Santa Elena Canyon
NPS Photo/Jennette Jurado
Spectacular Santa Elena
Santa Elena Canyon, downstream, is the most popular overnight or three day trip, not only because the put-in and take-out are easily accessed by car, but because it is often considered the most dramatically beautiful. Santa Elena has the tallest cliffs forming the canyon wall—up to 1,500 feet.
The first 13 meandering miles from the put-in at Lajitas give you a good look at the contrast between the riparian and desert ecosystem. The river becomes more technical in the last seven miles when you have entered the actual canyon. Two miles into the canyon, the largest rapid, the Rock Slide is classified as a Class IV rapid at certain water levels.
Santa Elena Upstream
An enjoyable day trip consists of paddling upstream, from the Santa Elena Canyon Trailhead, a few miles into the canyon, and then returning back downstream (also known as a "boomerang" trip). If the water level is low, you do not have to fight the current much going upstream, making this trip quite leisurely. It is an ideal trip if you only have one vehicle, or if you do not want to pay for a shuttle back to your starting point. A good destination is Fern Canyon, a beautiful side canyon approximately two miles upstream, which has ferns growing where water is seeping out of the canyon walls. A backcountry use permit is required for all river trips; no fee is charged for day-use trips.