Talk about dramatic. You can see the massive walls of Santa Elena Canyon from miles away, but the effect of witnessing these sheer cliffs—more than 1,500 feet high on each side of the surprisingly narrow gap forged by the Rio Grande—is utterly mesmerizing up close. And it only gets better as the trail progresses.
It’s a 1.6-mile trek, so plan about two hours to fully appreciate the experience. You’ll be drawn to the wide swath of river flowing from the massive canyon walls, but the difficult-to-find trail entrance will be off to your right. Look for the crude stone pathway across the shallow creekbed (your feet may get a bit wet), which leads to the trailhead.
You’ll encounter a series of tight switchbacks and concrete steps before ascending a rocky trail that eventually descends into the canyon. When you reach the end of the trail, you’ll be surrounded by the stunning vertical cliff walls, which echo with the sounds of birds and kids (even adults) playing in the water. This is one of the few places in the park where swimming is safe and generally tolerated.