Big Bend National Park: Santa Elena Canyon

Paddle the Rio Grande through massive gorges on this exciting overnight. This 22-mile trip is easily done in 2 days.

Permit: Pick up a permit at Panther Junction or Big Bend Ranch State Park's Barton Warnock Center in Lajitas.
Info: For shuttles, rentals, and guided trips, contact Big Bend River Tours (800-545-4240;

Trail Facts

  • Distance: 36.2



Location: 29.264534, -103.78302

Boat Launch: From its start at Lajitas, the Santa Elena winds through 12.5 miles of open country and short, swift rapids before hitting the half-mile-long Entrance Rapid, a massive cobble pile left by floods from Mexico's Arroyo San Antonio.


Location: 29.175484, -103.68708

Small, secluded campsites are located on cobble bars and rock ledges just below Rock Slide.


Location: 29.165583, -103.609718

Possible takeout point.


Location: 29.178234, -103.688431

Just inside, the gorge deepens, and after several tight turns, you reach Rock Slide Rapid (mile 13.7). At high river flows, the house-sized boulders here make for dangerous Class IV whitewater. When the river is low (about 350-700cfs), Rock Slide can be negotiated by a combination of wading, lining, and paddling.


Location: 29.157194, -103.599915

Second optional takeout point


Location: 29.181086, -103.715744

Begin Entrance Rapid; stay far L..


Location: 29.156464, -103.64933

Arch and Fern Canyons: Two striking gorges that angle in from the Mexican side and are separated by a large bench with fine camping. As you paddle, keep an eye peeled for peregrine falcons soaring the cliffs.