A Day in Santa Elena Canyon

May 12, 2015

One of my favorite parts of camping is unzipping the tent in the morning to see the view outside without leaving my bed, or even standing up. Through the mesh of our tent I watched a few clouds shift lazily over the Chisos Mountains. I lounged in the tent, slowly waking up to a smell far better than coffee– desert petrichor, the smell of the land after it rains. After the rainy night, I was glad to see that we had a clear day for hiking. The Ranger at Panther Junction was excited to let us know that despite the clear skies during the day, there was an 80% chance of thunderstorms in the desert that night.

Blue skies and the Chisos Mountain outside the tent window

One of the first things I did in the morning was examine the plants around camp. I’m a huge plant nerd, and part of the thrill of traveling for me is seeing new species of plant and learning about their role in the world and properties. I rubbed the leaves from the creosote bush (Larrea tridentata) between my fingers and sniffed at one of the main components of the desert petrichor. Creosote dominates the landscape of the Chihuahuan Desert because it suppresses the growth of plants around it with a root toxin that it naturally produces. This bush has yellow flowers in the spring and fuzzy little fruits in the summer.

Creosote Bushes

Many species of cacti also grow below the shrubs, including the Strawberry Hedgehog (Echinocereus stramineus). According to my field guide, Cactus of Texas by Nora and Rick Bowers and Stan Tekiela, the fruit of this cactus is juicy and tastes like strawberries, and was harvested by the indigenous people. I wish that I could have gotten a picture of the gorgeous red flowers in bloom, but the rain caused them to close up.

Strawberry Hedgehogs cacti live only in the Chihuahuan Desert

We left camp and drove for an hour or more to reach the Santa Elena Canyon at the edge of the park. The vast distances out at Big Bend are mind-blowing. I could not imagine travelling through this region on foot or on horseback. When we reached the canyon, we found that the beginning of the trail was flooded by one of the tributaries to the Rio Grande. Most of the other hikers, who were mostly Golden Age retirees, turned back. But we didn’t mind getting out feet wet, so we forded across through thigh high water and continued up into the deserted canyon.

Looking back at the Rio Grande from the beginning of the Santa Elena Canyon Trail

One side of the canyon is in Mexico and the other side is in the USA. In the picture above the far side of the river is Mexico. The cliffs walls on either side of us were extremely high as we worked our way deeper into the canyon along the river. Even the ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) plant along the trail, which must have been at least 15 feet tall was dwarfed by the size of the canyon.

The wall of the Santa Elena Canyon on the left is Mexico.

We followed the trail to the very end, where the narrow strip of land ended and the Rio Grande stretched from one steep canyon wall to another. We waded across the river and touched Mexico, while a forceful wind carrying the promise of that night’s storm pushed at our chests and the current of the river pulled the opposite direction on our legs.  A raven stalked along the edge of the wall, probably looking for canyon wren (Catherpes mexicanus) chicks to eat, but a flock of irritated wren parents flew in and drove him off after just a few minutes. We spent the day exploring this area and hanging out beside the river. I took a video here so you can virtually stand at the edge of the river and see crystals in the canyon wall.

Looking across to the distant mountains while leaving the Santa Elena Canyon

Even though the sky only had scattered clouds when we left the canyon, by the time we ate our picnic at the trail head and then went to the lodge in Chisos Basin for drinks and a second dinner, the thunderstorms were beginning to roll in. In preparation for the storms, we took out the middle row of seats in the van, packed them into the cab and unrolled the mattress pad in the back. All seven of us managed to fit in the back of the van for the heavier downpours of the storm, but it got pretty steamy so whenever the rain lessened to a drizzle we opened the tailgate and doors to let in the cool desert air.

Check out next story about

Boquillas Canyon and Lost Mine Trail


more pictures from Santa Elena Canyon and Big Bend adventures!

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