- Spectacular scenery
- Great desert morning birding between the parking lot and the mouth of the canyon
- Good for Peregrine Falcon
Trail Length: 1.4 mi. round trip
The iconic Santa Elena Canyon is a must visit for anyone new to Big Bend, regardless of their interest in birding. The views are fantastic, the birding is good, and the cool air inside the canyon is a relief to both people and wildlife.
Arrive early if possible. Remember that the canyon is a full hour drive from Panther Junction, the park headquarters. The parking lot often begins filling up around 9am-10am, and all the weekend visitors can make the trail feel crowded in spots.
A short trail leads from the parking lot to the Rio Grande and the mouth of the canyon. From there it quickly climbs 120 feet through short switchbacks and then slowly descends into the canyon. After .4 miles the trail once again meets the water where it dead ends and you turn back.
Arriving before the crowds (assuming a weekend visit) is a must to fully enjoy this great birding spot. Most park visitors don’t arrive until after 9:00am since it’s a good distance from Panther Junction and the Chisos Mountains Basin.
Once you park, spend some time in the parking lot itself. As you walk the perimeter you’ll likely see Pyrrhuloxia, Greater Roadrunner, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Black-throated Sparrow, Canyon Towhee, and in the spring and summer months Yellow-breasted Chat.
Follow the trail to the Rio Grande and walk off trail a short ways along the gravel both up and downstream. This oasis in the desert is predictably a bird magnet. Swallows and sparrows are common.
In the spring be listening for buntings, grosbeaks, Wilson’s Warbler, and the beautiful breeding plumage Audubon’s Yellow-rumped Warbler. Vermillion Flycatcher and Says Phoebe are also regulars here.
Once you enter the canyon you’ll quickly become familiar with the Canyon Wren call echoing off the rock walls. Rock Wrens are also present, although can be more quiet and secretive than the Canyon Wrens.
Black Phoebes perch above the water, while White-throated Swifts can be seen much higher up darting through the canyon. With some luck Peregrine Falcons can be seen and heard near the top of the canyon walls where they nest.