessel.
Once you have fully immersed yourself into the walls of Santa Elena Canyon, you may notice a couple things. First, as you paddle up close along the canyon walls, it is vividly evident how much intricate elemental work has been completed here. These same canyon walls that appear stark and smooth from a distance standing along the banks of the Rio Grande River, are now uniquely chiseled, striated, and chipped from erosion. There are deep cracks and chasms, holes and pockets, even perfectly eroded blocks and cubes of rock protruding from the canyon wall surfaces.
Second, these canyons are massive, and they literally erupt and rise straight up from the Rio Grande. There are limited places to stop on the banks, as there really are not a lot of true open spaces along the banks. But when you do find them though, they make for a perfect little oasis, completely removed from everything. They are the perfect spots to stop for a snack among the river reeds and tall grasses.
Thirdly, as you proceed with rafting the Rio Grande, keep an eye out for low water levels and sections of river where the water is not deep enough to kayak through. On my most recent winter kayaking day trip through Santa Elena Canyon, there were several instances of having to get out of the kayak and drag it a short distance over a low water section of exposed river bottom rocks and pebbles.
Fourthly, within the first several miles of upstream boating, there were one or two very mild sections of “Class 1” rapids. The current will naturally be stronger here, and paddling will naturally require a little more gusto and a little more finesse in regards to steering. Keep in mind, water conditions are affected by the weather and cfs levels (which you can check here), and it is always a good thing to check with a ranger if boating independently, or check with your guide if taking a guided rafting trip.
The most important thing is to watch for when rafting the Rio Grande are protruding rocks as you pass through the sections of rapids. Watch for the white crests of water breaking against rock to locate these protrusions. You should avoid going over any protruding rocks like this if at all possible, as they will increase the likelihood of flipping your kayak. And keep in mind, should you ever start to capsize, avoid the natural reaction to want to lean away from what is causing your capsize, and instead lean into it. So say, if you are passing a protruding rock on your right hand side and you hit it and start to flip, lean your body into the right side.
Fifthly, what special requirements or restrictions are involved with taking on a Santa Elena Canyon rafting trip? We inquired from both tour guides, Big Bend National Park rangers, and other local and online resources, and the restrictions are minimal.
Kayaking and boating on the Rio Grande only requires a backcountry permit obtained from the National Park, at Panther Junction or the Chisos Basin Visitor Center. This permit must be obtained for both day river trips and overnight or multi-day river trips (which I will discuss in more depth). If you use a guided tour group, these required backcountry permits are taken care of for you.
Other reasonable regulations and restrictions on the river include carrying a life vest for each passenger, no pets, no open fires on the banks, and no getting involved if you happen to encounter illegal river crossings. For a full list of restrictions, visit the National Park Service page. If you are taking a guided trip, your guide will cover the requirements for gear, such as providing life vests for each passenger, etc. If you are rafting independently, it will be up to you to check the National Park Service page above to determine what required gear you will need to have on your person during your trip.
You can pull your kayak over and stop on the opposite side of the Rio Grande, technically Mexico, for a break or to eat a snack. In fact, you can even kayak camp along the Rio Grande River on a overnight or multi-day trip, that is, kayak your camping gear into Santa Elena Canyon, then pull over on a nice level section of river bank to camp overnight. We were told not to expect any kind of patrolling or more intensive restrictions for a day river trip or longer.
While venturing down the Rio Grande, do not forget to keep a keen eye out for wildlife in Santa Elena Canyon. Hawks, sheep, even black bears, call this seemingly inhospitable canyon their unlikely residence.
Lastly, be mindful of the elements. A Santa Elena Canyon rafting trip will be conducted in almost all shade, as the sun only makes its way to the bottom of the canyon for a short amount of time in the afternoon. Otherwise, the high canyon walls will keep you in shade. Dress appropriately and in layers if necessary.
Recommended Quick Links
- waterproof pants
- rubber boots
- lightweight, waterproof jacket
- wool socks
- waterproof bags
- life jacket
- water bottle
You should naturally expect to get wet when rafting the Rio Grande, so wear the right clothing. Waterproof pants were a lifesaver for me during my kayaking trip, like these waterproof, highly breathable, NRS Endurance pants. I would also highly recommend a pair of rubber boots. They do not have to be expensive, but they are a lifesaver to put on when you need to get out in the shallow sections and walk your kayak through. Finally, this outer shell layer that is lightweight, compressible, and fully waterproof and windproof – the Outdoor Research Helium II jacket – is a lifesaver!
It also would not hurt to bring along an extra pair of clothing items, like socks, that have a higher likelihood of getting soaked! Boots are great, but in the few sections of stronger current, if you end up having to get out and walk your kayak for any reason, water may still find a way to surge over the tops of your boots! Keep these extra accessories and other vital items safe in a waterproof bag, like these handy ones you can find for cheap on Amazon!
And always, keep personal safety at the forefront and wear a comfy life jacket like this one when boating Santa Elena Canyon. If you are taking a guided river trip, your guide will be responsible for providing life jackets for each passenger.
Overnight and Multi-Day Santa Elena Canyon Kayaking Trips
For those looking for an extended adventure in Santa Elena Canyon, consider a longer Rio Grande river trip! It is possible to complete an overnight or multi-day river trip here. The same tour groups that offer day “boomerang” river trips also offer multi-day trips. And as always, you can go at it yourself with your own equipment. If you choose the latter route, do not forget to obtain your required backcountry permit.
Popular multi-day routes often include a put in in the town of Lajitas, located outside the western boundaries of Big Bend National Park. From here, it is about 20 miles of kayaking to reach the put out river access on the shores of the Santa Elena Canyon Trail. It makes for a perfect 3 day long river trip.
If you go this route, expect the first approximate 13 miles to be comprised mostly of kayaking through desert landscapes, until reaching the emerging canyon walls of Santa Elena for the last 7 approximate miles. Two miles in from reaching the canyons, you will encounter the toughest rapids on the entire multi-day trip, a Class 5 section known as the “Rock Slide”. The strength of the rapids, of course, depends largely on current water levels.
To overnight it on the Rio Grande, you do not have to start from Lajitas. You can always put in from the Santa Elena Canyon Trailhead, and paddle however many miles up before stopping and pulling over to camp for the night, returning the next day.
The suggested itineraries listed above are only suggestions. For a complete list of designated launch sites and boat-able river segments of the Rio Grande, visit the National Park Service page.
So now that you know the two best ways to get the most out of Santa Elena Canyon, you take take on the trail and the river, or really live it up and take on both! You are guaranteed a reward either way, the magnificence and awe of a towering, yet graceful, canyon and river!
Santa Elena Canyon is just ONE of the TOP 5 Canyons in Texas! Explore ALL 5 HERE!
Read More: Big Bend National Park is a unrivaled haven for outdoor enthusiasts! Santa Elena Canyon kayaking and hiking are but a few offerings that this park has! For some of my other favorite Big Bend spots, head over to a different region of the park, the mountainous, forested, high elevation Chisos Basin, to take on some other multi-dimensional hikes, like the challenging, uphill Lost Mine Trail, or the whimsical and entertaining Window Trail!
Bonus: No matter which trails you plan to explore, be prepared for ANY and ALL of them with the only hiking checklist you will ever need!
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