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Rio Grande, Texas
Report by Marc W. McCord

Santa Elena Canyon
Lajitas to Santa Elena Take-out
~ 22.3 miles

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SOAR Inflatable Canoes - Somewhere On A River

General Description

Santa Elena Canyon presents a test of skill and preparation because of the increased difficulty of the rapids. A minor rapid about a mile below the Lajitas put-in must be negotiated carefully. Several small rapids come into play in the approximately 11 miles between Lajitas and the beginning of Santa Elena Canyon. Entrance Rapid indicates that you are about to enter the serene and majestic world of the canyon. About 2 miles inside the canyon is Rockslide Rapid (Class II-IV), a twisting channel through a boulder garden that blocks the view downriver. You can safely beach on the Mexican side of the river (river right) where you can and should scout the 'slide before attempting to run or line it.

Hazards aside, Santa Elena Canyon offers gorgeous coves and spectacular side canyons that are a veritable feast for your eyes - and your camera, so be sure to bring plenty of film and extra batteries. You can extend the 22.3-mile trip from Lajitas to the take-out by exploring the many sites including ancient Indian pictographs, coves, side canyons and other vistas you discover along the way. It would be easy to get lost for days - it has probably happened - more than once!

It is important to note that wearing a personal flotation device (lifejacket) is mandatory in Santa Elena Canyon. In the event you go for an unplanned swim your PFD will need to be snugly secure on your body. All gear must be securely attached to the boat in waterproof drybags or dry boxes. Downriver safety people with throwbags should be stationed on the rocks below the 'slide before attempting to run it. Self-rescue ability would be very handy here. In low-water conditions Rockslide is more a nuisance than a true hazard, though the first big boulder as you enter the 'slide has a definite plastic magnet that can suck you in and wrap your boat if not carefully negotiated. In higher flows the river becomes pushy, especially toward the Mexican wall, where boats can be plastered to the mountain and roll toward the river resulting in a swim ins trong currents.

Santa Elena Canyon is where the majestic, towering canyon walls really begin. They are much taller than in Colorado Canyon upriver a few miles, and you start to get a feel for just how completely natural and remote you are when in the canyons. Take only photographs and memories. Of particular interest is the awesome and breathtaking Fern Canyon, located about 18 miles below Lajitas. It makes an excellent campsite on the Mexican side for your last day in the Canyon, and is only about 4 miles from the take-out about 0.9 miles below the Terlingua Creek confluence. WARNING! You may not want to leave Santa Elena Canyon. It is truly a majestic and gorgeous place to spend a few days.


Far southwest Texas, in Presidio and Brewster Counties in the Big Bend area of the Rio Grande Valley. The Big Bend National Park Boundary is just below the Lajitas put-in, and the Texas side is entirely within the national park boundary. Terlingua and Study Butte are nearby, and presidio is just a few miles upriver on FM 170.

Distance from major cities

Dallas 535 miles; El Paso 355 miles; San Antonio 440 miles; Houston 640 miles; Austin 450 miles; Oklahoma City miles; Little Rock miles; Kansas City miles; Albuquerque miles; Phoenix miles; Denver miles; Grand Junction miles; Salt Lake City miles. (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)

Water Quality and Flow Rates

Good most of the time, but muddy during periods of high water. Illegal dumping of heavy metals can lower the quality of the water at any flow rate. Flow is generally adequate for river trips except during periods of prolonged drought. Beware of flash floods that can raise the river level and flow rates very quickly after rainfall in the drainage basin, even if it does not rain at the river. Due to the remoteness of the area it is generally best to be prepared for any and all weather possibilities.

Best time to go

Early November through mid-March is generally the best time to paddle the Rio Grande. Summertime temperatures can soar above 100° F. Spring and Fall are frought with the possibilities of flash floods. BBNP off-river camping areas are limited and may be very crowded during holiday periods or during the winter "snowbird" season, which is also the time most likely to have favorable paddling conditions. Summertime low-water conditions may be inadequate for rafting, but canoes can almost always navigate the river.

Permit requirements

Entrance permits to Big Bend National Park are required for all vehicles entering the park for river access. Fees are $20.00 per vehicle (increasing to $25.00 in 2015) and allow park access for up to seven consecutive days. Leaving vehicles overnight in a campsite also requires an additional fee of $10.00 per car per night (there is no additional fee for leaving cars in designated parking lots, but you do need to get an "overnight pass" for your dashboard so that rangers will know yours is not an abandoned vehicle.) Backcountry permits ($10.00 per group / $5.00 with Senior Pass), issued by Big Bend National Park and available through local outfitters and BBNP Ranger Stations, are required for all trips on or along the Rio Grande by automobile or boat at all times. River runners in Santa Elena Canyon are limited to a maximum group size of 30 people, and groups must launch at least two hours apart. Groups are not allowed to stop, eat or camp together along the river. For more information, call Big Bend National Park at (432) 477-2251.

Hazards to navigation

The first major rapid, known as "First Good One" (Class II to II+), is located at Arroyo del Matadero about 4.0 miles below the Lajitas put-in. "False Sentinel" is a minor rapid with a wall shot against the Texas side of the canyon about 8.0 miles below Lajitas. Entrance Rapid (Class II), at about 11.0 miles, is a minor rapid consisting of a series of short drops over a long distance. At the entrance to Santa Elena Canyon, about 11.5 miles below Lajitas, canyon walls are undercut creating a suck hole for kayakers in low-water conditions. "Rockslide Rapid" (Class IV), is THE major rapid in Santa Elena Canyon, and one that should always be taken very seriously. The "Slide" sits about 1 mile into the canyon around the first major bend to the left. The river is cluttered with room-sized boulders creating channels of water between them, and no clear line of visibility of what lies ahead. "Rockslide Rapid" is always dangerous, but is much more so in high-water conditions. Most boaters should portage the "Slide" in high water and run it with great care after careful scouting from the Mexican side in medium to low water conditions. Line or portage along the Texas (left) wall except when the water is very high. USE EXTREME CAUTION when running, lining or portaging at "Rockslide".

River Access Points

Lajitas Public Access off FM 170 at 0.0 miles. If the rocks are covered and the water is muddy, then beware! That is an indication of high, fast water that can be very dangerous, creating unmanageable standing waves within the canyon. If the rocks are covered, then it is time to consider waiting or going somewhere else to play. If the rocks are not covered, then put-in and head for the confluence of the river above Santa Elena Canyon.

There are two choices for take-out access points, the first (and least desirable) being where Terlingua Creek intersects the Rio Grande on river left. Across a sandy beach an access road is located about one tenth mile from the river. Depending upon recent rainfall conditions this access may be dry and packed, dry and loose, flooded or damp and muddy. An obvious path through the cane leads to a parking area where boats, gear and people can be loaded at about 19.0 miles below Lajitas. The last take-out point is at the boat ramp on river left where the bank is a little steeper, but the access is closer to the river at about 22.3 miles. Auto theft and vandalism is a recurring problem at backcountry parking areas, so do not leave unattended vehicles there if not necessary, and do not leave valuables inside vehicles. If valuables must be left with a vehicle, then make sure they are locked securely in the trunk.

Campgrounds and accommodations

Riverside camping is available just outside the canyon on river left (Texas side) or river right (Mexican side) just above Entrance Rapid, and just below "Rockslide Rapid" on river right (Mexican side), where ankle-deep bermuda grass covers the ground, making for a softer night's sleep. You will also find good campsite on the Texas side between Arch and Fern Canyons and on the Mexican side at Fern Canyon where a short hile will take you into a gorgeous side canyon closr to the river (it is too steep, slick and rock congested for deep exploration.) Firewood is scarce, if available at all, so carry what you need. Except for campfires, it is generally best to rely upon propane, butane or liquid fuel fires for cooking, personal hygiene and other general heating and cooking needs. Cottonwood Campground is located on river left at Castolon, and offers primitive camping, but is not directly accessible from the river. There are no other camping areas or facilities near Santa Elena Canyon. A fine of $200 may be imposed for camping in unauthorized areas.

Liveries, outfitters and shuttle services

There are at least four known commercial outfitters offering rentals, shuttles, guided trips and/or river information for this reach of the Rio Grande.

Reviewer's Comments

There is no river trip in Texas that can compare to the Rio Grande. The Upper Canyons offer moderate whitewater rapids breaking the calm of flatwater pools amid towering canyon walls on one or both sides. Native American culture is evident in the pictographs that appear on canyon walls dating back one or two hundred years, perhaps much longer. Hot and cold natural springs are many, as are caves, high, sheer walls of rock, boulder gardens in mid-river and a chance to put life in perspective as you wonder about the age and geological process required to create such a beautiful, natural landscape.

Santa Elena Canyon offers an overnight trip of about 22.3 miles from Lajitas to the Santa Elena Take-out about a mile below the mouth of the canyon with a lot of flatwater punctuated by the famous Rockslide Rapid, a great Class II to IV obstruction that demands tight boat control to negotiate, especially in high water (above about 400 cfs) conditions. The first 11 miles are through open desert, but after Entrance Rapid the topography quickly changes. All around loom tall canyon walls that isolate paddlers from the outside world. The canyon offers many spectacular views of small coves, ancient pictographs and natural scenic beauty that defies the imagination. Side canyons create interesting vistas, as well as exploration opportunities. Many people opt to make this a trip of 3 or more days just to spend some time in one of the most scenic canyons on earth.

The Rio Grande offers one of the few remaining true wilderness river trips in the United States. The Upper Canyons are a little easier than the Lower Canyons, and trips to the Upper Canyons can be planned for one or more Canyons during a single trip, each short enough to enjoy and long enough to fill you will awe at the adventure you experience. Colorado Canyon is the easiest water, though it is 22 miles unless you take out after 11 miles at Madera Access just below Teepees Roadside Park. The rapids are a little more challenging in Santa Elena and Mariscal Canyons. The Lower Canyons offer the biggest water, reaching Class IV status during high water, on a 6-8 day trip into hundreds of years ago. You might see bears, mountain lions, bobcats, javelina, feral hogs, rattlesnakes, smugglers or who knows what else - or you may just see Mother Nature at her finest hour.

Technical Data
Class Rating II to IV
Length 22.3 miles
Minimum Flow 200 cfs
Optimum Flow 300 - 1,000 cfs
Maximum Flow 1,200 cfs
First Put-in Lajitas Access
Lat. / Long. N 29° 15' 52.13" / W 103° 46' 58.34"
Last Take-out Santa Elena Take-out
Lat. / Long. N 29° 09' 20.42" / W 103° 35' 55.65"
Elevation 2,302 - 2,154 feet msl
Gradient 6.64 fpm average
USGS Gauge NOAA River Gauges
Boats Canoes, Kayaks, Rafts
Season Dependent upon local rainfall
Permits Yes, Big Bend N.P.

Canoeman River Guide Service - Guided river trips in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah

Rio Grande map courtesy Texas Parks & Wildlife Department
Rio Grande map courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife Department

Rockslide Rapid in Santa Elena Canyon
Rockslide Rapid in Santa Elena Canyon
Photo courtesy Big Bend River Tours

The majestic Santa Elena Canyon
The majestic Santa Elena Canyon

Canyon walls tower above canoeists
Canyon walls tower above canoeists

No place for those with clostrophobia
No place for those with clostrophobia

Excellent Texas and Mexican side campsites in the canyon
Excellent Texas and Mexican side campsites in the canyon

Hiking up Fern Canyon
Hiking up Fern Canyon

Exiting Santa Elena Canyon at Terlingua Creek
Exiting Santa Elena Canyon at Terlingua Creek

Click the links below for information regarding the section of the Rio Grande and its tributaries where you want to paddle.

Rio Grande

[ Rio Grande Homepage ] [ Colorado Canyon ] [ The Great Unknown ] [ Mariscal Canyon ]
[ San Vicente & Hot Springs Canyons ] [ Boquillas Canyon ] [ Lower Canyons ] [ Lower Rio Grande ]

Pecos and Devils Rivers

[ Red Bluff Dam to FM 11 ] [ FM 11 to US Hwy 67/385 ] [ US Hwy 67/385 to FM 1980 ] [ FM 1980 to US Hwy 290 ]
[ US Hwy 290 to Pandale Crossing ] [ Pandale Crossing to Pecos River Marina ] [ Devils River ]

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