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. 300 to 600 CFS is great for open boats. Above 600 CFS is approprate for rafts. A novice should reconsider any trip above 600 CFS flow rate.
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).This trip is possible at flow rates under 200 cfs. 100 cfs is ideal. Less than 100 cfs will require some dragging boats. Check current CFS rates here. 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 backcountry use permit is required for all river trips; no fee is charged for day-use trips.
River Guide to Colorado and Santa Elena Canyons
NEW! this full-color laminated trip log is filled with detailed maps of the entire route, as well as historical and natural history notes. The guide covers from Tapado Canyon to the Santa Elena Canyon takeout, and includes Colorado Canyon and Santa Elena Canyon.
Note: Border Activity Notice
Illegal border crossings are known to occur in this area. If you encounter anything that appears illegal, suspicious, or out of place, please do not approach or intervene. Note the location, description, time, direction of travel, and call 911 as soon as possible.
Last updated: June 3, 2022