Santa Elena Canyon Paddle (paddling) Route Details

Route Description

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A trip organised by Big Bend River Tours up into Santa Elena Canyon, to visit Fern Canyon on the Mexican side. Trip depends on low water conditions, in high water the current would be too strong to paddle up


Shallow river, with some faster bits which you can walk around if heading upstream. No particularly fast water.

Hazards and warnings

Non US citizens require a passport to keep Home Land Security happy (you'll need one anyway for Big Bend). US Citizens may require passports in future. Check first!

Detailed description

A trip up the Rio Grande by canoe (also called canadian canoes or an open boat) organised by the fine and friendly folks at Big Bend River Tours in Study Butte.

Note. GPS reception in the canyon even with the usually reliable DG 100 tracker was poor, and the rather than us the very irregular track, I drew the route Expert GPS with the Topo map layer. Likewise the elevations are totally messed up, as the calculated elevations fail to deal with canyons and the dramtic elevation changes.


We met our guide and the other two canoist who had driven from Study Butte earlier. After the usual safety briefing, our guide helped get the canoes in the water, as there was a short walk between where the van and trailer with the boats on was parked and the actual river bank.

Once in the water we headed up the gently flowing river into the stunning mouth of the Santa Elena Canyon. I hadn't paddled since last summer, but seemed to remember how to make the canoe do what I wanted rather than what the river wanted. In the slightly faster shallow bits between the deep pools we simply got out and pulled the boats. Our destination was Fern Canyon, a steep side side canyon on the Mexican side, which had walls so steep and narrow the seemed to almost touch at the top. In the canyon was fresh clear cool water in a small stream running down the canyon, and some small pool which were fun to wade through. There was a sort of small waterfall under a chock stone that required getting wet pushing through the passage. Above was a small series of caves which could be explored.

After than we crossed the river to the broad and shady banks on the US side, to have lunch before floating off down to the river.

On the water going down, the small sections of faster water provided some fun, although nothing was that difficult if you've been on a river in an open boat before. I can immagine in faster water, it would be a bit trickier as the current would fling you into the sheer sides of the canyon.

After we emerged from the canyon, our guide got out to go and fetch the van and trailer, to met us further down the river, at the river access point to save the long carry across hot sand. The river after this meandered across a broad gravel channel, with a few slightly faster sections. By this time the sun was in full force, and we had none of the shade of the canyon, so getting out the water was a relief.

All in all, a great trip. Not particularly difficult and a great way to see the canyon. And the only legal way to reach the Mexican side of the river since the border became more formal.

Route Map

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