The majestic Santa Elena Canyon
is the most impressive in Big Bend National Park
- it is visible for over 10 miles away, as the Rio Grande changes direction abruptly after following beneath the straight Sierra Ponce cliffs for several miles and heads due west, cutting through the mountains via a deep, narrow gorge. This sharp bend in the river was formed by movement along the Terlingua fault zone that crosses the park. For many miles upstream the river is trapped beneath the high walls, eventually emerging into a wider valley at the small town of Lajitas. A 0.7 mile path follows the river up the north side of the canyon, and walking further is possible when the water level is low.
The canyon is quite a long distance from the main Big Bend National Park visitor center and reached by the 30 mile Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, some of which is quite winding and steep, and the journey takes about one hour. The route from the trailhead is initially across the course of Terlingua Creek, a minor Rio Grande tributary, dry for much of the year but several feet deep during rainy periods - the path is sometimes closed if conditions are too dangerous. There is then a steep ascent to pass above a sheer cliff at the start of the canyon, followed by a more gradual descent back to water level, then a flat section of several hundred yards through bushes to a beach, beyond which the water covers the gorge from wall to wall.
Upstream along the Rio Grande River
Above the cliffs rise vertically for over 1,000 feet and the purposefully trickling waters help make this a very pleasant setting, especially if no other people are present. The water is always cloudy, flows quickly and looks rather deep in places but at some times of year the depth is no more than 2 feet and so the canyon may be explored upstream on foot, either by crossing channels between exposed sandbanks or simply walking directly up the river. These low water levels can prevent rafting along the canyon - normally a very popular activity. Even a short distance is worthwhile - the canyon feels much more remote and undisturbed once around the first bend when the entrance is out of view. The experience is a little like being at the foot of the Grand Canyon but better in one way as walking in the Colorado is never possible.
A scenic, if little visited location is Fern Canyon, a narrow tributary 2 miles from the start of Santa Elena Canyon. This is very narrow and has a pretty white limestone floor, polished smooth by the waters that sometimes flood down the ravine.