Big Bend National Park: Santa Elena Canyon


Sunday morning, November 10, Sean and I climbed into the car and turned left out of Cottonwood Campground. We headed down the final, westernmost eight miles of the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive toward Santa Elena Canyon. The road curved through scrub land on a bench above the river’s floodplain, which was green with plant life below. A roadrunner ran across the road and then flew to some nearby branches.

Greater Roadrunner

Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive ends at the parking lot for Santa Elena Canyon Trail. In front of us loomed a massive miles-long uplift known as the Mesa de Anguila on the northern (American) side of the Rio Grande and the Sierra Ponce on the southern (Mexican) side. The uplift, which was formed by the Terlingua Fault at its base, is bisected by the 1,500-foot deep Santa Elena Canyon.

Image: Sean M. Santos
Mesa de Anguila

The trail into the canyon extends only 0.8 miles before it dead ends at the river, but it offers a hugely dramatic flavor to the border between the United States and Mexico. In the photo below, Mexico’s Sierra Ponce is to the left and the Mesa de Anguila is to the right.


The trail drops from the bench into the Rio Grande’s floodplain and crosses Terlingua creek’s (currently dry) bed.


The trail then rises in a series of switchbacks along the lower slopes of the Mesa de Anguila. Guard rails and interpretive signs welcome even casual hikers.

Prickly Pear cactus clings to the slopes of Mesa de Anguila.
Fossilized shells are embedded in the rock.

Santa Elena Canyon is the westernmost of the three major canyons of the Rio Grande whose American side is part of Big Bend National Park. Sean noted the optical illusion caused by the sloping layers of the Sierra Ponce further inside the canyon. Depending on the light where the walls met the river, it was hard to tell what was real and what was reflection.


After the switchbacks, the trail evens out and begins gradually to descend into the canyon between sheer walls above and the river below.


As the trail led further into the canyon, the vegetation became less desert-like and much more lush. We were now on a sandy shelf on the American side. The Mexican side was cliff face straight to the river. Huge chunks of rock that had eroded from the canyon walls littered the shelf and the river itself.


While the enormous size of the cane breaks along the river give testament to the lushness of the protected canyon floor and its abundant moisture, these plants are also subject to the rages of a river in flood.

Moist, caked mud provides the canyon floor here where there isn’t a layer of grass.

After another quarter mile, the trail dead ended where the sandy ledge vanished and the walls of the Mesa de Anguila met the river. We returned the way we’d come, encountering spectacular views of the mouth of the canyon and the park beyond.

We could hear birds chittering and chattering high above us. They looked and sounded a great deal like the Chimney Swifts that soar around our Chicago neighborhood every year from May to early October. They were hunting insects too high up to be able to tell if they were swifts or Cliff Swallows or something else.

Cliff Swallows?, Chimney Swifts?
The Chisos Mountains in the distance. The highest bulge in the middle is Emory Peak. The drop off to the right is the South Rim.
The nearly-dry bed of Terlingua Creek meets the Rio Grande. The Chisos are in the distance. Cerro Castellan is the peak in the middle distance at the far right.
Image: Sean M. Santos

There had been enough rain this fall that there were wildflowers growing even along the exposed ridges. And some of the ocotillos were not only in leaf, they were in bloom. Ocotillos only grow leaves when there has been a recent rain. Throughout the rest of the time, they look like a cluster of tall, dead, spindly branches.

Trailing Windmills (Allionia incarnata)

We returned to the car, pleased with our first day hike in the park. We pulled back out onto the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive and headed northeast toward Tuff Canyon, our next stop, but not before we paused at an overlook for one last look at Santa Elena Canyon.

Image: Sean M. Santos

1 thought on “Big Bend National Park: Santa Elena Canyon

  1. Pingback: Big Bend National Park: Boquillas | As They Are: Exploring the National Parks

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