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Ride Reviews

Big Bend National Park via Motorcycle: Santa Elena Canyon & Castolon on Motorcycle

Ricardo Perez

Santa Elena Canyon

Sotol Vista Overlook
Most visitors to Big Bend National Park seldom take the time to make it all the way to Santa Elena Canyon on the southwest corner of the park. It's one of the most interesting parts of the vast environmental diversity found in the park. If you're coming in from Alpine, Marathon or even from a campsite at the Chisos Basin within the park you'll notice that it can be very hot down by the canyon. My wife and I have camped out at the basin with temperature about 80 degrees and by the time we reach the canyon it was 20 degrees hotter, a 100 degree day. On a motorcycle those 20 degrees are light years apart on the comfort level so be prepared to peel off layers of clothes as you approach the canyon. If you go into the park via Study Butte on the western end of the park the turnoff to Santa Elena Canyon is about 13 miles away. The ride is about 30 miles from the turnoff.  About one third of the way down is the Sotol Vista Overlook.  Don't pass this up, the ride is less than half a mile and worth the stop to take in the view.  Santa Elena Canyon is in view about 12 miles away as the crow flies, but another 20 miles or so on the road. Friends with a BMW GS or other worthy off road bike can circumvent this route by taking the unpaved "Old Maverick Road" that hugs the western boundary of Big Bend National Park and cuts the travel distance in half or more. Old Maverick Road is a 13 mile ride to the canyon.
Eight miles before reaching the canyon is Castolon Visitor Center. It's a must stop if its 100 degree weather. There's water, soft drinks, snacks and usually a great person behind the counter ready to share some time with visitors. Over the years we've met several workers stationed at Castolon and you really have to admire their dedication to their job and the National Park Service. Talk about being stationed away from civilization! This is it.
Majestic View From Sotol Overlook

Evaporating "low water crossing" close to the canyon

Castolon Visitor Center Patio

Creek at Santa Elena Canyon


Santa Elena Canyon and Road's End
Another eight miles down the road is Santa Elena Canyon which is not always accessible. If it has rained then, most likely, the road is impassable to traffic at anyone of the numerous low water crossing those last few miles. We once went about three straight visits to Castolon only to be turned around due to high water. There is a turn around at the end of the road and about 75 yards from there is a sandy walk to Terlingua Creek that merges into the Rio Grande River. If it's not raining or rained the night before you can walk across the creek and meet up with a steep path that runs almost a mile along the canyon wall above the river. It's a very nice hike if you can cross the creek.
If you are already in the park then plan to spend at least a half day to enjoy the canyon. Remember it takes about an hour to get there, then a rest stop at Castolon, and at least an hour or two at the canyon makes for a long day trip. There is also Mule Ears Viewpoint which you can see on the way back. An even longer day is if you're in Alpine, 82 miles from Study Butte or Terlingua so plan accordingly. It's just as far from Marathon if you enter from the north entrance.
Big Bend National Park gets over 300,000 visitors a year, but I know that's not in July. We've been there during the summer months and its fairly void of other humans so you have the whole place to yourselves.  Did I mention it gets hot? Last summer my wife's shoe literally melted apart so plan ahead and take sun screen, water, more water, and snacks.  April and May are good months to visit since its still a little cooler.
There's also rafting trips you can take down the river from Lajitas. It used to be a really neat old town, but somebody bought the whole town and gave a Gucci type remake. It has fancy stores, a golf course, and even an airport landing strip for private jets. We've ridden through it many times and we even stopped once. 
Residence at Castolon
Sotol Vista Overlook Parking - Not Too Crowded in July!



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Irma at Sotol Vista Overlook


July is hot enough to melt your shoes off!
Castolon Visitor Center and Canyon visible 8 miles away