Located along the Rio Grande River in Texas, the Santa Elena Canyon Trail in Big Bend National Park gets you up and close with canyon walls as you hike riverside. Since the Santa Elena Canyon is one of the few places inside of Big Bend National Park to find shade, this hike is fairly easy and a peaceful way to spend 90 minutes while you explore the unexpected landscape of southwest Texas.
While perhaps not as well-known as the popular Lost Mine Trail and Window Trail (located in the Chisos Basin), this easy 1.4-mile out-and-back trail certainly gives visitors to Big Bend National Park a reason to head down the Ross-Maxwell Scenic Drive to the remote Castolon Area of the park.
The Santa Elena Canyon Trail in Big Bend National Park is included in our downloadable itinerary for Big Bend National Park. This extensive document also covers many other hikes, what to pack, what to see in the area, where to stay and what weather to expect while you are planning your trip.
PARKING AND TRAILHEAD FOR THE SANTA ELENA CANYON TRAIL
Santa Elena Canyon Parking Area, courtesy of the National Park Service
The Santa Elena Canyon Trailhead starts from the Santa Elena Canyon parking area, located at the end of the Ross-Maxwell Drive. The parking area is 8.5 miles west of the Castolon Visitor Center, and just under 31 miles from the intersection of the Ross-Maxwell Drive and Panther Junction Road in Gano Springs. Plan for the trip along Ross-Maxwell Drive to take nearly an hour, even without stops along the way.
- Directions from the Chisos Basin area to the Santa Elena Canyon Trail (this will take about 70 minutes)
- Directions from Terlingua, TX to the Santa Elena Canyon Trail (this will also take about 70-90 minutes, depending on the wait time to get into the park)
Along the way to the trailhead, make sure you check out the Castolon Visitor Center. This includes historical information about the inhabitants from the late 19th century as well as plants and fossils. There are also clean bathrooms at this visitor center. Be advised, though, that this visitor center is not open in the summer, when the temperatures can be especially hot.
The parking lot has about 20 spaces, plus plenty of room for parking along the loop at which it’s situated. Though the parking lot can fill up, turnover at the lot is pretty high due to the short trail distance. This time will be even more compressed if it’s hot outside-people won’t stay out too long, for sure!
There are pit toilets at the trailhead if you happen to miss the restroom at the visitor center.
THE HIKE THROUGH SANTA ELENA CANYON
The trail starts on the south end of the parking lot and surprisingly, the trail is a loose boardwalk for the first 300 feet or so. At the end of the boardwalk, the “trail” becomes a walk along the shore of the Rio Grande River. This part of the trail can be a bit damp and mushy. Although you will likely be fine in sneakers, wearing boots or water shoes is recommended if it has rained recently. The river flows from west to east here, draining into the Gulf of Mexico.
Depending on the season, the water can be a bit high. Usually you won’t have any trouble navigating this part of the trail without getting your shoes wet (unless you want to!).
Our kids had a fun time playing along the river and were shocked to know that Mexico was just a few dozen feet away across the river!
Once we reached the river we caught our first glimpse of the amazing Santa Elena Canyon. The walls are over 1200 feet high and surround a very narrow part of the Rio Grande River. The river has worked hard to make this amazing site, and continues to deepen the canyon, albeit very slowly.
Though it may be tempting to get in the river and swim over to the Mexican side just to say you did, you definitely don’t want to do this! While it’s okay to temporarily cross the border in case of an emergency, it’s considered an unauthorized border crossing if you cross in any location with out a border agent. The nearest place to legally return back into the United States is at the Presidio, TX – Ojinaga, Mexico border crossing approximately 20 miles away. Unless you have your passport and plan on quite an adventure, your best bet is to stay on the U.S. side.
After walking a short distance on the beach, the trail heads across Terlingua Creek. The Terlingua Creek originates many miles to the north (in the town of Terlingua), which means that if there has been rain recently, the crossing can get your feet wet or even be impassable and subject to flash floods. When we visited in February, there was only a trickle of water flowing. A couple board of lumber were placed across the creek to help us out with the crossing.
After crossing the Terlingua Creek, the trail heads up a set of switchbacks as it climbs a little over 100 feet in elevation. Though there are some small ups and downs during the rest of the hike, this is the most “challenging” part of the entire trip. The trail requires a total of 183 feet of elevation gain, though it never seemed hard at all. Hikers of all ages should be able to easily handle the trail, and for those that don’t have the time, just walking down to the river is an experience they should have.
After the switchbacks, the trail winds along the cliffside that overlooks the Rio Grande River. We loved watching the few canoes and kayaks that floated below us. Along the way there were plenty of great opportunities for photos, and we took advantage of them several times!
The hike continues until the canyon walls nearly meet each other. Along the way you’ll see plenty of interesting plant life, but the canyon is definitely the highlight of the trip!
The trail dead-ends. While the hike back is the same thing in reverse, we enjoyed the different perspective of the canyon.
OTHER TIPS WHEN HIKING THE SANTA ELENA CANYON TRAIL
- This area of Texas is very dry, so even though this is a short hike, be sure to take plenty of water with you! Our favorite way to stay hydrated is the Platypus Hydration pack-it fits with most backpacks and works great! It’s also easy to wash, which is a pain with a lot of hydration packs.
- Be sure to wear hiking boots on the trail (or hiking sandals). You’ll want to be sure that getting your shoes wet is okay, and low-rise shoes that cause your socks to get wet can make for a miserable hike.
FURTHER INFORMATION ON BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK FROM JUST GO TRAVEL STUDIOS
- Make sure you download our itinerary for Big Bend National Park-this will surely help you with your trip planning and take some of the guesswork out of what to do while you are visiting!
- We loved Big Bend National Park-to see why, read our blog post on 5 Reasons Why You’ll Fall in Love with Big Bend National Park.
- Two other fantastic hikes in Big Bend are covered in our blog on hiking the Lost Mine Trail and our blog on hiking the Window Trail. In addition to the Santa Elena Canyon hike, these are two amazing trails that you don’t want to miss.
- We have a large collection of WPA-style posters to choose from, including a poster from Big Bend National Park.
- When you get back from your trip. Send us a photo and we’ll create custom, vintage-style posters, postcards and note cards with customized wording just for you. We create posters for national parks or any location in the world (we’ve even created some for space!). Be sure to check out our process!
ADDITIONAL USEFUL INFORMATION ON BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK AND THE SURROUNDING AREA
- Michelle (from “The Wandering Queen”) has a terrific blog covering hiking in Big Bend National Park. Her write up is very extensive and can provide a nice overview of great hikes in Big Bend National Park.
- Rene (from “Live Work Dream”) has a very insightful write up on remote RV camping in Big Bend National Park. Learn how you can camp for less than $1 / day!