Santa Elena Canyon Trail is usually 1.6 miles, round trip with an 80 foot elevation gain. However, on the day we did this hike, the water level was a little high. When we first arrived, we couldn't even find the other side of the trail. When you start near the parking lot, there's a small sign that tells you how to find the other section of the trail. We saw the sign, but couldn't find the brown hiking sign. It's in the picture below, because we found it after we were done with the hike.
When we couldn't find the sign, we knew there was an alternate route because we could see a lot of people on the other side hiking. We explored over to the right and saw that people were making it through further down to the right side of the trail. We wandered down to check it out and we were a little hesitant at first. The hill to climb up was a little steep and we had our four year old and seven year old hiking with us. But, we decided to give it a try and I'm glad we did. Since it wasn't an "official" part of the trail, it was a little confusing at times, but we eventually figured it out. To our defense, at this point, we weren't even aware this was an alternate path. Also, we assumed this area would have been blocked off in some way if we weren't supposed to be using it, since so many people had used it before us. So, use the alternate way at your own risk. Full disclosure...once we were done, found the brown hiking sign, and looked at the directions again, this may or may not be ok with the park rangers. We didn't ask and we still don't know. It may be a "new" unofficial, offical part of the trail.
Once we got past this alternate part of the trail, the rest of it was quite easy. It starts with a paved up and down, zig zag path to gain some elevation. Then the rest of the trail has a slight incline between the canyon walls. It eventually dead ends into a rock with the Rio Grande to your left. There are lots of fun areas to stop, rest, or climb on giant boulders. I can't say enough about the views on this hike. The mountains in the distance, the canyon right beside you, and the Rio Grande make it a beautiful scene.
When we finished the regular part of the trail, we had to find our way back down through the alternate path. It was a little confusing for a minute or two, but not too hard to figure out. It was actually a little harder coming back down the steep hill than going up. It could be challenging to some, but our four year old made it with a little assistance, so it can be done with a bit of perseverance. My Apple Watch clocked the entire hike at 2.46 miles, so the alternate route adds on an extra mile or so. If you'd like to check out a short video of our hike, you can CLICK HERE. You can also check out the short video below to get a better idea of the alternate route. The video starts out where you hike up the hillside to get to the path. As the video pans to the left, you'll see the regular part of the trail that zig zags up the side of the canyon.
Overall, this is a pretty easy hike for beginners. The views are amazing and it's worth the extra climb. Like all the hikes in Big Bend, it's better to get there early to ensure you find a parking spot. Feel free to email us with any questions by clicking HERE.