The Santa Elena Canyon Trail in Big Bend National Park is like the Old Faithful geyser of Yellowstone National Park. If you go to Big Bend National Park and skip the Santa Elena Canyon, you miss the main attraction.
You may be asking whether it is worth it because you have a limited amount of time in the Big Bend National Park and are trying to decide what to do. If you go to Big Bend to experience the Chihuahuan desert and to hike, then skip the Santa Elena Canyon trail if you don’t have enough time. Go instead on any of the amazing day hikes in the desert.
If you are in Big Bend National Park to simply drive around, see the sites, and take photos, then the Santa Elena Canyon Trail should be your priority. The scale and magnitude of the sheer cliffs are awe-inspiring. You need to be prepared to wait in line to take photos of the best views because there will inevitably be hordes of people.
The Santa Elena Canyon Trail is worth visiting for the natural beauty. Walking along the Rio Grande river between two sheer rock faces that tower 1,500 feet above is a sublime experience. The trail is short and full of tourists; avid hikers may be disappointed.
If you want a photo to post to social media to make your friends and family jealous, then you definitely want to experience the Santa Elena Canyon Trail. In this post I share my experience at Santa Elena Canyon Trail so you can decide whether visiting is worth it for you.
The Santa Elena Canyon Trail is Crowded.
If you don’t like crowds and prefer to escape humanity in the vast expanse of Big Bend National Park then do not go to the Santa Elena Canyon trail. I noticed two distinct visitors to Big Bend. There were those that drove from one attraction to the next for photo opportunities, and there were those that spent hours each day hiking.
Santa Elena Canyon Trail is the kind of place you would bring visitors from out of town if you lived within 100 miles of the site. It has a large parking lot at the trailhead with ample restroom facilities. When we arrived in late December, there were at least two Park Rangers there directing traffic.
The trail was packed with people and we found ourselves often waiting on a switchback to allow a train of people to pass by. Many of these groups were families with multiple generations strolling along the trail. Like any tourist attraction, there were people from all over the world.
Is the Santa Elena Canyon Trail A Good Hike?
At this point you probably know my answer to this question.
The Santa Elena Canyon Trail is not a good hike. It is only 1.5 miles round trip with about 80 feet elevation gain, partially on human-made walkways. Because the trail is very crowded, you may find yourself waiting along the trail to allow lines of people to pass by.
The Santa Elena Canyon Trail might be the worst hike in the Big Bend National Park. I did not go on every hike during my three-day trip, but Santa Elena Canyon Trail was definitely the least satisfying of all the hikes I did.
Even if the trail were not crowded, the hike still leaves much to be desired. From the parking lot, you walk a few hundred yards through the scrubby, flood plain of the Rio Grande Valley where the Terlingua Creek and the Rio Grande River meet.
From the confluence of these two waterways, you climb a series of human-made switchbacks along the U.S. side of the Rio Grande as you head into the canyon. You ascend about 80 feet, then slowly descend along the river to a point in the canyon where you can go no further. Mudflats and throngs of people greet you.
At this point, you can stand around, people watch, take a few photos of the majestic cliff faces, and head back to your car. By the way, the best photos of the canyon and most of the photos you find on the internet are taken from the point where the two waterways meet before you ascend the switchbacks.
If you are really strapped for time but want that social-media-envy photo of you at the canyon, then you could walk from the parking lot to the river and snap some photos without doing the rest of the hike. Again, the best views are there where you first come to the Rio Grande river.
Which Is Better, Boquillas Canyon or Santa Elena Canyon?
On our first day in the Big Bend National Park, we hiked the Upper Burro Mesa Pour-off Trail. Yes, this hike needs a better name, to be sure. I cannot recommend this hike enough, but that is for another post.
While we were hiking along, we encountered an older gentleman with a group of college-age hikers. We struck up a conversation. He has been coming to Big Bend for decades and said that the Boquillas Canyon is better than the Santa Elena Canyon. I agree.
The Boquillas Canyon trail offers a better experience than the Santa Elena Canyon trail. Boquillas Canyon does not attract as many tourists. At the end of the trail, a broad shoreline in the canyon offers more room to relax and enjoy the scenery.
Boquillas Canyon trail is similar to the Santa Elena Canyon trail in that I would not consider it a hike. Boquillas Canyon trail is slightly longer but is still only two miles. The point is to relax by the river in the canyon, not to hike.
My son and I swam across the Rio Grande to Mexico and back. In December, the water is chilly but certainly bearable. In the Chihuahuan desert at 1 PM, the temperature was about 75F and sunny. Our shorts were dry in no time.
At the base of the Boquillas Canyon cliffs, there are steep sand dunes in one section, presumably piled from millennia of erosion. My family scampered to the top of the dune and enjoyed amazing views of the river and across into the remote Mexican portion of the Chihuahuan desert.
When Is The Best Time of Day To Visit Santa Elena Canyon Trail?
There are two important factors to consider when planning a day in the Big Bend National Park and are considering when to visit the Santa Elena Canyon trail: people and the sun.
The canyon is set into a prominent ridge wall that runs north and south from the U.S. side into Mexico. The canyon generally extends west into this natural barrier. The Rio Grande River cuts through the stone formed from sediments deposited from an inland sea millions of years ago.
The best time to visit the Santa Elena Canyon Trail is either at the beginning or end of the day. You will avoid the larger crowds of visitors at midday. You will also avoid direct sunlight. In the morning and especially in the evening, the trail will be in the shadow of the cliff walls.
We visited the trail about two hours before sunset. The setting sun had already dipped behind the towering cliffs, and the area was somewhat dark.
The best time to visit the canyon for pictures would be in the morning since the rising sun will be projecting onto the canyon entrance. You could take a great photo with the sun lighting your face with the canyon behind you.
In summary, the Santa Elena Canyon Trail is worth it if you have the time. It is the most famous feature in the Big Bend National Park and a quality picture there will certainly keep your friends jealous on social media.
If you do decide to go to Santa Elena Canyon Trail I suggest going first thing in the morning and taking some great photos standing at the entrance to the canyon. From there you can either skip the underwhelming hike and find a better one in the interior of the Big Bend National Park, or you can go ahead and do the 1.5 miles out-and-back.