One of Big Bend’s most popular attractions is the combination of the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive and the Santa Elena Canyon hike. The scenic drive is approximately thirty miles long, whereas the hike is a mere 1.7 miles round trip, but with no shortage of scenery.
We were coming from the east side of the park, so it took us about an hour to reach the start of the drive. We took most of the pulloffs, though we don’t have photos to prove all of them. I realized at the turning back point of the hike that I had unknowingly left the camera set up for long exposure from the night before, completely ruining every shot prior on that bright, sunny day – d’oh!
We did our best to make up for them on the way back though, including stopping to get a shot of my personal favorite structure, Mule Ears (I’m a sucker for anything that resembles a cute animal!).
The variety of beautiful rock formations on the drive is amazing, but what really makes it special is the length at which you can see into the distance. Big Bend is known for its air quality and far visibility, making the landscape seem to go on much farther than it usually does and hence giving it a ton of variety and depth. According to a placard, in the above photo, you can see up to 16 miles in the distance!
The scenic drive dead ends at the Santa Elena Canyon and what a beautiful canyon it is! We parked at the trailhead and walked on a short, rickety boardwalk out to the banks of the Rio Grande River. It was a little bit muddy this particular day and we had to find a narrow part of the Terlingua Creek to cross to get to the rest of the trail, which was off to the right of the canyon. A couple of ladies told us that the last time they were there, the creek was bone dry, so I guess conditions vary.
The next part of the trail was through some overgrown brush that almost made me feel like we were hiking through the bayou rather than a desert environment. It proved what a difference having a major body of water cutting through a desert makes, and drove home another distinct quality of Big Bend – it’s amazing diversity of ecosystems between the river, the desert, and the mountains.
We then came to a short set of switchbacks with stairs sprinkled in that took us higher for a better view down the river and through the canyon, with some unusual flora along the way.
We then followed the trail as it took us back down to just above water level for yet more great views up the Santa Elena. Many, especially children, tested out the echo quality of the canyon to the point that there were so many echoing howls going around, I honestly started to question if these were kids we were hearing or a pack of coyotes…
The trail dead ends so we returned the way we came. It was a very simple hike, but it definitely had a unique feeling to it. Maybe it was the sweeping views out into the park and of the Rio Grande, or the variety of the terrain in such a short amount of time, or that narrow canyons are just cool. The crowds were the only downside, but it was worth it nonetheless!