Santa Elena Canyon, Big Bend National Park


Santa Elena Canyon is your reward for the 30-mile drive down Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive (just in case the road wasn’t enough of a reward).  This dramatic cut, through which the Rio Grande flows, is one of the spots in Big Bend National Park that you must visit.  The canyon is an incredible sight, with walls that tower 1,400 feet (426 meters) above the calm surface of the international border.

Evening is an especially magical time to visit Santa Elena Canyon.  When facing the mouth of the canyon, you’re looking west, and the setting sun casts its light onto the cliffs on the Mexico side, illuminating the canyon with a golden glow.

A short, sandy trail takes you from the parking area to the mouth of the canyon.  You can either stand here and gaze into the canyon, or jump into the water and cool off.  It’s kinda muddy, but that didn’t seem to bother the dozens of people who were splashing around during my visit.  I stayed clear of the water until the following morning, when I returned to this spot for a canoe trip into the canyon.  River tour companies use this area as the put-in.

If standing at the mouth of the canyon isn’t enough of a treat, and if canoeing up the river seems like a bit too much effort, here’s another option.  You can hike up a trail that skirts the American side of the river.  It gains some elevation on an otherwise easy path…

… raising you up to a nice viewpoint of the beach, and the landscape that surrounds the lower end of Ross Maxwell Drive.  Look closely, on the horizon near the middle of the photo, and you can spot Cerro Castellan, one of the area’s most prominent features.

At sunset, the American side will be in the shade, but the Mexican side of Santa Elena Canyon looks beautiful.  You can take the trail far enough…

… to look back on the mouth of the canyon.  A wider-angle lens would have helped me capture a fantastic reflection in the river’s almost-still water.

Beyond here, the trail gets rougher, and eventually ends.  You will get to see much more of this incredible canyon if you attempt a canoe trip, which is what I did, the following morning.

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