There are three major canyons in Big Bend. I have previously written about Boquillas Canyon. I doubt I'll ever see Mariscal Canyon due to its remote location. But after seeing Santa Elena, I'm content.
Santa Elena is at the end of the pavement down Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive in the extreme western end of the park. That means you pass the Sam Nail Ranch, the Homer Wilson Ranch, Sotol Vista, the Mule Ears, Tuff Canyon, Castollon, and Cottonwoods Campground before reaching Santa Elena. It's a long drive, especially considering the posted speed limit on all paved roads in the park is 45 mph. But what a great drive it is.
You can see the mouth of Santa Elena Canyon a long time before you actually reach the canyon. It first appears as a gap in a long and massive ridge in the distance. The closer you get, the more distinct the mouth of the canyon becomes.
|The mouth of Santa Elena Canyon as seen from Sotol Vista, the highest point (I think) on Ross Maxwell Drive. The canyon is the light colored notch just to right of center of the picture.|
|This is a zoomed in version of the picture above, clearly showing the mouth of Santa Elena.|
|The mouth of Santa Elena Canyon|
|The Rio Grande is during a low stage as it leaves the canyon. A trail leading deeper into the canyon can be seen as it switchbacks up the wall on the right.|
|A close-up of the trail as it climbs up the hill. You can see some hikers as they climb the trail, which has handrails in some places.|
The trail comes out facing the mouth of the canyon, and the view is truly impressive. Upstream, the walls of the canyon close in, while downstream, the landscape opens up. The views are quite a contrast to one another.