Trek Southwest - Hiking and Camping the Desert Southwest

Santa Elena Canyon Trail – Big Bend National Park

in Big Bend National Park Hiking Trails

Santa Elena Canyon is one of the most iconic spots in Big Bend National Park. Unfortunately, this means that Santa Elena Canyon Trail is also one of the busiest trails in the entire park.

The Mouth of Santa Elena Canyon

If you want to hike this trail when there isn’t a crowd of people around, my recommendation is to get to the trailhead at daybreak. Sometimes there will be one or two photographers there hoping to catch a great sunrise from the mouth of the canyon, but generally it’s pretty quiet.

Santa Elena Canyon Sunrise

If you get there when the kids are up and bouncing around, expect quite a bit of noise and some teeth rattling echoes along the trail.

To get to the trailhead for Santa Elena Canyon Trail (29.167380, -103.610258), take a left out of Park Headquarters at Panther Junction and drive approximately 13 miles to take a left hand turn onto Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive toward Castolon. From there, you’re going to drive the entire length of Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive (about 32 miles) to the trailhead (don’t turn into the Santa Elena Camping Area or Overlook, but keep going until you see a sign for the trail, past the righthand turn to Maverick Road).

Directions to Santa Elena Trailhead

  • Distance:  1.6 mile round trip
  • Hiking Time:  ~1 Hour
  • Difficulty:  Easy
  • USGS Topo:  Castolon

Once you get to the parking area for the trailhead, there are plenty of picnic tables and a public restroom if you need it. From there, the trail begins on the South side of the parking area.

To start the trail, follow the board path through the sand down to the Rio Grande River.

Beginning of Santa Elena Trail

Once down at the river’s edge, you’ll be able to see where the trail crosses a muddy area on the right hand side of the water.

Cross the Mud to the Trail

After you get past the mud and onto the trail, you’ll come to some stairs leading up into the canyon. They may make the trail look intimidating to some, but once you’re up them, the rest of the trail is very easy.

Steps at the Beginning of Santa Elena Canyon Trail

Once you’ve moved along the trail far enough, you’ll start getting into the shaded part of the canyon where it’s much cooler.

Entering Santa Elena Canyon

It’s difficult to grasp the scale of the canyon walls with a simple picture. I snapped the shot below of Elizabeth standing beneath a massive boulder just to give some context to the scale.

Massive Canyon Walls

As you make your way down into the canyon, take some time and explore the boulders strewn about the canyon floor. There are some great little paths branching off of the main trail where you can step onto the rocks out in the river and watch the water go by or take a little break amongst the boulders.

Santa Elena Canyon View

With the walls being so high in Santa Elena Canyon, I couldn’t get any GPS tracks put together for you to download, but it really doesn’t matter. It would be virtually impossible to get lost on this trail without jumping into the Rio Grande and swimming for it.

Related Posts:

Hiking Big BendPrior to heading out for a hike in Big Bend, we recommend throwing a copy of the Trails Illustrated Big Bend Map in your backpack. The map provided at the entrance station is helpful, but not detailed enough for getting off the road and onto a trail. It’s also helpful to have a copy of Hiking Big Bend, by Laurence Parent.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Larry Hector June 13, 2018 at 3:15 pm

Are you aloud to swim in the river are there any beaches in the park


Admin June 13, 2018 at 3:19 pm

You can get in, but remember the center of the river is the international boundary and the water isn’t all that clean. You can also find some good sandy areas near the backcountry campsites on the East side of River Road. I wouldn’t consider any of it good swimming. Also, please talk to a park ranger about water levels and dangerous currents before going out there. I don’t know the current state of the river right now.


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