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The Ultimate Santa Elena Canyon Guide for Campers & Hikers

The Ultimate Santa Elena Canyon Guide for Campers & Hikers

Santa Elena Canyon is one of the most breathtaking sights in Big Bend National Park or the entire US-Mexico border. High sheer canyon walls soar 1,500 feet over the Rio Grande at the edge of a sprawling desert.

It’s a view visitors will never forget – if they can make it there!

Let’s explore Santa Elena Canyon.

What is Santa Elena Canyon (and Its History)

Santa Elena Canyon is located along the United States’ southern border. It is part of Big Bend National Park, a more than 1,252 square mile stretch of river, desert, and mountains. That’s about the size of Rhode Island!

The Federal Government established Big Bend as a National Park in 1944, but the area’s history stretches much further back.

The mighty Rio Grande carved the Santa Elena Canyon. The river completes a sweeping bend as it flows through the park, resulting in giving Big Bend its name.

The first scientific exploration took place in 1899, even though the canyon has been known for hundreds of years. Meanwhile, Santa Elena Canyon has become a popular recreational area since the park’s founding. 

How long is Santa Elena Canyon?

Santa Elena Canyon is seven miles long. The canyon begins seven miles downstream from the town of Lajitas. And it ends a few miles from Big Bend’s Castolon Historic District.

The Best Way to Get to Santa Elena Canyon

One of the defining characteristics of Big Bend National Park is its remoteness. Santa Elena Canyon is at the park’s southern edge. Ultimately, this can make getting to the canyon somewhat difficult and time-consuming. 

Most of those flying into Texas from around the country rent a car for the 4.5-hour drive to the park from El Paso. On the other hand, the canyon is a 7-hour drive from San Antonio or Austin. Additionally, you may find regional flights into Midland International Airport, which is about a 3.5-hour drive from the park. 

Once you arrive at Big Bend National Park, you’ll find Santa Elena Canyon at the end of the 30-mile Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. This winding road snakes through beautiful scenery and the ruins of former homesteads as it makes its way down to the Rio Grande. 

Pro Tip: If you’re traveling with a large RV, we recommend using RV Trip Wizard for planning and routing.

River Tours

Alternately, you can float your way to the canyon on a river trip. In most cases, river tours depart upriver at Lajitas and last two or more days. However, visitors can take one long day if necessary.

You can plan a river trip for any time of the year. Though spring tends to be busiest and summers in the area can be extremely hot. If you’re making a trip with an organized tour, you’ll be provided transportation back to the start point.

For more experienced adventurers managing trips on your own, you’ll need to coordinate how to get back upriver yourselves.

Santa Elena Canyon Trail

The Santa Elena Canyon Trail is a 1.7-mile round trip trail that begins at the end of Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. It takes hikers on a short, easy hike into the canyon. But it isn’t always accessible.

The initial part involves crossing the Terlingua Creek, which is usually possible with nothing more than wet feet. However, high water levels create dangerous conditions that make this trail impassible.

Once across, hikers climb a section of rock stairs for an unbeatable view of the Chisos Mountains before descending back toward the river. The trail eventually dead ends a short distance into the canyon.

There are plenty of spots to rest, grab some water or a snack, or simply enjoy the serenity of the place. This trail is accessible for most hikers and is considered one of Big Bend National Park’s best hikes.

While the canyon walls provide shade for parts of the day, be aware of the potential heat or other weather-related factors while hiking in southwest Texas, especially in the summer.

Chimneys Trail 

The Chimneys Trail is located a short drive from Santa Elena Canyon at mile marker 13 on Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. This trail is slightly longer at 4.8 miles and is considered moderate in difficulty because of this distance.

Hikers can traverse the desert and see a series of “volcanic dike formations.” These tall, rocky “chimneys” serve as an important landmark in the area and feature Indian art at their bases.

Hikers may need to consider heat when planning their trip because people report that it’s almost entirely unshaded. 

For more advanced hikers, the trail continues past the Chimneys for another 4.6 miles, ending on the park’s Old Maverick Road. As this would be a 7-mile hike each way, it’s essential to plan ahead if this is your goal and either camp overnight or arrange transportation at one end.

Pro Tip: Save this list of River Hikes in Big Bend National Park for reference when planning your trip.

The Best Campsites Near Santa Elena Canyon

Terlingua Abajo

Address: Old Maverick Road (3 miles from the southern end, 10 miles from the northern end), Big Bend National Park

About the Campground: If you want to stay as close as possible to Santa Elena Canyon, this is the campground for you. Located just a few miles up Old Maverick Road from the canyon, you’re just a stone’s throw away.

However, don’t expect any amenities. These primitive campgrounds offer beautiful views of the Chihuahuan Desert and solitude, but no toilets, shade, water, or hookups. The campground prohibits generators.

Essentially, they’re a small space to set up camp next to your vehicle. Moreover, vehicles can be a maximum of 25 feet long, including trailers. The National Park Service also advises anyone with any type of trailer to check in with a ranger before heading to these sites as the access road can be rough. 

Price: $10/night. For those with a Senior or Access Pass, the cost is $5/night. Visitors can stay 14 consecutive nights, or 28 nights total in a year, among other restrictions.

Know Before You Go: A backcountry permit is required to camp in Terlingua Abajo.

Cottonwood Campground

Address: Mile Marker 23, Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, Big Bend National Park

About the Campground: For a few more amenities and a little easier access, try the Cottonwood Campground.

This shady campground (named for the trees surrounding it) is located a few miles up the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive from Santa Elena Canyon. It has 24 sites, potable water, and pit toilets, but no hookups or dump station. No generator use is allowed. However, you can enjoy a nice cook-out with the campsite’s grills and picnic tables.

This campground is near the Castolon Historic District, which was damaged by a wildfire in 2019. Consequently, a temporary visitor’s center is set up nearby. The campground is also popular with birdwatchers, looking to see the many species that call Big Bend home.

Price: $16/night. For those with a Senior or Access Pass, the cost is $8/night.

Exploring Santa Elena Canyon

Santa Elena Canyon is truly one of the most underappreciated places in the National Park System. But if you can brave the trek there, the beautiful scenery, rewarding hiking, and charming campsites will have you coming back again and again. 

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