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Santa Elena Canyon2021-09-08T17:25:27-07:00

Santa Elena Canyon of the Rio Grande

Santa Elena Canyon of the Rio Grande is a phenomenal stretch of river. In Santa Elena Canyon, the Rio Grande winds its way through steep canyon walls and rugged borderlands, creating a gorgeous and solitary environment to enjoy. The river forms the border between the US and Mexico, and so for the entirety of the trip the US is on the left banks, and Mexico on the right. The 20 mile trip is generally done in 2-3 days, although a single-day “boomerang” trip is possible. The optimal time for this stretch of river is November-March. Santa Elena Canyon can be boated on a variety of watercraft depending on preference. During the flash flood seasons of spring and fall, rafts or hardshell kayaks are recommended for safety. Santa Elena Canyon is in Big Bend National Park, and so permitting and NPS regulations are a required part of an overnight adventure down the river. Permits are not required for single-day trips.

About this guide

This guide outlines one continuous 20.2 mile stretch of river from Latijas River Access to Santa Elena Take-Out. All data points were collected using GPS. This location information is provided. These locations were checked against Google Earth for accuracy. Distances are the averages of repeated trips that were GPSed.

River Info

Rafting or canoeing Santa Elena Canyon is a gem of a river experience. The solitude and beauty of the Canyon are among the best in the US. At times, the towering canyon walls can exceed 1,500 feet on either side of the river. Aside from the calls of abundant birdlife, the canyon walls can be appreciated in deep silence. Ocotillo, cattle, and desert scrub make the rugged canyon feel like a portal into the Old West. The boating is generally easy, although there is a class IV rapid, Rockslide, midway through the trip. This rapid can be portaged at most flows, but it should not be taken lightly as it is quite technical. Most people run the canyon as an overnight trip out of Lajitas. That said, at high flows, it is possible to run the canyon in one day from Lajitas down. It is also possible at low flows to do a “boomerang” trip, putting in at the Santa Elena Take-Out, paddling upstream into the canyon, and then floating back down to your car.

Safety

Santa Elena Canyon of the Rio Grande is a beginner to intermediate run. While there are significant sections of mellow or flat water, it is important to note other challenges that are present. Rockslide rapid is technical class IV. Flash flooding events can make the river dangerous, quickly. Riverside camping during flash floods is also hazardous, as water levels rise extremely quickly, and so it is critical to go with experienced boaters during flash flood season (fall and spring). There are undercut walls in the canyon that can be hazardous. It is generally easy to avoid running up against the walls in the Canyon, but these undercuts are not to be taken lightly. As a private boater, make sure you join a party that has solid boating experience before running Santa Elena Canyon.

Permits

A backcountry camping permit is required to run an overnight trip in Santa Elena Canyon. Permits are issued at the Chisos Basin and Panther Junction visitor centers in the NP. The permit cost is $10/night per group and can be reserved up to seven days in advance of put-in date. Permits are in high demand during peak season. There are requirements for each group to have specific boating equipment, waste storage systems, fire pans, etc. Detailed information regarding specific requirements and the permitting process can be found here.

If you intend to run the canyon in a single day, or do a Boomerang trip from Santa Elena Take-Out, no overnight backcountry permits are required.

Santa Elena Canyon of the Rio Grande on average runs between 100 CFS and 1,000 CFS with dips and spikes on either side of that. Flash flooding, usually during the spring and fall, can quickly bring flows above 5,000 CFS. Optimal flows for canoeing the Rio Grande are between 200 and 1,000 CFS.

Sometimes the USGS flow image breaks. If this happens, here is the direct link.

Gauge data provided by the USGS.

Santa Elena Canyon Comprehensive Guide

WARNING: Conditions change frequently and may make this guide useless. This guide is NOT a replacement for sound judgment. Go with someone with recent Santa Elena Canyon rafting experience.

Class I Rapid

Class I rapid or river feature.

Class II Rapid

Class II rapid or river feature.

Class IV Rapid

Class IV rapid or river feature.

Put-In / Take-Out

The most commonly used access points.

Point of Interest

These include side canyons, waterfalls, and more.

Campgrounds

Santa Elena Canyon campsites

Lajitas to Santa Elena Take-Out Class I – IV

Length

Lajitas to Santa Elena Canyon Take-Out is 20.2 miles.

Difficulty

Beginner/intermediate

Feet per Mile

Santa Elena Canyon has an average gradient of 6.6 fpm

Shuttle Time

There are a number of professional shuttle services available through local outfitters.

Mile 0 – Put-In: Lajitas River Access is a solid launching point. You can back your boats down very close to the river. Be aware that the put-in can get quite muddy – muck boots are advised!

Mile 3.36 – Matadero Rapid: Read-and-run. This is the first rapid of the trip and is a fun riffle.

Mile 11.7 – Entrance Camp: This is the most popular campsite on day one of a Santa Elena Canyon trip. Enjoy the scenery and get ready to enter the Canyon the following morning.

Mile 11.8 – Entrance Rapid: Read-and-run over a series of small drops. Welcome to Santa Elena Canyon!

Mile 13.4 – Rockslide Rapid: Class IV. Right scout. Rockslide Rapid is a maze of boulders. The rapid is the most challenging boating in Santa Elena Canyon. At low flows, the rapid is slow, and small craft generally have little issue picking lines through the boulder channels. Low-flow rafting can be frustrating as the opportunities for getting stuck are abound. At high flows, the rapid can form large hydraulics and should not be taken lightly. It is possible to do a partial lining of boats to portage if necessary.

Mile 16.5 – Opposite Fern Canyon Camp: There is nice camping just upstream of Fern Canyon. It is possible to visit the Canyon and then boat back upstream to camp at most flows. Otherwise, it is an easy pop down to Fern Canyon in the morning.

Mile 16.7 – Fern Canyon: Fern Canyon is a serene place to stop during a float down Santa Elena Canyon. The mouth of the canyon is a mess of lush greenery. Pass through the brush and enter the canyon. It is necessary to do some scrambling in order to get far into Fern Canyon, but it is stunning from the outset so it is a solid destination for all groups. Make sure to leave the delicate flora as untouched as possible.

Mile 17.56 – Smuggler’s Cave: Look back and enjoy this enormous hole in the wall.

Mile 20.2 – Santa Elena Take-Out: Santa Elena Take-Out is the end of a trip from Lajitas, or a starting point for a one-day boomerang trip. If you hired one, your shuttle will meet you at the Santa Elena Take-Out.

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