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.
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.
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.
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.