Kayaking Santa Elena Canyon

Santa Elena Kayak Camping

When we were researching things to do in Big Bend National Park, we found out there was an option for a kayak camping trip in Santa Elena Canyon. We knew immediately that we wanted to do this! We left the RV in Terlingua and headed out on our adventure.

Santa Elena Canyon Water Levels

We originally planned to do a point to point trip, but the water levels weren’t cooperating. Instead, we did a boomerang trip (put it at one spot – paddle upstream – camp – paddle back to the same spot the next day). If you want to do a kayak trip in Santa Elena Canyon, you will have to check the water levels. They change daily. If we had planned on doing our trip ONE day before, we would have had to change plans because there was too much water from a storm the night before.

Backcountry Permit

If you want to do this trip you will also have to have a permit. The rules for getting one are pretty obnoxious too. For instance, even though there is a burn ban in place, we were still required to rent and carry a fire pan on our kayak. You also have to have an extra life jacket per group, an extra paddle (our paddles break apart so that worked) and a waste system.

Santa Elena River Access

If you plan to only do a day trip you can put in closer to the canyon and save yourself about a mile of upstream (and very difficult) paddling. However, you can’t leave a vehicle parked overnight at that put in so our only option was the Santa Elena River Access. That first mile was tough (more for Austin than me – he pulled me and the kayak through all of the shallow spots!), but it was totally worth it. The canyon was amazing.

Santa Elena Canyon River Access
Packing up the kayak at the river access

Kayaking the canyon is absolutely the best way to see it. We passed the overlook and the hiking trail and before long we had the canyon to ourselves. We paddled upstream for a little over 4 miles before deciding on a camping spot. Sites start appearing once you pass Smuggler’s Cave.

Santa Elena Canyon
Kayaking into Santa Elena Canyon

Our Santa Elena Campsite

We picked our spot because it was flat, had a great view and was slightly elevated so we won’t get washed away in case of a freak storm. We set up camp and explored the area a little bit. But not too much – it is rattlesnake season and this article absolutely freaked us out. We will forever be aware of rattlesnakes and their potential.

Santa Elena Canyon kayak camping site
Our wonderful campsite for the night

Camping Hygiene

After exploring the area, I decided it would be a great time to take a solar shower. We knew we were the only people spending the night in the canyon. It was starting to get dark, so surely all of the day paddlers were out of the canyon by now. I took my first solar shower and it was amazing (note for future: ask for camping towels for Christmas). I had finally dried off and had just sat down when two kayakers rounded the corner!!! They were on their way out. I can’t believe how close they were to absolutely humiliating me!!! I’m SO glad they were 5 minutes too late.

Night in the Canyon

Right as we finished dinner, the bats started to come out followed by the stars. It was neat being able to see the stars appear between the canyon walls. We both slept way better than expected. I bet it was the tough upstream paddle that did us in!

Santa Elena Canyon stars
Stars appearing over the canyon walls (we have so much to learn about night photography)

Paddling Out

The next morning we got up and going pretty early. It was awesome feeling like you were watching the canyon come alive. As we were paddling, we were talking about how we were surprised we hadn’t seen much wildlife. At that exact time (what are the odds?!) we saw a momma and baby mountain goat hopping around. It was incredible watching them navigate the steep cliff. The rest of the way out, birds entertained us by chirping and splashing away. We made it to the take out spot and then drove back to Terlingua to regroup for our next adventure. Big Bend is definitely not disappointing.

Mountain Goats in Santa Elena Canyon
Look closely – you can see the baby mountain goat behind the momma

Comments · 4

  1. Questions: did you rent or take your own kayaks? While kayaking, you’re free to camp in the canyon, as long as you have a permit?
    Beautiful pictures! Planning a trip and gathering all the info I can!
    Thank you

    1. Hi Pam!! Thanks for reaching out! We took our own kayak, but you can rent canoes and kayaks from several outfitters. Yes, as long as you have a permit you can camp in the canyon. I am pretty sure there are a few places that you weren’t allowed to camp (the outfitter pointed it out on a map when we rented our necessary extra equipment) but they were really easy to avoid and once you get into the canyon it is easy to find some good spots. We camped right at a bend and it was awesome! You will love it! Let me know if you have any other questions!

  2. Hi Leigh, do you remember where exactly the easier put-in spot would be (to avoid the more difficult upstream paddling) – near Terlingua Creek?

    1. Hi Meridith! Yes, exactly! It is the Santa Elena Canyon Trailhead parking where the creek comes out! Have fun! We still talk about how awesome that trip was!

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