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Big Bend '17: No. 12 - Santa Elena Canyon

We returned to the Chisos Basin in the early afternoon, so after unpacking and eating, we decided to spend the rest of the day heading out to the Western edge of the park where the Rio Grande split the desert between the vertical walls of Santa Elena Canyon. Most of the afternoon was smothered in a thick canopy of clouds, but it finally cleared up enough for a few minutes of the sunset to peek through.

The hike back to the Chisos Basin from the South Rim only took a few hours, so we were back at our campsite around 14:00. There was plenty of daylight left, so we decided to make the best use of the rest of the day by exploring more of the park. We saw Santa Elena Canyon on the horizon as we were hiking back on the Northwest Rim earlier in the day, so we decided to load up the truck and head West to the border.

We drove North out of the Chisos Basin and headed West on Gano Springs until taking a left turn to head South on Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. A thick ceiling of clouds rolled in and obscured the once clear sky, but it cooled the desert which helped our sun-parched skin. We had only driven down a short way before we caught a glimpse of a familiar feature along the outside of the Basin. We had looked out The Window numerous times while inside the Chisos Basin, but it was an interesting shift in perspective to stare back into the Basin from the desert beyond and up towards the cliffs where I had taken photos on our first day in the backcountry.

The short, desert scrub transitioned to a dense grove of trees and brush as we arrived at a small parking lot in front of Santa Elena Canyon. A sandy path cut through the trees and towards canyon that already towered above our heads. A well-manicured, wood pathway started shortly thereafter and led down to the sandy banks of the Rio Grande River. The water line was a long way from the short, sandy forest edge. We were in the dry season so the water was low, but it was hard to imagine how much more water must have been in the area to create the smooth, sandy banks that we currently used to make it over to the Santa Elena Trail.

A mostly-dry tributary merged with the Rio Grande just past where the trail picked back up, but it was still wet enough that dry branches had been strewn across to keep visitors from sinking into the mud. The path weaved through the brush for a little while before switchbacks cut into the limestone began pushing the trail upwards along the side of the Northwest canyon wall on the US side of the divide.

You can barely see Travis on the trail between the towering canyon walls.

While hiking up the trail, I looked across the Rio Grande towards the Chisos Mountain Range. Santa Elena Canyon had been unmistakable on the horizon as we hiked the Northwest Rim Trail, but I couldn't make out where I had stood earlier that day in the fading light.

The steep walls of Santa Elena Canyon felt almost claustrophobic, but the view made up for the uncomfortable feelings. Unfortunately, the sandy trail into the canyon was short, and the rest is of the canyon is only accessible by kayak or small boat. One of these days, we will likely take the three-day kayak trip down the Rio Grande to experience the portions of the canyon we could not see this trip, but at this point it was time to turn around and head back.

As we returned to the trailhead to make our way back to the Chisos Basin, a muted sunset momentarily lit up the otherwise dreary canyon. The moment was fleeting, and soon the sun was all but gone, leaving the desert shrouded in an eerie darkness under the remaining cloud cover.

We barely made it to the car before the sun's light faded entirely, but it was still a long drive to make it back to the Chisos Basin.

© 2017-2018 Shaun C Tarpley

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